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PoliticsApril 11, 2022

A complete drongo’s guide to the 2022 Australian election

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(Getty Images/The Spinoff)

Australian political journalist Ben McKay on what you need to know about next month’s Morrison vs Albanese match-up.

Put on your shoulder-length gloves, because it’s election time in Australia and we’re going all the way into the cow’s arse that is Australian politics. Prime minister Scott Morrison has called the election for May 21, setting the stage for six weeks of the nonsense and carry-on that passes for democratic debate in Australia.

Once upon a time, Australian elections were fought on policy and vision. Most famously, in 1972, Gough Whitlam convinced the electorate to end 23 years of conservative government and instead back broad reforms, including universal health care and Australia leaving the Vietnam War. In 1998, John Howard won a gutsy re-election arguing to remake Australia’s tax system with a GST. And in 2001, Labor’s Kim Beazley was so opposed to Howard’s anti-refugee legislation in the wake of the Tampa affair, he lost an election over it.

Sadly, 2022 isn’t shaping up as a classic. In keeping with Australia’s typically diverse political culture, the two options for prime minister are a 50-something male rugby league tragic from Sydney and a 50-something male rugby league tragic from Sydney. One is called ScoMo and the other Albo. It ain’t inspiring stuff.

And it is hostile out there. Morrison is on the nose, and no amount of butchering Kiwi classics on the ukulele seems to fix it. He is attacked out in the electorate. The ABC starts interviews with extraordinary questions of trust. Journalists despair at factional brawling. Senators from Morrison’s own party use parliamentary privilege to slam him. Faith in government is low. So what better time to start the campaign?

The basics

Australians are voting for their MPs for the next three years (and the senate too but let’s ignore that for now). There is no party vote in Australia, it’s the electorate vote that counts.

Plenty of parties put up candidates but preferential voting means most electorates are straight-up races between candidates from the centre-left Labor party and centre-right Coalition, the name for the alliance of the Liberal party and regionally-based National party.

There are 151 electorates, so it’s a race to 76 seats to form a majority government and hold power.

Australian quirks

Voting is compulsory! Polling places put on cake stalls and fire up the barbecue and everyone eats a democracy sausage! Ballots can be comically long! There’s no “u” in Labor! (Although Labor cares about u.)

A bit of background

The Coalition has governed for nine years after turfing out the Kevin RuddJulia GillardKevin Rudd-led Labor in 2013. Tony Abbott was the Coalition hero, winning a landslide to take back power, but he dived in popularity and was replaced by Malcolm Turnbull in a 2015 coup. Turnbull scraped home at the 2016 election ahead of Labor’s Bill Shorten. Beset by poor polling, Turnbull’s leadership was also spilled in 2018, when Morrison manoeuvred his way to the top job.

What happened at the last election?

Morrison went into the 2019 election as a huge underdog, trailing in every major public poll since the 2016 election. Labor gave Shorten another crack and was seen as a sure thing, despite being best known for his terrible one-liners. The campaign was ugly. Morrison focused relentlessly on Labor’s plan phase out tax benefits for property investors. An underhand campaign that Labor would introduce a “death tax” took hold, and mining billionaire Clive Palmer spent more than $50 million in advertising – much of it negative – against Shorten. Defying the polls, Morrison pulled off his “miracle“, winning 77 seats and another term for the Coalition. It was a dire result for Labor, coming two days after Australia’s most popular retired PM, Labor’s Bob Hawke, died two days out from polling day.

Prime minister Scott Morrison has a 51st birthday beer at a rally on May 13, 2019 in Perth, (Photo: Tracey Nearmy/Getty Images)

Contender 1: ScoMo

Morrison – who you may know better as ScoMo or Scotty from Marketing, or from his time as a NZ tourism bureaucrat – is trying to become the first PM since John Howard to win two elections in a row. While in government, Morrison has earned a reputation for cut-through communication and hard-line approaches to fixing intractable issues, winning support in the partyroom for his effectiveness. He “stopped the boats” as immigration minister, moving on to serve as treasurer to Turnbull and then succeeding him

A social conservative, Morrison opposed gay marriage, and does not support euthanasia nor a shift to an Australian republic. Morrison downplays links between climate change and major bushfires and flooding, and has championed the coal industry. He has cultivated an image as a knockabout Aussie who loves his family, his faith and his footy, badging the prime ministerial plane “Shark One” after the Cronulla Sharks. For more on the making of Morrison, I’d highly recommend The Game by Sean Kelly, which dives into Morrison’s political character and asks what his success says about Australia.

Anthony Albanese after announcing he was running for the Labor leadership on May 19, 2019 in Sydney. (Photo: Brook Mitchell/Getty Images)

Contender 2: Albo

Anthony Albanese, 59, was first elected in 1996 and sat through 11 years in opposition before serving in government through the Rudd-Gillard years, mainly as infrastructure minister. As Gillard’s prime ministership eroded, he tearily resigned and became Rudd’s deputy through the final months.

Albanese didn’t meet his father until well into adulthood, raised as the sole child of a single mother in an inner-city public housing flat. He often says he was raised into three faiths: the Catholic church, the Australian Labor Party and the South Sydney Rabbitohs. Albanese is tied to the party’s smaller Left faction, with progressive social views. He was nearly killed in a car accident last year, and is known as an alternative music fan. For more: ‘Albanese’ by Karen Middleton tells the story of Albanese’s incredible upbringing and family life, and rise through the Labor ranks.

How has the Morrison government been going?

