Author: Editorial Board, ANU
As one old political hand remarked in the aftermath of Australia’s momentous federal election, the shifts underway in the country’s politics are similar to the effects of climate change: they happen very slowly, then all at once.
Almost a decade of centre-right rule came to an end on 21 May when former prime minister Scott Morrison’s Liberal Party–National Party coalition was defeated by the centre-left Labor Party, which now holds office at the federal level for the first time since 2013 under the leadership of Prime Minister Anthony Albanese.
Despite Labor only winning around a third of the first preference vote, Australia’s system of preferential or ‘instant-runoff’ voting means that the votes of lower-ranked candidates are redistributed, according to voters’ preferences, to the top ranked candidates until a majority is achieved. After distribution of preferences Labor won a decisive victory with a big swing in its favour across all constituencies except Tasmania. The swing to Labor in the resource-rich state of Western Australia was a massive 12–13 per cent.
There is no question about the legitimacy of Albanese’s mandate.
The big story out of the 2022 election is the humiliation of the Liberal Party, which had governed with its traditional coalition partner, the regionally-based National Party, under three prime ministers since 2013. The Liberals occupy a space analogous to that of the Conservative Party in Britain: a ‘broad church’ of liberals and conservatives who share a traditional antipathy to Labor, though increasingly little else. But as the Liberals in government veered rightwards over the last decade, captured by their right flank in a narrowly held parliamentary majority, their electoral base of moderate ‘small-L liberals’, as they’re known in Australia, have grown more and more disaffected.
Come election day the dam finally burst. The Liberal heartland in affluent, inner-urban electorates swung towards independent candidates who campaigned on stronger climate action and good governance, wiping out a bevy of Liberal MPs in formerly safe seats. Labor likewise continued to lose ground in the inner suburbs to the Australian Greens.
Both major parties, but especially the Liberals, were punished on their progressive flanks for climate policies that seemed incommensurate to the threat that climate change poses to Australia, and to Australia’s contribution to global emissions.
With the importance of climate change to middle-Australian voters now beyond doubt, and a parliamentary arithmetic favourable to ambitious climate legislation, the door is open for the Albanese government to at least bring Australia’s ambitions into line with international peers — and perhaps more.
There will be continuity in how Australia approaches the challenge of balancing its alliance with the United States with its ambitions for integration with an Asia Pacific region in which China looms ever larger — that position is also a stance favoured by the large bloc of centrist independents who’ve won office too.
Foreign Affairs Minister Penny Wong — now the most senior Asian-Australian politician ever — will be steering the bus on foreign policy. In opposition Wong criticised the Liberal government on safe territory, seeking to distinguish Labor’s overseas agenda in the details. She and her party vowed to step up diplomatic engagement and aid spending in Southeast Asia and the Pacific, as well as attempting another rehabilitation of the ‘Asia literacy’ agenda in Australia’s education system. Like Albanese, Wong is a veteran parliamentarian from the party’s left who was a senior Cabinet minister in the previous Labor government, and has an authority within this government that her predecessor, Marise Payne, lacked in hers. There is a chance that the centre of gravity in foreign policymaking will swing back to the foreign affairs bureaucracy, following a period in which security agencies and politicians close to them were growing in influence.
On repairing the abysmal state of the relationship with China, the Albanese government is bound by hard political reality: there is no appetite within government, the media, or the Australian community at large to accept blind acquiescence to Chinese demands for policy change as a precondition for renormalising relations. That said, it would be a big political — and geopolitical — win for the new government if it can be seen to have at least minimally rehabilitated the bilateral relationship without compromising Australia’s sovereignty and values.
In our lead article this week, Andrew Chubb argues that ‘the incoming government has the opportunity to lead Australia’s China policy debate away from its current divisiveness, while still getting serious about the unaddressed impact of the Chinese government on political liberties within diaspora communities’. At a minimum there needs to be an end to the hysteria-mongering over Chinese influence, and the loose talk of war that typified the Morrison government. Its cynical use of the China issue in the election campaign undoubtedly backfired, not only by offending many Chinese-Australian voters in several seats in Melbourne and Sydney that fell to Labor but also by failing the credulity test among large numbers of voters.
Wong and Albanese have to act urgently and creatively to use this year’s multilateral forums — the G20, APEC and the ASEAN-plus summits — as opportunities to resume dialogue with China. This is a test for China as much as for Australia. Beijing needs to realise that its bullying has greatly discredited it in the eyes of Australians and only made it more difficult for their leaders to walk away from the policies that irritate China.
In short, the shape of Australian foreign policy is unlikely to change soon. The new government has signalled it will continue to deepen its commitment to US–led efforts in Asia, including Biden’s rhetorically ambitious but still substantively shapeless Indo-Pacific Economic Framework. The shift of emphasis to the Quad and AUKUS, both designed as counterweights to Chinese influence, will remain.
While Australian voters have shown themselves hungrier for action on climate change, women’s issues and good governance than the Morrison government credited them for, the election also reconfirmed the obsolescence of immigration as a political issue for the electoral mainstream. Despite worries about a COVID-19-induced turn inwards, immigration control was a non-issue throughout the campaign, and even a last-minute attempt by the former government to exploit the arrival of an asylum seeker boat from Sri Lanka fell flat. Meanwhile, there was a record number of successful candidates from ethnic minority backgrounds.
The election result opens the door to a policy agenda attuned to the values and priorities of the Australian mainstream — luckily for Australia’s international partners, these include an openness to trade and migration, a desire for balance between Australia’s traditional Western alliances and its need for greater integration with Asia, and now more than ever a commitment to Australia finally pulling its weight in tackling the climate crisis.
The EAF Editorial Board is located in the Crawford School of Public Policy, College of Asia and the Pacific, The Australian National University.
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