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A Bloody Poor Comparison: Pundits Are Getting the Australian Election Wrong

A few weeks ago in Australia, the right-leaning Liberal-National Coalition, led by Scott Morrison, won a surprise victory over the Labor Party. A surprise because no one expected the Liberals to win. Internally, the party has gone through three prime ministers in three years and lost key members in the past few months. Politically, the Liberals seemed to be on the wrong side of social issues like race and gay marriage while refusing to aggressively combat climate change. Additionally, Australia’s 28-year economic growth streak seems imperiled amidst fears of a “stuttering economy.” On the other side, Labor and its leader, Bill Shorten, offered a new plan to combat climate change, raise taxes, and increase the government’s responsibilities.

The numbers didn’t lie either. Since the 2016 election, Labor led in sixty successive polls; even exit polls showed Labor securing 82 of the 151 seats in Parliament. Based on these indicators, the Washington Post felt confident enough to predict that Labor “will handily defeat the Liberal-National party coalition.”


In short, a left-leaning party lost an “unlosable” election that everyone thought it would win. Sound familiar? The few American pundits who study Australian politics compared the upset to Brexit and the election of Donald Trump. Even Trump called Morrison to congratulate him and compare their electoral successes.

Amalgamating these unexpected right-leaning triumphs, commentators concluded that Australians voted against “massive spending on climate change.” They then offered a prudent warning to liberals around the world. According to the New York Times, “left-leaning candidates” should “avoid making climate [change] a campaign issue.” Others criticized the “bold” Labor agenda and encouraged American Democrats not to “scare swing voters with a platform that’s too left-wing.”

The analogy and the advice are bad. The only similarity between the 2019 Australian election and the 2016 U.S. presidential election is erroneous polling. Plus, Labor didn’t lose because it wanted to stop climate change. American pundits have tried to generalize all conservative upsets in Western democracies, instead of understanding the nuances of Australian politics. But if they did, they would better apprehend the results and the implications for the United States.

The best comparison for this Australian election is another Australian election: the famed “unlosable election” of 1993, except the parties were reversed. For ten years, Australia had been governed by Labor under Bob Hawke and, then, Paul Keating. Going into 1993, Keating was destined to lose. Unemployment peaked at eleven percent, the deficit rose to $5 billion, and Keating’s approval ratings hovered around a dismal twenty percent. To ensure victory, Liberal leader John Hewson released a wide-ranging, ambitious, 650-page economic policy program catchily known as “Fightback!” The program, however, advanced too many neo-liberal initiatives. Besides pushing for tax cuts and a reduction in government expenditures, it also promoted a fifteen percent Goods and Services Tax (GST). To defeat the Liberal Party, Hewson, and his “Fightback!” program, Keating labeled Hewson a “feral abacus,” an adding machine out of touch with the people. Even though the voters were furious over Labor’s “handling of the economy,” Keating still won this election by lobbing “fierce criticism” against Hewson’s GST tax. More importantly, according to the New York Times in 1993, voters “rejected radical change in favor of the slow economic recovery Mr. Keating insists is under way.” The Liberals lost the “unlosable” 1993 election because their program tried to accomplish too much in a country known for moderation. It also lost because its program hurt the average Aussie wallet. Most citizens would not willingly vote to increase their own taxes.

These parallels persisted in 2019. Bill Shorten’s Labor proposed a party platform as sweeping and revolutionary as “Fightback!” The program would start by increasing income taxes on households making more than $124,000 annually. It also wanted to increase the capital gains tax, which would “raise costs and reduce returns for business” in a broad effort to combat climate change. As with 1993, climate change was not the issue. Selling the voters on a convoluted program that raised taxes was the problem. As the American Spectator explains, “given a choice between expensive utopian schemes and creating an economy that will permit them to provide for their families, most people (including Aussies) will vote for the latter.”

So, if Democrats or any left-leaning parties, want any lessons from Australia, here it is: streamline your policy proposals (don’t try to offer too much too fast) and offer policies that don’t directly harm the voter (i.e. raising taxes). Combatting climate change is fine, just don’t make the voter solely responsible for footing the bill. Don’t attempt to curb global warming by raising “the energy bills of hard-pressed blue collar” workers like the Labor Party did. Instead, sponsor “carbon dividends,” not a “carbon tax,” where states hand revenues directly to the citizens—as Canada’s British Columbia has done since 2008. Next, retrain workers in the fossil fuels industry for jobs in the renewable sectors. Kentucky launched the “coal to code” project, which helps teach former miners how to code. Dampen fears of renewable energy by taking care of fossil fuel’s benefactors. Lastly, stop talking about climate change’s impact on the ice caps in 2040—voters are self-interested. They might not be alive in 2040, and they surely won’t be living in the South Pole. In the U.S., underscore that every ton of CO2 the U.S. emits costs $46. Starting now, the U.S. will lose 10 percent of its GDP within this century if steps aren’t taken to curb climate change.

Scott Morison’s unexpected success does not mean Trump will inevitably win in 2020 or that Democrats should stop talking about climate change. Based on previous “unlosable” elections, all it means is that left-leaning candidates should devise a climate change policy that does not increase taxes on the voter but rather bolsters the voters’ own economic self-interest.