Australia confounds the pundits

Scott Morrison © Getty images
Scott Morrison: “the hero of the hour”

The centre-right retains power on a tax-cutting agenda. Matthew Partridge reports.

In the run up to Saturday’s election in Australia, the Labor party was ascendent in every opinion poll, with almost all pundits expecting it to remove the Liberal-National coalition from power, says Katharine Murphy in The Guardian. When the votes were counted, Prime Minister Scott Morrison ended up “the hero of the hour”, managing “to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat”. This means that after three years of turmoil, which has seen both major parties replace their leader, Australia has ended up “back where it started when former prime minister Malcolm Turnbull won the 2016 election by one seat”.

No appetite for change

One of the reasons for Labor’s shock defeat was that it “completely misread the nation’s appetite for widespread economic change”, says Stefan Boscia in The Spectator Australia. Labor promised a “spending spree” if elected, paid for by “ending a range of tax concessions and loopholes that disproportionately benefit older and wealthier Australians”. While a more “charismatic and likeable” politician may have been able to sell such an “expansive” agenda to the electorate, in the hands of Bill Shorten, Labor’s leader, it “simply scared people off”. Labor’s strategy “ignored the fact that Australia is an economically successful country that is naturally wary of change”.

Morrison drew a contrast between his plans for “tax cuts for low- and middle-income households” and Labor’s promises “to increase levies on capital gains, superannuation [that is, pensions] and family trusts to pay for social spending”, and that helped him to victory, says The Times. However, the decisive issue was probably climate change. Morrison exploited economic modelling that “purported to show that the 45% reduction in carbon emissions proposed by Labor would cost 167,000 jobs”. And Labor’s opposition to the planned Carmichael coal mine led to large swings to the coalition in important Queensland marginals.

Morrison’s victory could therefore have “global implications”, says The Straits Times. Australia’s share of global emissions may make it “a minnow” compared with China or the US, the world’s top two greenhouse-gas polluters. But Morrison’s exhortation to voters to choose between “jobs or climate” means that the Carmichael project is now much more likely to go ahead. If it does, “billions more tonnes” of coal will be available to export and burn in places such as India, “fuelling global warming and a growing climate crisis”.

The election outcome in Australia has therefore revealed “the urgent need to broaden the message for reducing carbon emissions, and to separate it from the divisive culture wars afflicting Western democracies”, says The New York Times. Morrison’s victory “does not necessarily mean he will do nothing about greenhouse gases”. Indeed, with growing pressure from the young for action on climate change, and from the candidates who pushed a climate-change agenda who did win, there’s still a chance that he could confound the pundits and take a lead on the issue. After all, Australia is a country “where the ravages of man-made climate change are most evident”.