Inside Story

Watershed election

Morrison’s fall, the teals’ rise, Labor’s victory: the editors of a new post-election book survey the 2022 campaign

Old meets new: independent teal candidate Zoe Daniel presented with her main opponent’s how-to-vote card on election day 2022. Diego Fedele/AAP Image

On election night 2022, as Labor gradually inched towards government, the most remarkable news was the success of the “teal wave” of female independents winning previously safe Liberal seats. They had campaigned on a platform of climate change, integrity and women’s issues, and presented themselves as a community-based alternative to the way the major parties operated. This, together with the success of the Australian Greens in winning lower house seats in Brisbane, sent a strong message that voters, and particularly women voters, wanted politics done differently.

Many saw the election result as a tipping point, signalling that Australia’s longstanding and very stable two-party system was finally on its way out. Its dominance had been gradually eroding and, this time, more than 30 per cent of voters looked elsewhere to cast their primary vote. As it transpired, Labor won government with a majority of seventy-seven seats in the House of Representatives but a lower primary vote than it had achieved in 2019. It optimistically attributed this to “strategic voting” by supporters temporarily shifting their primary votes to non-Labor candidates deemed capable of beating Liberal incumbents. Labor polled exceptionally strongly in Western Australia, winning four seats from the Liberal Party.

While the Coalition parties made much of their primary vote being slightly higher than Labor’s, the Liberal Party also had a historically low primary vote. In other democracies, the Covid-19 pandemic shored up some faith in the “wartime” governments dealing with it, at least initially. By 2022, though, the same incumbency benefit was not enjoyed by the federal government in Australia. Nor did the lowest unemployment rate in almost fifty years save the government from defeat (or the treasurer from losing his own seat in Kooyong). Prime minister Scott Morrison, who had become the most unpopular Liberal leader for more than thirty years, was targeted relentlessly during the campaign. The “miracle” of his 2019 electoral victory, in the face of opinion polling predicting a Labor win, did not occur twice.

The longer-term trend in Western democracies — reinforced by the Australian election result — is that the major (or traditional) parties can no longer rely on lifelong voters. The success of Australia’s teal independents reflected widespread reaction against major parties perceived to be operating in the interests of the political class and donors, and ignoring substantive policy issues — such as climate change — that mattered to Australians. Political scandals over sexual misconduct contributed to this disenchantment and to the increased salience of gender issues.

If the 2022 election could be seen as a watershed moment for Australian voters, the extraordinary events that transpired between the 2019 and 2022 elections certainly increased the importance of certain policy issues and voters’ critical stance on the government. The Morrison government, like its counterparts across the globe, faced the daunting task of dealing with a global pandemic. Significantly, the 2022 Australian election campaign coincided with a period in which the country had the highest daily infection rates in the world.

Climate change also loomed large in the wake of record-breaking bushfires and floods since the 2019 election. Between September 2019 and March 2020 the Black Summer bushfires burned an unprecedented 18.6 million hectares of bushland. “Once in a century” floods in March 2021 severely affected communities in greater Sydney, the Hunter region and the mid-north coast of New South Wales, and around Queensland’s Gold Coast. These events were repeated a year later, with severe flooding affecting Brisbane, the NSW Northern Rivers and Sydney. The Insurance Council of Australia reported almost 200,000 claims from the 2022 floods, or more than $3.3 billion in insured losses.

Despite the severity of these events, the theme of climate change was not prominent in the campaigns of the major parties, although the prime minister’s apparent lack of empathy with flood and fire victims became part of the negative campaigning against him. The Coalition government was particularly vulnerable on climate change, and its attempts to reframe the issue were singularly unsuccessful. One discursive tactic tried well before the campaign proper was that climate change would “ultimately be solved by ‘can-do’ capitalism, not ‘don’t-do’ government.” This attempt at free-market framing was no more successful than the ubiquitous “freedom” ads of the United Australia Party funded by billionaire Clive Palmer.

Voters were looking for alternatives to the two-party system and they were also engaging in politics in new ways, both online and offline, in the community organising of the “Voices for…” movements. The election campaign moved further online, and citizens creating and sharing memes were as visible as more traditional party efforts. Within this landscape the visual elements of campaigning were more important than ever. Digital disruption and disinformation — so prominent in 2019 — were also a feature, but so were more concerted efforts to deal with them.

Not only did the election bring a change in government; it also saw the lowest primary votes for both major parties and the election of the greatest number of independents to the lower house since the formation of the Australian party system. The success of the teal independents and the Greens, and the appetite voters showed for “doing politics differently” suggested the dominant model of electoral competition might no longer be the two-party system. At the very least, the continued usefulness of the two-party-preferred vote as a way of conceptualising and predicting Australians’ voting behaviour has been cast into serious doubt.

A key outcome of the election was a widening split between the salience for voters and the salience for the major parties of long-term issues such as climate change and transparency in government. “Localised” politics, community campaigning and candidate quality were more prominent than in recent elections, in combination with the changing nature of campaigning in an evolving digital media landscape.

Another issue that unexpectedly took off was the Coalition’s broken promise to introduce a federal integrity commission. Integrity issues were highlighted by the teal independents and the Greens and, along with gender issues, became part of the negative depiction of Morrison that dominated social media. The Coalition unsuccessfully attempted to deflect attention from integrity issues by suggesting they were of no interest to ordinary voters and that the focus should instead be on cost-of-living issues and economic management — their usual electoral strengths.

Along with climate change and integrity issues must be mentioned gender issues, which were more prominent than in any election since 1972. The Morrison government’s seeming incapacity to deal with issues of sexual misconduct in the parliamentary precinct served as a touchstone for women’s disenchantment with the government on a range of issues. Veteran political journalist Paul Kelly was taken by surprise (and won a Gold Ernie Award) for his 2021 prediction that “the women’s movement won’t decide the next election.”

