ON the face of it, the results of last Saturday’s Australian election seem like a fairly accurate reflection of opinion polls in the preceding weeks and months. A dismal, and in some ways despicable, Liberal-National party coalition has made way at the helm for a rather reticent Labor Party.
Beneath the surface, though, there are indications of a more seismic shift in the political landscape. One is the prominence of an unusual hue: teal. The blue-green hybrid is the favoured shade of a bunch of independents who have swept aside a number of prominent Liberal incumbents, mainly in affluent Sydney and Melbourne constituencies.
Their victims include Josh Frydenberg, the national treasurer until last week, who was expected to eventually take over from Scott Morrison, the now former prime minister, as leader of the Liberal Party. Morrison’s spiralling unpopularity — particularly, but not exclusively, among women — is assumed to have been the key factor behind Frydenberg’s demise.
Somewhat remarkably for someone who takes pride in his marketing skills, Morrison’s relentless efforts to plug himself through daily photo ops — a strategy that seemed to have paid off (possibly for unrelated reasons) in the previous elections three years ago — flopped this time around. As one of Australia’s best-known writers, Thomas Keneally, puts it, “The Australians woke up to him, and not only moved the goalposts but dragged them off the paddock.”
Australian voters refused more of the same.
In its early days as a nominally independent outpost of the British Empire a century or so ago, Australia was a somewhat volatile entity on the cutting edge of sociopolitical change in certain respects, including women’s suffrage. There will be more women in the new parliament, yet they remain underrepresented, largely because the conservative side of politics continues to struggle with the idea of gender equity.
Morrison epitomised the tussle in some ways — not least when in reacting to the alleged rape of a Liberal Party intern in Parliament House by a colleague, he referred to his wife’s advice, suggesting that he was independently incapable of recognising the gravity of the outrage.
His disconnect with public sentiment was also reflected through an unannounced — and then clumsily covered-up — family vacation in Hawaii when Australia was experiencing some of its worst bushfires in 2019-20. More than two years later, his inadequate response to the nation’s worst floods this century was found wanting.
The major parties’ insouciance on climate change and its unfolding impacts — this season’s heatwave in the subcontinent, for instance, is believed by scientists to have been made 30 times more likely by global climate trends — undoubtedly contributed to the teal appeal as well as increased popular backing for the Greens. The latter are now expected to hold the balance of power in Australia’s senate.
The extent to which the parliamentary presence of the teals and the Greens might push the new Labor government to push ahead with a more effective agenda than it has hitherto articulated remains to be seen. Its emissions reduction ambitions are higher than those of the conservative coalition, but still grounded in what Greta Thunberg has correctly identified as the “blah blah blah” of the “net zero by 2050” target (and even that remains controversial among the Liberal-National stalwarts).
Continuing to dig indefinitely for oil, gas and coal is tantamount to digging the grave for future generations. A sharp and steady reduction in fossil fuel excavations is the only reasonable way forward. Its economic consequences — including new jobs for workers in mining industries — must be dealt with, and coherently communicated to those who are directly affected.
Just hours after he was sworn in on Monday, Australia’s new prime minister had to board a Tokyo-bound flight in order to attend a summit with the leaders of the US, Japan and India. On questions of foreign policy, the Labor Party has effectively been indistinguishable from its conservative rivals.
Remaining an appendage of the US while pretending to resist the potential Pacific hegemony of China — a crucial, and for some years miffed trading partner — cannot possibly bode well for Australia.
It would be unfair, however, to prematurely judge the inclinations of a government that is yet to properly take shape. Anthony Albanese — the first Australian PM with a non-Anglo surname — is obviously yet to make his mark, and it is not inconceivable that voting trends and the parliament’s composition might push him in a more progressive direction than he has hitherto articulated.
One cannot expect whatever lies ahead to be as transformative as the earthquake 50 years ago that, under the leadership of Gough Whitlam, propelled a deplorably reactionary and often regressive society into an altogether different dimension. But at least there’s a glimmer of hope that deserves to be relished as long as it lasts.
Published in Dawn, May 25th, 2022