It’s become customary in Australian politics to define some subset of the population as “real Australians” whose views and concerns deserve special attention. In the wake of the election outcome, I wrote a somewhat tongue-in-cheek piece for Crikey, imagining how this frame might be applied to metropolitan Australians. It’s over the fold
Contempt for metropolitan Australians a dangerous move for political parties
While both major parties treated urban Australians with a degree of disdain, it was the conservatives who paid the highest price for it this time around.
Comparing the discussion of the 2022 election with previous post-mortems, one standard element is notable in its absence. The discussion has focused on the loss of the Liberal heartland, the concerns of women voters and the fact that climate policy mattered after all; what is missing is the ritual anointing of one group of voters (rural and regional Australians, people of faith, the residents of Western Sydney and so on) as the “real Australians” who have received inadequate respect from the political class and whose concerns must be attended to.
A look at the post-election map suggests that this year’s candidate group may be called “metropolitan Australians” — that is, residents of Australia’s state and territory capital cities. On current indications, the Liberal Party could hold as few as 10 to 12 metropolitan seats, less than the combined total of Greens and urban independents.
It is easy to imagine the kind of thing that might be written about these electorates if their inhabitants were seen as “real Australians”:
Metropolitan Australians are sick of being scorned and derided for everything from their coffee preferences to their over-education. Their concern about climate change is routinely mocked as a religious orthodoxy, often by commentators who claim to be concerned about religious freedom for “people of faith”. Although their income taxes and GST supply the great majority of government revenue, they are regularly treated as parasites living off the relatively modest amounts paid by mining companies in royalties and company taxes. While the struggles of other Australians are treated sympathetically, young metropolitans, unable to enter the housing market, are blamed for spending their money on smashed avocado — or just for not having parents wealthy enough to support them.
While both major parties have treated metropolitan Australians with disdain, the conservatives have been far worse, and have paid a higher price. When then deputy prime minister Michael McCormack described millions of hardworking metropolitans as “woke, inner-city greenies”, no one batted an eye. By contrast, the use of terms like “redneck” and “bogan” for rural and regional Australians has resulted in instant cancellation; indeed, Anthony Albanese was criticised on the basis that random residents of his electorate had used them.
On Saturday, however, metropolitan Australians found their voice. They are sick of being put down and ignored by the elite rural and regional minority who have held an unfair share of political power, and they are not going to take it any more.
Of course, this kind of thing is just as nonsensical as any attempt to divide us into “real Australians” and “the rest”. But if the Liberal Party ignores the results of the election or, worse still, follows the lead of Barnaby Joyce and the National Party in denouncing city-dwellers, they will face immense difficulties.
Historically, independents and Greens have found it hard to get into Parliament. But once elected, their major party opponents have found them hard to remove. Indeed, no Green candidate elected in a general state or federal election has subsequently been defeated (some byelection winners have lost their seats at the next general election). Independents have also held office for long periods.
Given this knowledge, the Liberal Party might decide to give up on winning back the seats of Greens and independents and focus on its conservative base in the hope that the inevitable difficulties of government will produce a swing away from Labor. But this would be a desperate strategy. Based on results so far, achieving a Liberal majority solely by winning seats now held by Labor would require a two-party-preferred vote of 54-46 — that is, a swing of 6%. In recent history, only the 1996 and 2007 elections have come close to this.
The Liberals could form a minority government with a smaller swing. But unless they came very close to an outright majority, they would be forced to deal with the same metropolitan independents they have treated with contempt so far.
The alternative strategy — of breaking the coalition with the Nationals and trying to regain the ground they have lost in metropolitan Australia — is the more promising in theory. But the handful of remaining metropolitan Liberals are a minority in their own partyroom. In any case, most are outer-suburban conservatives, more attuned to their regional neighbours than to the urban majority.
We are unlikely to see the “metropolitan Australians” trope in our political commentary. But in a country as urbanised as Australia, and with traditional party allegiances breaking down, it is the big cities where future elections will mostly be decided.
As the polls closed on Saturday night, most election commentary focused on the dispiriting campaign where both major parties avoided any substantial division on policy issues and instead focused on negatively framing the opposing leader.
Even to many seasoned political minds, the most likely outcome seemed to be a reversal of the last parliament, with Labor winning enough seats to form a narrow majority, and one or two more seats falling to independents. As we all now know, the outcome was utterly different. The Liberals lost many of their crown jewels to climate challengers – teal independents and the Greens.
This means the new Labor government now has a different challenge on climate. Rather than trying to keep check on concessions to the cross-bench, Labor must now find ways to pursue more ambitious climate policies. Labor can’t pull the most effective lever available – a carbon price – after the Liberals successfully poisoned the well. But there are other ways to accelerate Australia’s shift to cleaner and greener, such as through public investment in large-scale solar and wind.
The next three years will be challenging economically and politically. But the transformation wrought by the election has opened up the possibility of a similar transformation of climate policy. With bold action, a bright future awaits.
