Argument

Scott Morrison Won Australia’s Election Against All Odds. It Shouldn’t Have Come as a Surprise.

The Australian Labor Party made the same mistakes that have led to failure for center-left leaders across the globe—and the right is reaping the benefits.

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison (C) shakes hands with Opposition Leader Bill Shorten (L) at a special ecumenical service to mark the start of the parliamentary year at St Paul's Anglican church on Feb. 12 in Canberra, Australia.
Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison (C) shakes hands with Opposition Leader Bill Shorten (L) at a special ecumenical service to mark the start of the parliamentary year at St Paul's Anglican church on Feb. 12 in Canberra, Australia. Tracey Nearmy/Getty Images

Understanding Australia’s shock election last weekend, in which the right-wing coalition of incumbent Prime Minister Scott Morrison unexpectedly won, requires looking to an unlikely source: a conservative Christian rugby star.

The pundits didn’t see it coming, but they don’t spend too much time in church pews. Israel Folau, one of the most outstanding athletes of his generation, has become a lightning rod for debate about freedom of religion in Australia.

Folau had his contract with Rugby Australia terminated after he posted a social media message six weeks ago that said, among other things, that gay people were sinners doomed for hell unless they repented and accepted Jesus Christ as their savior. He has been accused of hate speech, causing offense to the LGBTQ community, and breaching the game’s code of conduct.

What was a heated sports issue spilled over into politics in the final week of election campaigning. Morrison shares a similar Pentecostal Christian faith with Folau, and he was asked by journalists if he agreed with the rugby legend and also condemned gay Australians. Morrison replied as politicians do: He said he separated his politics and his faith. But within hours, Bill Shorten, the leader of the opposition progressive Labor Party, seized on the remark, seeing a chance to damage the prime minister. But playing politics with faith was a misstep—perhaps a fatal one.

Shorten’s move raised red flags in the minds of many voters. Just what did he stand for? Did he value the rights of the LGBTQ community not to be offended over the rights of someone to publicly profess their religious beliefs? It came in the same week that Shorten had given a rousing speech pledging to “change the nation forever.”

But did Australians really want their country changed? Shorten had already outlined an agenda of social change: an ambitious plan for indigenous rights, making Australia a republic (something that had been put to the Australian people and rejected in 1999), as well as higher taxes on what Shorten called “the big end of town.”

It was old-style class politics, and it spooked some Australians. Retirees, middle-class parents, and those dependent on the mining industry for their livelihoods all felt they were in the firing line. Christian leaders now say that religious freedom was a sleeper issue that turned votes in critical marginal seats.

This was the so-called unlosable election for Shorten, who lost to Morrison’s predecessor in the 2016 federal election; opinion polls stretching back more than two years said the conservative government was doomed. It was wracked with division, having dumped two prime ministers in internal party coups. They went into the election light on policy but led by a new leader big on faith. Within hours of the vote count, it was clear the polls had been hopelessly wrong.

Grand narratives are often foolhardy, and something as complex as an election can’t be so tidily explained. But there is a realignment taking place. The wave that has broken across liberal democracies in the West has washed up in Australia. The conservatives have been in power for six years, and after this victory some analysts are predicting at least another six more.

Throughout the world, long-silent voices are making themselves heard and it is shaking up politics as usual. In the United States, Donald Trump tapped into the frustration of those who felt left behind and promised to make their country great again; Viktor Orban in Hungary has entrenched his leadership by toughening the borders and stopping refugees; in France, Germany, the Netherlands, and Italy, far-right parties are increasing their popularity.

At its worst, there are fears of resurgent fascism—certainly nationalism is back. People are saying they want to belong and they want their leaders to put them first. On immigration, trade, climate change policy, and more, countries are putting themselves first amid a blowback against multilateralism and globalization. After two decades marked by Middle East wars, the financial meltdown, and the Great Recession of 2008, whatever consensus had held around the free movement of goods and people and pooled sovereignty is looking frayed.

Australia’s election is not its Trump or Brexit moment as some have suggested—the picture here is too complicated for that. Overall, Australia’s democracy is strong: The Economist Intelligence Unit’s Democracy Index has placed Australia in the top 10 for the past decade. It is a country not given to political extremes; it is centrist and broadly conservative with a strong ethos of what Australians call a “fair go” for all.

Australia avoided the worst of the financial crisis and has had nearly 30 years of uninterrupted economic growth in part fueled by a mining boom driven by China’s hunger for Australia’s natural resources. Compulsory voting also cushions Australia against get-out-the-vote campaigns and voter suppression efforts that can be so decisive in countries like the United States.

But there are similarities: The political divide so critical elsewhere in the world is alive in Australia. It has been dubbed the “quinoa curtain”—the split between city and country, particularly the heavily mining-dependent state of Queensland, which broke heavily conservative in the election.

The other similarity is that Shorten, like progressives globally, lost the ability to talk to big numbers of Australians—whether on religious freedoms, free speech, tax, or climate change policy. He created too many potential losers. Even worse, he lost the ability to listen. He wanted to change Australians, but he didn’t think to ask if they wanted changing.

Progressive hubris plays into the hands of the conservative right. The right is at home talking about nation and family and faith. Scott Morrison is a Christian, rugby-loving, suburban family man. In Australia we would endearingly call him a “bogan.” He is also a tough politician who knows his side: As immigration minister in 2013 and 2014 he turned back refugee boats and toughened Australia’s border patrol; he once brought a lump of coal into Parliament to argue against shutting down mines to appease environmentalists.

Morrison dedicated his victory to the “quiet Australians.” He claims to like them just as they are and does not seek to change them. Progressive politicians in Australia, like everywhere, are now realizing that if they want change, they need to win power—and that means bringing the people with them rather than telling them what’s good for them.

Two days before Australia’s federal election, one of the country’s most loved and popular former prime ministers, Bob Hawke, passed away. He came to power in the 1980s as a former union leader and towering figure of the left, but his message was summed up in one word: consensus. In four elections, he was never defeated. And he was a rugby fan.

Stan Grant is a professor of global affairs at Griffith University and a global affairs analyst at the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. Twitter: @StanGrantMOF

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