When was the last time you could genuinely say that you observed a “miracle”?
The word describes an event that has been touched by some form of magic, religious or otherwise. It perfectly describes a situation where something irrationally positive occurs, something that cannot be logically processed or that seemingly transcends logic and the rules of natural law. When Josh Frydenberg revealed that his Prime Minister was praying for a miracle on election eve, and Scott Morrison evoked the same word in claiming victory in the Wentworth Hotel’s headlights the following night, it betrayed the truth: this was not an outcome that the Coalition was expecting. Time to slap that Jesus fish on the back window of the Prime Ministerial comcar, if it wasn’t there already. Sometimes, magic does happen.
A miraculous victory for one party in a contest implies a freakish or unnatural defeat for the rest. Such a defeat is difficult to process, and it is tempting to reach for those retrospectively obvious conclusions that were so obvious that they went completely undetected prior to the election. Quite literally years worth of polling suggested a Labor victory on Saturday evening. The betting markets suggested a crushing Labor victory on Saturday evening. The Opposition Leader, Bill Shorten, was widely judged to have been the winner, or at least to have held his own, in the campaign’s three televised election debates. For crying out loud, a much-respected and widely-loved (exceedingly rare qualities for a former Australian politician) party legend passed away in the last days of the election campaign, appealing to the sentimentality of voters. The scene was set perfectly for a passing of the baton that had been anticipated by the political class and the media for what seems like an age.
Even with the fairy dust still fluttering from the rafters and settling on the floor of the Wentworth Hotel’s ballroom, there is a natural urge – a need – to rationalise what happened and to try to explain who dropped that baton and how it was dropped. Arthur C. Clarke’s Third Law spoke of technology, but it applies equally to the “miracle” we have just witnessed: any sufficiently complex event is indistinguishable from magic. A federal election with 16.4 million enrolled voters at different stages of their lives, with different political beliefs, and different interpretations of the individual policies put forward by Labor, is a fucking complex event. The media and commentariat do their darnedest to give us all answers, but they do not have the answers. The data is not there, nobody has that data and it is unlikely that anybody ever will. All the media have to guide us are their opinions, anecdotes, simplifications, internal party leaks often with their own agendas, and strict time and/or word limits in getting their work published.
If the exact reasons for the election result will perhaps remain unknowable, there are still some fundamentals to be aired. Let the therapy begin.
Labor was very unsuccessful in convincing non-Labor voters in Queensland and Tasmania and fairly unsuccessful in convincing non-Labor voters in New South Wales about its policy program
Non-Labor voters in Queensland roundly rejected the proposition of a Shorten Labor Government; the only seats in that state set to change hands at the election are likely to be a couple of Labor seats lost to the Liberal National Party (Herbert and Longman). One Nation and Clive Palmer’s megabucks played a role, but should not be wielded as an excuse. If Labor was so reliant on making gains in Queensland, what was the compelling vision that Labor was offering ordinary Queenslanders in this campaign? Or expanding the point, ordinary outer-suburban voters? Honestly, I couldn’t tell you. If I tried, I would be describing a grab-bag of things that don’t necessarily add up to a convincing whole, especially when hedged in voter’s minds against the so-called ‘retiree tax’ and ‘inheritance tax’ phantoms evoked by the Coalition.
The paltry gain of Gilmore in New South Wales was cancelled out by the predictable loss of Lindsay following the mishandling of the Emma Husar saga. Tasmania looks set to contribute two crucial seats to the Coalition’s tally in the House of Representatives, making Scott Morrison’s historic decision to fly there on election day look inspired. In these three states, in particular, the results indicate a complete absence of a clamouring for change by non-Labor voters.
Bill Shorten had a go and he had to go
The broad consensus was that Bill Shorten personally grew into the role he sought during the campaign, despite fundamentally lacking popularity with much of the electorate. He won or at least drew even with the Prime Minister in the three election debates, and as the figurehead of an ambitious, controversial policy program, he did a fairly credible job of rebutting criticism. Shorten’s performance was reminiscent of Kim Beazley’s performance in 1999 and Ed Miliband in the UK in 2015. For Labor or Labour supporters, there is a clear sense of the alternate timeline governments that might have been.
With this result, however, it is also fair to say that Bill Shorten has exhausted his potential as leader. Two bites at the cherry should have been enough; he made an essential choice in stepping down from the leadership on Saturday night.
Current polling methods and (as a result) betting markets are bunkum
It should not be possible, all things being equal, for an Opposition which has won effectively every poll for years – including exit polls and several not too long ago by a landslide margin – to lose the one poll that matters. The current machinery of polling, brutally aggregating across geographies, has generated a margin of error that far exceeds the true split between the parties, rendering completely misleading numbers. We live today in a largely landline-free world where for many, the default cadence is to hang up on cold calls or to not necessarily answer the phone at all. Changes are needed.
A special mention goes to Sportsbet, who paid out $1.3 million dollars on a Labor victory days before the election, in addition to the millions of dollars it likely paid out on the Coalition winning.
In fairness, it is unreasonable to expect betting operators or gamblers to anticipate Scott Morrison’s Queensland ‘miracle’, when quite literally nobody else seriously did. If there is any consolation here at all for Labor, it is that ‘magic’ can indeed be summoned from polling dust; miracles can happen, but only if the party successfully appeals to enough of the right people in the right electorates. It is that simple, and that complicated.