With so many high-profile ministers (and purported future party leaders) falling victim to independents’ campaigns on these issues, the Liberal Party faces the daunting task of rebuilding and — along with the Nationals — re-establishing its relevance with Australian voters, particularly women, socially progressive economic liberals and younger Australians.

The 2022 federal election also marked a profound shift in how the country runs its elections. A record proportion of voters cast their ballot before election day through either early or postal voting. While this trend was no doubt accelerated in 2022 by Covid-19, it builds on an underlying preference for convenience and arguably on disengagement from politics — with voters casting an early ballot to switch off from the long campaign.

With fewer than half of all voters casting their vote on election day, it appears that we have moved from an election day to an election period. This is a trend that is highly unlikely to be reversed, with potentially significant implications for the nature of elections as democratic rituals. It also has implications for small parties and independents because non-incumbent candidates can struggle to staff polling booths for extended periods.

The traditional media were criticised during the campaign for a seeming preoccupation with the performance of leaders and the possibility of missteps, with the hashtag #ThisIsNotJournalism trending on Twitter. In the very first week, Labor leader Anthony Albanese was unable to recall either the unemployment or the cash rates during a press conference. The government and the conservative media seized on the misstep to discredit Albanese’s economic expertise and cast doubt on his leadership abilities. But it also became illustrative of a style of politics that characterised the election: a focus on “gotcha” moments and detail from which bigger policy issues and debates were notably absent.

Having learned from the mistake of campaigning in 2019 on complex reforms (such as overhauling tax policy in areas like imputation credit refunds), the Labor Party focused on a slimmed agenda of manufacturing, wage growth, gender pay parity and housing. The Coalition responded by repeatedly emphasising its record of economic management, leading to what it described as “jobs and growth.” This dynamic left major policy issues prominent in the minds of voters — such as climate change — out of the contest between the major parties and in the hands of the Greens and the teals.

Despite the major parties’ best efforts to keep the campaign focused on preset announcements and policy agendas, significant events occurred during the official campaign period that challenged both leaders to respond in ways that were not scripted. These included the announcement of Solomon Islands’ security pact with China early in the campaign, which made regional security a significant issue, though not in a way favourable to the government.

On 3 May, the Reserve Bank of Australia lifted the official cash rate by 0.25 per cent — the first of eight increases during 2022. This was the first time since the 2007 federal election (when Liberal prime minister John Howard was ousted by Labor’s Kevin Rudd) that such an increase had occurred during a campaign, and it cemented economic management, the cost of living and housing affordability as key campaign issues.

Compared with other recent federal election campaigns, the 2022 election saw a heightened focus on individual candidates and constituencies. While all elections feature scandals involving candidates, the attention given not just to individual seats but also to the competencies of individual candidates was highly unusual. In part this focus can be explained by the momentum behind the localised campaigns of the teal and “Voices for…” independents, but it could have also been a broader consequence of the renewed importance of place and community that was felt so acutely during the Covid lockdowns.

The national media were captivated by the controversial candidate Katherine Deves, who was selected by Morrison to contest the northern Sydney seat of Warringah against independent Zali Steggall. Deves’s vocal stance against the rights of trans Australians was interpreted as a dog whistle to the Liberals’ conservative voter base. In other electorates, meanwhile, the suitability of candidates was being questioned based on geographic representation and appropriate reflection of ethnic diversity.

Labor’s Andrew Charlton and Kristina Keneally — both contesting seats in western Sydney — were caught up in these debates. Charlton — despite his political credentials as a former adviser to prime minister Kevin Rudd — was criticised for not living in the electorate. Former NSW premier and senator Kristina Keneally, also attempting to win a House of Representatives seat, was criticised in a similar way — but the party also faced strong opposition to the fact that it had not fielded a candidate who reflected the diversity of the electorate’s population. Independent and Vietnam-born candidate Dai Le ultimately won the seat of Fowler from Labor.

The victorious Albanese government got to work quickly, embarking at high speed on its election commitments, including preparation for a referendum on a Voice to parliament, legislation to introduce a federal integrity commission, and a jobs and skills summit. Both Albanese and foreign minister Penny Wong embarked on international diplomatic visits to the Pacific region, to security summits in Japan and Spain, and to Paris to “reset” Australia’s relationship with France, which deteriorated after the cancellation of a multibillion-dollar defence submarine contract in 2018.

The government itself was more diverse than ever before, with a record number of women — including an Indigenous woman, Linda Burney, holding the Indigenous Australians portfolio.

Doubt continued about the legacy of the Morrison government. In August 2022, it was revealed that Morrison had been secretly sworn into multiple ministerial portfolios, including health, finance, home affairs and industry. He defended these actions as necessary in a time of unprecedented crisis and uncertainty caused by the Covid-19 pandemic, but his actions were widely criticised as contrary to fundamental principles of collective ministerial responsibility and open and transparent government.

While the implementation of Albanese’s policy agenda began with considerable speed, the economic context created — and will continue to create — significant challenges for the new government. Saddled with its election commitment to proceed with the Stage 3 tax cuts for the wealthy, the government faces an incredibly difficult mix of rising inflation, rising interest rates and falling wages. This will significantly constrain its fiscal policy options and presents a scenario for industrial unrest that could become difficult for Labor to resolve given its voter base and election commitments. •

This is an edited extract from Watershed: The 2022 Australian Federal Election, edited by Anika Gauja, Marian Sawer and Jill Sheppard and published by ANU Press, the latest in a series of detailed post-election analyses dating back to 1975. Contributors to the book — which can be downloaded free of charge — include Carol Johnson, Murray Goot, Marija Taflaga, Glenn Kefford and Stephen Mills, and Anthony Green.