Unexpectedly triumphant in Australia’s federal election, Scott Morrison must now find the formula for winning at government.

By David Walker


Posted on May 20, 2019

After perhaps the greatest comeback win in Australia’s national political history, Prime Minister Scott Morrison starts work this week on building a three-year team and extending his country’s 27-year economic expansion.

Morrison won victory for his Liberal-National Coalition in part by promising to keep the economy growing. But the Reserve Bank of Australia has lowered its growth predictions for the second time in six months. And key government ministers appear either temporary or under a cloud.

Close to the edge

By defying expectations, Morrison has suddenly garnered great authority within the Coalition, as Liberal Party veteran Senator Arthur Sinodinos noted on Saturday night. Senator Sinodinos said he would tell the PM: “You are a Liberal hero – they will follow you.” He also said Morrison “can’t sit still” and will be eager to make his mark.

Morrison may still govern on a knife-edge. Seventy-five seats have so far been called for the Coalition. On Australian Electoral Commission figures, if all of Sunday’s leads hold then the Coalition would have 77 seats. That would be a workable majority in the 150-strong House of Representatives, where Australian governments are formed. Labor would have 65 and independents and minor parties six. But counting is not yet complete.

As ABC election analyst Antony Green noted on Saturday, the numbers have changed little from the 2016 election.
What changed were expectations, Green said; the Coalition was expected to lose.

Minority or near-minority government can quickly make an administration look messy. Labor prime minister Julia Gillard found this out after the 2010 election. A razor-thin majority in the previous House of Representatives drove Morrison to sharply reduce parliamentary sitting days in the months before the election.

Safer incumbency

However, the election has also removed one of Morrison’s greatest potential sources of instability, Tony Abbott. The former prime minister, a climate change sceptic, was beaten in his Sydney seat of Warringah by barrister and former Olympic skier Zali Steggall, a supporter of strong action on climate change. Steggall has signalled she would support the Coalition as government if required, as would Queensland’s Bob Katter.

Liberal Party rule changes before the election have also made it far harder to challenge a sitting Liberal prime minister the way former prime minister Malcolm Turnbull was successfully challenged last year.

Economics

The IMF forecasts just 2.1% economic growth for Australia this year. The Reserve is a little more optimistic, at 2.6%, but is still seen as likely to cut rates soon; inflation is just 1.3%, below the Reserve’s 2–3% target band.

Growth is slowing in China, Australia’s most important external market, and wages in Australia have also stayed low, rising just 2.3% in the latest 12-month period.

Housing markets are clearly falling and household lending is also in decline, constraining retail sales growth.
Tax cuts, promised by the government for 1 July, may end up being well timed to stimulate the economy.

Senator Sinodinos hinted that the government might rethink its climate change approach, an idea also aired by the retiring Julie Bishop. But Morrison’s treasurer, Josh Frydenberg, was adamant yesterday that the policy taken to the election would be implemented.

Cabinet changes

Frydenberg and the finance minister, Mathias Cormann, are considered among the government’s greatest assets. Outside the economic portfolios, there is much greater uncertainty.

The position of leader of the government in the House (of Representatives) has fallen vacant with the retirement of long-time minister Christopher Pyne; the current attorney-general, WA’s Christian Porter, is seen as a likely replacement.

Defence minister Marise Payne stepped into the job of foreign minister with the resignation of Julie Bishop from the job last year. But it’s not clear she will keep the prestigious post, which could go to Cormann, current trade minister Simon Birmingham or another minister.

The ‘invisibility’ of the environment minister, Melissa Price, during the campaign made her a figure of ridicule, and she is considered likely to be replaced.

Meanwhile, Labor also has changes to make. Opposition Leader Bill Shorten stepped down on Saturday night but is reportedly backing current deputy Tanya Plibersek for the job against shadow infrastructure minister Anthony Albanese. Both are from Labor’s left.

It won’t be populism

The New York Times described Morrison’s win as the latest instalment in “a global wave of populist fervor”. But Morrison does not meet normal descriptions of a populist: he seeks a balanced budget, rejects classic populist policies like protectionism, and does not make the usual populist contrasts between “the people” and “the elite”.

The result appears as a conventional election win by a right-wing political party which, partly because of recent disruptions, chose to centre its campaign on its leader. The leader cannot, however, carry the government through the next three years.