19 May 2019

Listen: RNZ's Australia election special

1:19 pm on 19 May 2019

RNZ will be dissecting the unexpected result in Australia with presenter a series of guests exploring the politics, implications for New Zealand, and where Australia goes from here.

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison arrives to speak to party supporters flanked by his wife Jenny, and daughters Abbey, left, and Lily after his opponent Bill Shorten conceded defeat in the federal election.

Photo: Copyright 2019 The Associated Press / Rick Rycroft / All rights reserved

Scott Morrison will remain Australia's Prime Minister as his ruling Coalition swept over Labor, which had been expected to win. With 74.7 percent of the vote counted at the end of last night, the Coalition had 74 seats and Labour just 66 and six seats held by third parties.

His opponent, Labor's Bill Shorten, conceded defeat and said while he would be remaining in Parliament he would stand down as party leader.

Background on the Australian political battleground

It was thought the revolving door of Prime Ministers in recent years and the ugly leadership spill last year that saw Malcolm Turnbull replaced by Mr Morrison would turn voters off.

For more than 12 months, opinion polls predicted a Labor victory and even senior Liberal strategists were not brave enough to predict a Coalition victory.

However, Mr Morrison ran a savvy campaign - focusing on himself and economic management - which starkly contrasted to Labor's big policy promises and focus on a united party.

Labor failed to win a single seat north of the Brisbane River and there were big swings to Coalition MPs. Many senior Labor figures are already pointing to the impact of the conservative minority parties for the losses.

Analysts say results in five undecided seats will decide whether the Mr Morrison's coalition of the Liberal Party and Nationals governs in its own right, or will be reliant on lower house votes from the crossbench.

The Coalition needs to win two of the five seats that remained too close to call at the end of counting on Saturday night to reach the 76 lower house seats necessary to form government.

Philippa Tolley is hosting RNZ Insight's live Australian election special. She will be speaking to a series of guests to dissect the result:

  • RNZ's Australia correspondent Kerry-Anne Walsh, who was a press secretary in the Hawke government, a press gallery journalist and now a political commentator
  • Professor Jennifer Curtin - an Australian politics expert at the University of Auckland
  • Dr Tim Gassin, the head of Oz Kiwi, a group which campaigns for New Zealanders in Australia
  • Dr Paul Hamer, a researcher on section 501 of the Migration Act and Māori inclusion and exclusion in Australia
  • John Wanna, professor of politics at Griffith University and the Australian National University who will talk about the independents
  • Jane Patterson, RNZ Political Editor
  • Michelle Gratten, chief political correspondent for The Conversation, and University of Canberra lecturer

Australia correspondent Kerry-Anne Walsh

Kerry-Anne Walsh said it was certainly a political miracle for Mr Morrison.

"The polls had not had ... the Coalition in front since Malcolm Turnbull got the Prime Ministership from Tony Abbott back some years ago," she said.

"Scott Morrison, his personal popularity had been quite high for some months - always ahead of Bill Shorten's - but the Labor Party itself and what it appeared to represent to Australians and what it looked like ... there had never been a suggestion that there would be not just a result like this but one that seems to be such an emphatic rejection of what [Labor] stood for."

The Coalition was able to successfully exploit two of the Labor Party's policies in particular, she said: there was a lot of misinformation about the Capital Gains Tax and also about the Franking Credits policy.

"The Franking Credits policy - which is a policy that self-funded retirees receive a credit from the government on their shares for monies they had not paid, in other words a gift from the government ... it was dubbed 'the retiree tax' by the Coalition despite the fact that it affected very few shareholders.

"It scared people who were on the pension despite the fact that [most] pensioners didn't have shares and therefore they weren't going to be subjected."

She said there were still a lot of votes to be counted but the trend was clear.

"The pre-polls alone run into the millions so there could be between four and five million votes still to count - but the trend is very clear that Labor simply has not been able to deliver what Australians want ... there's some suggestions that have been made that those voters were more inclined to be conservative. I don't know where that comes from but that was the general wisdom."

She said a final result will not be known for the election for some time, but things will be fairly clear by the end of the week.

"We'll get a better picture of the senate by the end of the week, but certainly Scott Morrison will be going about trying to frame his new ministry and Labor will be addressing itself about what they're going to do to clean up the damage. Certainly they've got to elect a new leader and that's not a simple matter - it's 50 percent the parliamentary caucus and 50 percent the party members across the country so that sort of ballot actually takes a number of weeks."