Since his miracle election, the nation has turned on Morrison – albeit during very trying times. The rot began when Morrison took a secret holiday to Hawaii, delaying his return despite catastrophic bushfires. Furious locals vented their anger. Morrison retorted he “didn’t hold a hose”, which made most of Australia’s 25 million-strong population want to blast him with one.

Then Covid-19 came along. Like in NZ, Aussie voters were delighted by the government’s early border-shutting response to the pandemic. But governing became more complicated. The federal government and states – which share responsibilities under Australia’s complicated federation – quibbled over the Covid response. Morrison was blamed for a failure to protect aged care residents, for vaccine rollout problems and a RAT shortage ruining last Christmas holidays as omicron surged. He kind of apologised. Many Australians felt abandoned.

This summer, historic rainfall across two states put Brisbane and much of south-east Queensland underwater, submerging towns like Lismore. Twenty-three people died. Tens of thousands of houses were ruined. These were shocking events that many are still cleaning up from. Voters have judged the federal government’s response poorly, though not as intensely as the 2019-20 bushfires.

Dissatisfaction with Morrison is so widespread, an increasing number of his own MPs and previous allies are rubbishing him. Deputy PM Barnaby Joyce admits calling Morrison a hypocrite and a liar. A Liberal senator told parliament last month Morrison is an autocrat with no moral compass. Morrison responded to his laundry list of critics on the ABC’s flagship current affairs programme this week.

Former parliamentary staffer Brittany Higgins on March 15, 2021 ahead of the March 4 Justice rallies calling for action against gendered violence in parliament. Higgins said she was raped assault by a colleague in March 2019.(Photo by Sam Mooy/Getty Images)

Scandals are commonplace. In February 2021, a staffer went public with claims she was raped at parliament house. Morrison’s response was tone-deaf, and eventually, a year later, he apologised. Last month, veterans affairs minister Andrew Gee threatened to resign over a backlog of veterans claims. At another point in Australia’s history, this might have been a major story. In this environment, it’s grist for the mill and gone from headlines after a day.

Also, Morrison just keeps fibbing. It’s a very curious feature of his prime ministership that he can’t stop telling little porkies. He said he told Albanese about his Hawaii trip when Albanese had the receipts to prove otherwise. He said he hadn’t been at the Hillsong Church for 15 years when he was at the 2019 conference. He said he personally bought a RAT at a Terrigal pharmacy when a member of his staff did it for him. And on it goes. News outlet Crikey published dozens of Morrison’s mistruths last year and has kept the document running since.

Naturally, this is not the story Morrison is telling. The coalition is campaigning on stability, its economic management, that it has learned from the last three years, and now isn’t the time to “risk” Labor. Unemployment is low. GDP growth has rebounded. Cost of living pressures are real, and shaped the government’s budget last week accordingly. It has announced a new free trade deal with India. It is also campaigning on defence. Morrison’s signature achievement may be the signing of defence agreement AUKUS, granting Australia nuclear submarine technology from the UK and the US. Scott Morrison loves Australia – like, really loves – and wants you to know that.

How are Morrison’s numbers?

Very, very bad. You may be able to spot a trend here. The latest Newspoll shows Labor leading the all-important two-party preferred figures as 54-46 – or a likely landslide win for Labor.  A Nine Resolve poll also has Labor ahead, and crucially, Albanese preferred to Morrison as PM – a measure opposition leaders rarely win on. A recent Guardian Essential poll shows the budget has made little difference to voter intentions.

And what is Labor campaigning on?

This is also depressing: not much at all. Labor has stuck its neck out by promising multi-billion dollar spends on aged care – including pay bumps for nurses and carers – and child care, with subsidies of up to 90%. But in an effort avoid a 2019-style result, Labor is running a small-target strategy to minimise policy differences with the government. Albanese attacks Morrison for cash giveaways in the budget, but says it will also deliver them, along with the budget’s boost to defence. Climate pledges are uninspiring.

Many Australians also don’t know Albanese. During the pandemic, media platforms usually reserved for opposition leaders went instead to state premiers, and he is – and media outlets are – still introducing himself to the electorate. This has led to Morrison attempting to define Albanese on his own terms, as China’s candidate and a political chameleon. Of course, these attacks take the place of any substantive policy debate. Sigh.

Labor is not without internal controversy. When Labor senator Kimberley Kitching died last month from a suspected heart attack, a febrile debate over alleged bullying threatened to engulf party discipline. It has quietened since her funeral – but factional brawling may return to the surface.

OK I’ve read it all and reached the end. Tell me who is going to win.

Labor. No – actually, it’s complicated. Sorry! That’s because it will all come down to a few dozen electorates. Parties will focus their campaigning on the marginal seats, which require fewer voters to change their minds to change hands. This all-important table lists the seats in order of how close they are.

With 68 seats, Labor needs to win five off the Coalition to be the largest party, and eight to win a majority government. Labor will campaign hardest in marginal seats they think they can win, including suburban Melbourne, northern Tasmania, Brisbane and regional Queensland. Naturally, the Coalition will set out its stall to defend them, and go for Labor’s marginal seats – including plenty in regional NSW. The ABC breaks it down here. Nine picks its 20 most important electorates here.

This is to say nothing of the minor parties – the Greens, One Nation, United Australia and a growing number of independents – that will shape individual races and influence the whole thing. And keep in mind, after 2019, Morrison is seen as a master campaigner. Who knows how many times will reach for that ukulele. We’ll know the answer in six weeks. Six long weeks of stunts, hair-washing and dirty laundry airing. We can only hope it delivers us a slice of gold like this. God help us.

Ben McKay is the sole Australian in Wellington’s Press Gallery, as the New Zealand Correspondent for Australian Associated Press. These are his personal views.

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