Rarely in Australian history has a ruling party suffered such a loss to an opponent unable to claim complete victory. It spoke volumes about the disillusionment and sheer disgust of this nebulous center of the country’s politics. This center roared on May 21, devouring members of the incumbent government and inflicting a bloody toll.
This calculation was made in traditional downtown seats that have never known anyone but Conservative members. It was part of a ‘teal’ electoral tsunami, including candidates who might not necessarily want to vote Labor or the Greens, but who had found Scott Morrison’s Liberal-National government impossible to digest on issues ranging from gender equality to climate change. .
Burst into Goldstein’s seat in Melbourne, held by the Liberal Party’s Tim Wilson, former ABC journalist Zoe Wilson. It was a most fitting demonstration: the electorate is named after Vera Goldstein, a feminist and women’s rights activist who, in 1903, was the first woman to stand for election to a national parliament. “She ran as an independent multiple times,” Wilson said in a telling recall, “because she was so independent she couldn’t bring herself to run for any of the major parties.”
In the same town, Treasurer Josh Frydenberg was overwhelmed by Dr. Monique Ryan in Kooyong. (Mail-in votes are currently being counted, but it doesn’t seem likely that Ryan will lose.) This loss for the Liberals will be keenly felt, given Frydenberg’s leadership aspirations.
History repeated itself in Sydney, with the same narrative pointed like a dagger at the Morrison government: you fossil fuel devotees laughed at climate change, ignored gender equality and laughed at the fight against corruption in federal politics. Wentworth went to businesswoman Allegra Spender, who during her campaign had managed to muster an army of 1,200 volunteers.
Spender’s team, made up of a number of business leaders, many of them women, is a telling sign that movements can take root in the arid soil of caution that is Australian politics. “You said you were standing up for the community, not the party,” she told her followers, “for taking responsibility, not for blaming, for compassion, not for division and for the future, not for the past”.
At the North Sydney seat, held by mild-mannered Liberal Trent Zimmerman, a victorious Kylea Tink reiterated the laundry list issues that had driven the Teal Revolution. “Most things for me,” she said Crikey“are climate action, integrity and the fight against inequality”.
The victory of the various independents was the Liberal Party’s version of the Trojan horse, a version that had ended up parked in their heartland seats and released on election night. It was a triumph of community organizing, not rusty partisan politics, despite Wilson’s rants about sinister external forces at work. It was the apotheosis of a movement that began with Cathy McGowan, the Victorian independent who won the rural Indi seat in 2013.
It was also an election that received the highest number of Green votes ever. Queensland, almost always the deciding state, could well provide two or even three Green members in the House of Representatives. Greens leader Adam Bandt attributed this a lot to the turbulent and vicious weather of late. “We just had three years of drought, then fires, then floods, then floods again, and people can see that happening.”
Remarkably for the group, they managed to win Ryan’s seat held by the Liberals in the process. They are also on the hunt for the Labor seat of Macnamara in Melbourne. “We are now on the planet Greensland,” exclaimed Greens candidate Elizabeth Watson-Brown as she realized her triumph at Ryan, “and we are moving forward.”
While the Labor opposition has good reason to encourage the prospect of forming a government nearly a decade from now, other facts are impossible to ignore. The Greens continued their now-established historic trend of eating away at the Labor vote in inner suburbs, notably in Queensland.
In several states, the party actually suffered, alongside the Liberal National Coalition, a precipitous drop in the primary vote. Forming a government with such a low primary yield is staggering and speaks volumes about the loss of appeal of established parties. “It would be an unusual victory for Labour,” noted a sour editorial in the Australian Financial Review, “without great political ambitions or radical difference with the coalition government in place”. Only Western Australia, anxious to punish the Morrison government, stopped this trend and could end up giving the majority to Anthony Albanese.
The job also spoiled the previously securely held seat of Fowler in Sydney’s south-west, where Kristina Keneally, who had only lived in the Electorate for a brief period, missed out on local independent Dai The. Labor’s nearly 18% gap shows that Keneally, when she does suffer defeat, does so catastrophically. The story of this debacle is also salutary for big parties that parachute heavyweight politicians into seats as part of party and personal ambition, rather than in the interests of voters.
While the bruised LNP licks its wounds and laments its ignorance of the grassroots movement that has gathered pace under its nose, Australia’s major parties will have to take into account a new phenomenon: the parliamentarian without a career, the one who enters parliament, not by party and faction allegiance, but for voter representation and change. For the Westminster model of government, this is indeed a startling novelty.