Professor Jennifer Curtin

Australian politics expert Professor Jennifer Curtin said the polling was not so badly wrong as some were suggesting.

"The polls were tightening in the last week, so we got to most of them were saying 51-49 percent ... it's actually pretty close to that," she said.

"The other thing is it's very easy to assume that there are uniform swings when we see these polls. The result in Queensland really what's happened it's ... the primary vote has gone to Clive Palmer's party and to One Nation's and the transfer of preferences have fed through to the Liberals."

She said Mr Morrison ran a strong campaign.

"He was able to project himself as a leader and he was able to transform himself from this hardline border-protection Treasurer model to a softer Prime Minister who could get out there in the suburbs, eat a democracy sausage, go to the footy and appeal to regular voters that he was strong and steady. And then just took the focus away from his internal party politics, the divisions between liberals and conservatives, and focus everything on this big-target Labor policy platform."

By contrast, Labor's campaign was risky, she said.

"Risky from the start in terms of having such a big range of policies - particularly ones that were big spend - in place.

"What it's reminiscent of is actually Paul Keating's unwinnable election of 1993 when the Liberal leader John Hewson ran on a very big policy document and believed passionately that people wanted to hear about policy and it didn't matter that he was a little bit of a wooden leader and he lost drastically.

"It kind of says something about substance versus style ... maybe it's risky for oppositions to make themselves a big target and they should do their policy work once they've won."

She said the Coalition did not put out much policy at all.

"Their key policy message was tax cuts, they're going for a flatter tax and getting rid of the top marginal tax rate of 37 percent and they're gonna put a flat tax out there for everybody earning between 45,000 and 200,000 ... they had a first-home buyers policy that they threw out there sort of two weeks out from the final vote.

"But pretty much it was all about 'you should vote for me and for the Liberals / National Party [coalition]; we're good economic managers' - that same mantra that we hear here in New Zealand for the centre-right - and then pretty much turned the focus for a scare campaign onto Labor."

She said although the Australian economy had not been soaring it was steady and the books looked good.

"Even though house prices are tumbling in Sydney and Melbourne, as we know from the results this wasn't actually about Sydney and Melbourne this election, this was about Queensland and Tasmania and possibly about Western Australia."

She said it was perhaps too binary to say that Australians cared more about their wallets than the climate and environment, which had been billed as a big topic this election.

"We know that the Greens did pretty well, they kept their seat in Melbourne and they look like they're still gonna keep their nine seats in the senate which is a pretty good showing.

"It's not that people don't think climate change matters but in Queensland people weigh that up and go 'climate change versus jobs' - and Labor equivocated on the Adani mine, they didn't send a clear message and they didn't have a clear policy about how they would replace those jobs."

Michelle Grattan

Michelle Grattan, who is the chief political correspondent for The Conversation and also teaches politics at the University of Canberra, said the challenge will be for the government to get an agenda for the coming term.

"In this campaign it's really been all about 'don't vote for Labor' ... it's been very negative from the government's point of view and it hasn't really outlined much of what it plans to do, except of course its tax programme."

She said it was not yet known whether the Coalition would be a majority or minority government, which would affect its political stability.

"Both parties have changed their rules in recent times and therefore the prime minister who wins the election is guaranteed, more or less, under the rules to go through the term. Of course, rules can always be altered again."

Ms Grattan said people were disillusioned with politicians and the whole political process, but there was not much in this result to make people more trusting of politicians.

"We're going to have to see changes in the way politicians behave before you'll restore that trust and that's going to take a while and the campaign itself didn't give any sign that change is going to happen any time soon."

John Wanna

Leading Australian political researcher John Wanna said the debate about climate change had a direct impact on the election result.

A professor of politics at Griffith University and the Australian National University, Prof Wanna said there were unique influences in this election including the preference votes of right-leaning minor parties benefiting the Liberals, and a focus on the religious beliefs of the Liberal leader Scott Morrison.

Prof Wanna said various policies to reduce emissions grew in prominence through the campaign.

"Both parties had, and also the Greens, had competing policies, so the question was how much emissions were the parties going to advocate reducing, but there was no costing on it, none of that was costed."

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