Australia will go to a federal election sometime over the next twelve months.
If asked last year, my gut would have inclined to an early election, say around August ’21, particularly if the post-COVID economy started spluttering after the end of generous government support. Now at the end of May, there is still no such thing as a post-COVID economy because there is still no post-COVID anything, but the economy seemingly continues to chug along somehow, despite all the dislocation of lockdowns and closed state and international borders. Judging by the opinion polls, three quarters of Australia are happy to remain a prison island indefinitely so as to avoid any contact with the icky infected world out there. No wonder the vaccine rollout is so slow compared to other English-speaking countries – why take the shot if governments are pursuing the eradication strategy anyway, and you won’t be able to travel even once vaccinated? If you want to travel, that is, and most Australians don’t.
So, perhaps no early election. The government is not surging in the polls as much as the state incumbents have, but it’s not being hammered either, so there is no particular incentive to pull the trigger now. The Prime Minister remains quite popular, certainly much more than the Leader of the Opposition, so you can bet your bottom borrowed dollar that the election, when it finally comes, will be run on one issue and one only: the leadership, i.e. how ScoMo has saved our country from being like the United States or the United Kingdom. This is just as well, because the government does not have any agenda other than staying in government and will do and say and spend anything to achieve that. This is not an entirely new phenomenon; the last few Coalition governments have had no discernable political program, even if they still occasionally paid lip service to “Liberal values and principles”. Hence, the Turnbull government’s main claim to fame being the same sex marriage referendum and legislation. But things have gotten even more depressing under Morrison, the ultimate pragmatist with strong religious but few apparent political beliefs.
Australia is now well on the way to $1 trillion in government debt – from zero only 14 years ago, and most of it accumulated by the past three Coalition governments. It took Howard and Costello more than a decade to pay off Hawke/Keating’s $96 billion debt. If that was a “black hole”, the Rudd/Gillard/Rudd/Abbott/Turnbull/Morrison effort must be one of those nightmarish mega black holes that are swallowing entire galaxies. It will never be paid off, and no one will seriously contemplate paying it off, because any effort would be a mere drop in the ocean and therefore not worth the electoral pain. Australia, once a proud outlier, is now just like any other social democratic state, where the combination of borrowing and government money printer going brrrr is keeping everyone living beyond their means. This is the music to the left’s ears, which has always believed in spending unrestrained by reality, but it also represents the abandonment by the right of one of its main differentials and selling points – good economic management. If there is anyone in the federal Coalition who still believes in small and limited government, low taxes, responsible spending, balanced budgets and low debt, they have been conspicuously silent, both in public as well as in the relative privacy of closed party forums. “We will spend slightly less than Labor” is not a very inspiring election slogan.
Having abandoned the principles of fiscal responsibility and limited government, the Morrison administration has also been largely in retreat in the cultural sphere. Occasional right noises aside, the long march through the institutions continues under the government’s nose, producing ideological embarrassments like the woke school curriculum and “all men are bastards” forays into gender policy. If this is the state of things under a “conservative” government, God help us under Labor – not that there are many signs the Coalition will campaign on these issues or even frame the contest in such a way.
Just as well then that the next election will be a largely substance-free and largely presidential contest between ScoMo and whoever is leading Labor at the time. The longer to the next poll, the more opportunity for someone like Shorten to have another go, even if caucus coups are now more difficult to pull off.
Even if not currently ahead in opinion polls, it seems on its face like an easy enough job for the Coalition against a pretty uninspiring Opposition. The Prime Minister is popular, and though his government isn’t as much as assorted state governments, there seems to be a general view in the community that it has done a pretty OK job during COVID, particularly if you compare it to just about every other country in the world. Good management, a safe pair of hands, and all that. Who would you rather have taking through the zombie apocalypse?
And yet, the government can’t afford any swing against it; unlike most incumbents end up doing, it has to increase its vote. Due to redistributions and other electoral vagaries, the Morrison government is already technically a few seats behind; to win government again and avoid a minority it has to win a few. But just where is a tricky question to answer. It’s difficult to see Queensland overperforming and saving the Coalition’s ass yet again. There are a few marginal Labor seats like Griffith and Lilly, which have last been won by the Libs in the 1996 Howard landslide and held for only one term, as well as some more swinging ones like Moreton and Blair, but adding another 3% on top of the 2019 58.44% TPP for the Coalition sure looks ambitious. On the other side of the ledger, there are some Coalition seats where popular members, like George Christiansen, are retiring, and Labor has been successfully courting local mayors and other identities in those areas in the last year or so. And while people often vote differently for different tiers, Victoria and Western Australia have been disastrous for the Liberals on the state level and it’s difficult not to see some of that rubbing off on the feds – between those two states there are five seats of 5% and under that could fall to Labor. If there is a converse serving grace, there are nine Labor seats under 5% in New South Wales, which could benefit from some of the Berejiklian magic.
Even if ostensibly unlikely in these extraordinary pandemic times, a Labor outright win (or another Labor minority government) is arithmetically quite possible. If ScoMo’s luck holds, the outcome is another three years of Coalition government, to equal Howard/Costello in its run, but like Albania next to the United States in terms of achievement and consequence. It has taken us fourteen years to go from “we’re all economic conservatives” to “we’re all Keynesians now” (in turn, a half-a-century full circle to Richard Nixon). Maybe in another fourteen years we will all be libertarians, but by that stage an irreversible damage will have been done to the country itself, not to mention only a slightly less serious damage to the political brand of liberalism and the Liberal Party. As Keynes himself said, in the long run we are all dead; in the short run, no matter what happens, we’re in a world of pain.