Climate proved critical
Labor’s path to victory was unusual. The party taking government will do so despite its primary vote slumping to a postwar low, far below the level of routs seen in 1996 and 1975.
Outside Western Australia (where the result was driven largely by the success of the McGowan government’s Covid policy), Labor barely moved the dial. So far Labor has taken five seats from the Liberals (with some Labor-held seats still in doubt) while losing Fowler to an independent and Griffith to the Greens.
The big shock in this election was the loss of a string of formerly safe Liberal seats to Greens and “teal” independents. All of these candidates campaigned primarily on climate change, an issue the major parties, and most of the mainstream media had agreed should be put to one side as too dangerous and divisive.
During the campaign, the possibility of a hung parliament drew attention. In response, both major parties vowed (not very credibly) that they would never do a deal with Greens or independents to secure office. Realistically, it seemed possible that Labor might offer a slightly more ambitious program on climate policy in order to make minority government easier.
In retrospect, it’s clear that this type of analysis assumed Australia’s long-standing political pattern would continue: a two-party system, with a handful of cross-benchers occasionally playing the role of kingmaker. All of the media commentary leading up to the election took this for granted. The “teal” independents were seen as a possible threat to two or three urban Liberals and the Greens were, for all practical purposes, ignored.
What we have instead is a shock to this system. Australia now has a radically changed political scene in which the assumptions of the two-party system no longer apply. Even if Labor scrapes in with a majority, it is unlikely to be sustained at the next election, given the challenging economic circumstances the incoming government will face. As for the LNP, unless they can regain some of the seats lost to independents and Greens, they have almost no chance of forming a majority government at the next election, even with a big win over Labor in traditionally competitive seats.
Adapting to political change
Labor’s challenge now is to adapt to this new world. They will have to find ways of delivering what the electorate clearly wants on climate, after ruling out most of the obvious options in the course of the campaign. The new leader of the LNP will have the unenviable task of winning back lost Liberal heartlands while placating a party room dominated by climate denialists and coal fans.
Having ruled out a carbon price, Labor will need to be much more aggressive with the safeguard mechanism it inherits from the LNP. By itself, this won’t be nearly enough.
The real need is to promote rapid growth in large-scale solar and wind energy, and to push much harder on the transition to to electric vehicles. Some of this could be done through direct public investment, on the model of Queensland’s CleanCo, or through expanded use of concessional finance using the Clean Energy Finance Corporation and the new Rewiring the Nation Corporation. The great political appeal of this approach is that all of these agencies are off-budget and therefore won’t count in measures of public debt, which is bound to grow in coming years due to pandemic spending.
Democracy, however imperfect, works through the possibility of renewal and change. What this election has shown us that the political system can change. Now comes the task of applying politics – the art of the possible – to the challenge of switching our energy systems from fossil fuels to clean power. It’s our best chance yet.
Of the 50-odd nuclear plants currently under construction, around 1 in 3 are Russian VVER designs, being built by Rosatom. Sanctions on the supply of all kinds of electronics mean that few of these will be completed on time, if ever. in promoting sales, Russia has relied heavily on concessional financing through Sberbank, which is also sanctioned. That’s going to make future sales just about impossible, and create big difficulties in fulfilling existing commitments.
With the exception of the EPR money-pit, the only remaining large reactor design still in the market is China’s Hualong One. Given the experience with Russia, buyers outside China may well be cautious about this option.
So, if there is any chance for new nuclear, it rests with Small Modular Reactors, none of which actually exist (there are small reactors, but they aren’t modular, that is, mass-produced).
At the end of The Thirty-Nine Steps (the John Buchan novel that largely created the spy thriller genre), the hero is about to give the signal for arrest of a ring of German spies. But their pose as ordinary middle class Englishmen is so convincing that they persuade him to join them as a fourth for bridge. Fortunately, a sudden movement alerts him to their true identity and he comes to his senses, blowing his whistle to call in the waiting police.
I’m reminded of this whenever I look at the political scene in the United States. The Republicans have made it obvious that if the votes in the 2024 election go the wrong way for them, the result will be overturned and their candidate (most likely Trump) will be installed. If they win under the existing rules, they will change them to ensure that no Democrat is ever elected again. Yet everyone is pretending that the situation is normal, trying to work out whether (for example) Roe v Wade is a trump card, and if so, who holds it.
The obvious question is: who, if anyone, will blow the whistle? Unfortunately, if there ever was a moment to do it, that moment has passed. Perhaps Biden should have invoked the Insurrection Act immediately after taking office, and arrested Trump and the Republicans who voted to overturn the election. But that was never going to happen, and would have failed in any case.
Nothing is forever. That includes democratic governments and the autocracies that have so often replaced them, only to fail in their turn. At some point, the whistle will be blown, but that point could be a long way off.
Meanwhile, there’s time to take a few more tricks before the game is called off.