The parallels between Donald Trump’s unexpected triumph and Scott Morrison’s “miracle” election win are remarkable.
By Stephen Long
A week on, it’s increasingly apparent this was a Trump-like victory.
When “The Donald” defied the polls and the pundits to win the 2016 presidential election, disenfranchised blue collar workers and people on low incomes with less formal education swung the race his way.
“ScoMo’s” unexpected success showed the same pattern.
“In essence, this was the Australian electoral version of Donald Trump’s victory,” says Benito Cao, lecturer in politics at the University of Adelaide.
These are the voters who delivered victory
Electorates that swung hardest to the Liberal and National parties on a two-party preferred basis had a higher share of voters on low incomes, with low educational attainment, and higher levels of unemployment.
“Low income, low education and Christian religion were all features of electorates which swung to the Coalition,” says Professor Ben Phillips, an economic modelling specialist from the ANU.
“The share of blue-collar workers in the electorate was a particularly strong driver,” he says, with a 61 per cent correlation with electorates that swung to the Coalition.
Just as coal towns of the Appalachian Mountains ditched the Democrats, Labor suffered a backlash in Australian mining districts, haemorrhaging votes to minor parties such as Clive Palmer’s United Australia Party and One Nation.
In sharp contrast, wealthy electorates with higher incomes swung Labor’s way.
Labor enjoyed the biggest swings towards it in electorates with a highest level of franking credits — a broad proxy for share ownership.
In seats such as McNamara, Higgins and Curtin, where high-income earners make up about four in 10 or more of the voters, the Coalition suffered huge swings against it and Labor made big inroads.
This graph of the swings in Sydney electorates highlights the trend.
A wall of red, representing swings to Labor, in wealthy northern and eastern electorates — and a wall of blue representing swings to the Coalition (and minor parties who preferenced the Coalition) in the working-class heartlands of the west and southwest.
The conventional wisdom in the wash up of the election is that Labor lost the election because it waged “class warfare” against the well-off — with policies that removed tax concessions and loopholes for landlords, wealthy retirees and high-income earners cited as examples of the “class war”.
Labor “overplayed its hand on the class warfare stuff”, former prime minister John Howard opined on election night.
Voting decisions don’t make sense
“Mr Morrison’s path to victory was about as narrow as Donald Trump’s road to the White House. But he was helped by his opponents’ lurch to the left,” Tom Switzer, the executive director of the Centre for Independent Studies, a right-leaning think tank, wrote in The Wall Street Journal.
“The Labor Party, which did much to deregulate the Australian economy in the 1980s, was now pledging high taxes on property investors, self-funded retirees and high-earning wealth creators.”
But if policies aimed at soaking the well-off lost Labor the election, the voting patterns are curious; the targets of the alleged “class warfare” embraced their oppressors.
“If Bill Shorten was running a class war he was spectacularly successful in recruiting high-income voters with most to lose to his cause,” says Dr Richard Denniss, chief economist at The Australia Institute, a progressive think tank.
“Landlords backed Labor and their renters backed for the Coalition.
“The landlords voted to give their tenants free child care and free health care while their tenants voted for their landlords to keep their tax concessions. Who said we are not a cooperative country?”
Labor enjoyed its biggest swings in electorates with high-income earners who stood to gain tax cuts of $11,000 a year with full implementation of the Coalition’s tax plan.
Yet Labor lost ground in electorates where on the face of it, the self-interest of many voters might have been to vote for the ALP.
Labor had pledged to support a substantial pay rise for predominantly lower-paid workers on award pay rates, and to restore cuts to penalty rates, yet these policies failed to gain much traction in electorates where there was a high share of workers on lower incomes.
After a six-year period with the lowest wages growth in Australia since World War II, Labor was backing policies to shift bargaining power in favour of employees and combat job insecurity.
But if this was a “referendum on wages”, as Mr Shorten maintained, the natural constituency for the “yes” vote said no.
What should we make of all this?
One explanation is that Labor’s agenda of fighting climate change and limiting tax concessions for the wealthy and high-income earners was a turn off for “aspirational voters” on lower incomes in marginal electorates.
“Labor learned that class warfare no longer appeals to the middle class, who aspire to become rich,” writes Tom Switzer — though it’s a stretch to describe the electorates that swung hardest to the right as “middle class”.
Another explanation is that swinging voters in electorates characterised by low incomes and low educational attainment succumbed to a scare campaign.
Stories abound from the polling stations of voters falling for a smear campaign that Labor intended to introduce a 40 per cent death tax and believing baseless claims that Labor’s so-called “retiree tax” would hit people on the aged pension.
Whatever the explanation, it presents Labor with a policy puzzle.
Does it stick with policies to tackle climate change that have taken it to within striking distance in urban electorates that were once Liberal Party strongholds, or wind them back to appease the voters of the Queensland coal districts?
Does it maintain progressive policies on taxation that also appear to have won it support in high-income urban electorates, or ditch them for fear of losing support in the lower-income marginals?
The hard numbers on the swing seats give an indication of which would be the best strategy, if Labor wants to win the next election.
The ALP probably needs to pick up nine seats from the Coalition to form government — and of the five most marginal Coalition seats it needs to win, none are in Queensland.
First published at The ABC Friday 24 May 2019. See: https://www.abc.net.au/news/2019-05-24/scott-morrisons-trump-like-election-victory/11145406