Circle of political life turns Canberra upside down

Federal election 2022

After the concession and victory speeches were made in the sleepless small hours of Sunday morning, a line from The Journey of the Magi worried away in my head: “Were we led all that way for birth or death?”

T.S. Eliot continues: “I had seen birth and death but thought that they were different; this birth was hard and bitter agony for us, like death, our death.”

Prime Minister Anthony Albanese and his predecessor, Scott Morrison.Credit:Janie Barrett, James Brickwood

The birth of this new politics is a hard and bitter agony for the old dispensations. It may well be a very good thing but it is too soon to tell.

On Saturday, one era ended and a new one began. The change had been a long time in the making, as people have been drifting from the major parties for over a decade. It was an era of climate wars, of disposable leadership, of an in-bred political class that, too often, rewarded sharp lines and sharp practise over substance. Saturday was a repudiation of politics as usual. That alone is a good thing.

There was birth in the rise of the well-organised and well-heeled teal independents, the giant killers of moderate Liberals in city seats. The test of them will be how they act, not what they say.

And there was rebirth, as the Greens finally delivered on the big claims they make before every election.

Adam Bandt has led the Greens to their best ever federal election result.Credit:Getty

The hard and bitter agony of this new era is shared among the major parties, but not evenly.

Anthony Albanese deserves his place in Labor’s pantheon of heroes because any win from opposition is a mighty feat. His life story is an inspiration, and he has shown he understands the exhaustion with the politics of division. He says he wants to end that and unite the country, and it is in Australia’s interest that he succeeds.

Labor should eke its way to majority government, but hard heads would be deeply disturbed that, in victory, its primary vote dipped below 33 per cent, the worst result since 1931. The loss of Fowler to an independent was a massive own goal, the loss to the Greens is troubling and the continued decline of its vote in outer suburban seats is the biggest worry of all.

The smallness of Albanese’s campaign meant that although he successfully made the case for change he did not entirely seal the deal on changing to Labor. Guilty of fighting the last war, the failure to be more ambitious on climate ceded that ground to Greens and independents and both reaped the rewards of Labor’s two-year long, bare-knuckle assault on the character of Scott Morrison.

Peter Dutton will most likely succeed Scott Morrison as leader of the Liberal Party.Credit:Alex Ellinghausen

The only comfort for the government is that the opposition’s troubles are far worse. The Coalition’s primary vote dropped like a stone, from above 41 per cent to below 36, the worst result for the conservative forces since Federation.

But the biggest loser is not the Coalition because the National Party held its ground. It is more personal and more particular than that; this loss is owned by Morrison and the Liberal Party. Labor got what it wanted, a referendum on the former prime minister, and the result was a complete repudiation of him that led to an evisceration of the party of Menzies. The Liberals have so far lost 17 seats and gained back just one, Craig Kelly’s former seat of Hughes. More should fall.

Some suggest that the remaining Liberals should now tilt left. This seems unlikely because the independents just purged the party of moderates and the progressive side of politics is hitting saturation level. The Liberals can’t compete with the “Starbucks” choice now on offer, and heading further left only opens opportunity for trouble on the right.

So, the most likely path for the Liberals is to pitch right under former defence minister Peter Dutton. Then the party might abandon the idea of trying to win back the inner city and set its sights on the vast swathe of Labor seats in the outer suburbs of Sydney and Melbourne.

The Coalition, One Nation and United Australia Party primary vote at the election tallies to 44.6 per cent, and if some, or all, of it could be gathered in the one tent then it becomes a formidable force. And this will be a difficult time to govern. Labor is inheriting the most challenging economic times since the 1970s and the most disturbing strategic era since the Second World War.

Dutton will be a dangerous opposition leader and Labor has set the bar for government absurdly high in some of its assaults on Morrison during the pandemic and the floods. It also suggests it can get wages rising faster than inflation and that power prices will fall. It’s likely that neither of these things will happen. And when the cost of living really bites it will fall hardest in the suburbs that Labor now dominates.

Albanese found the campaign challenging. The really hard part starts now.

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