While ordinary Australians were worrying about — or taking schadenfreude from — the growing viral outbreak in Victoria last week, the political class stopped to engage in some tea leaf-reading about a by-election in rural NSW.
Eden-Monaro ended up being won — to the chagrin of many in the press gallery and News Corp — by Labor’s Kristy McBain over Liberal climate denialist Fiona Kotvojs, in what was billed as a test for Labor leader Anthony Albanese.
Having passed that test, Albanese will have others set by political journalists. Like Julia Gillard, who was forever facing “tests” and entering “crucial periods”, there’ll always be another hurdle he’ll have to clear.
The usual byelection spin was applied by participants on all sides and the media. According to News Corp, Scott Morrison was the winner, even if that victory annoyingly changed from an actual one in which the Liberals took the seat, to a moral one because Labor should have won handily, or that John Barilaro ruined things.
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Only a few — including William Bowe — bothered to point out the rather banal truth: there was less to the result than met the eye.
Labor lost the personal vote of a popular incumbent, Mike Kelly, whose resignation sent voters to the polls during a pandemic, but hung onto the seat by losing only a 2PP swing of around half a per cent, despite the government’s relative success in leading a pandemic response and despite pork-barrelling the electorate, including via defence spending.
Journalists love to link changes in voting intention to the political events they so assiduously cover, partly because it justifies their jobs — why bother covering what’s happening in Canberra if no one actually cares?
In reality, most voters pay little attention to what’s happening in politics, and what attention they do pay is reducing along with mainstream media audiences. Only major events — leaderships spills — or a crisis like the pandemic engage them.
A result like Eden-Monaro suggests that even a major crisis may not produce significant shifts in voting intention, especially if it’s an external event handled competently.
The last major crisis, 12 years ago, proved a difficult time for incumbent governments — few that were in office during the financial crisis survived. Helen Clark lost in New Zealand in 2008; the Republicans lost the White House in November that year; the LDP lost office in Japan for the first time since WW2. In 2011, Fianna Fáil suffered with worst electoral defeat in Irish history. Gordon Brown lost in 2010, Nicolas Sarkozy in 2012.
Here, the Gillard government barely scraped back into office, although much of that had to do with Labor’s tearing down of Kevin Rudd and Rudd’s subsequent sabotage of Gillard.
But academic work examining a large number of election results in Europe in the years after the financial crisis suggests that while voters punished governments for economic failure, they tended to punish governments significantly more if they were perceived as having failed to deal effectively with the crisis, or to have contributed to the financial crisis themselves (as in Ireland).
It also led to a significant drift away from mainstream parties to both the far left and far right. But governments that also quickly embraced austerity in the aftermath of the crisis also faced electoral punishment and protest movements.
If that holds true for Australian voters, it will be the government’s coming reaction to the recession that shapes how people vote, not that it competently handled an externally imposed crisis like the pandemic.
A perception that the government is contributing to, or failing to address, high unemployment and lack of growth, is likely to count for more than how successfully we flattened the curve — or whether Scott Morrison went to the footy, or took a holiday, both of which he was perfectly entitled to do, but which have been seized on recently by Morrison-haters on social media.
In short, while the government has got off to a good start in supporting the economy, it’s what happens once the immediate crisis is over that will shape the next election.
As those academic studies noted about European voters, the financial crisis — far more severe in its economic impacts than here — and governments’ response to it also drove a shift of voters away from mainstream parties.
The consequences of that shift are still being felt today in Brexit, the rise of right-wing parties in Europe and, arguably, the election of Trump in the US as well.
Australia has seen something similar despite the absence of a savage recession: in 2007, 85% of votes were cast in the federal election for major parties; last year, it was less than 75%.
That has seen — despite attempts to reduce the electoral chances of minor parties in the Senate, the Greens entrenched as the third largest party in that chamber, and One Nation return to take up a permanent place there as well, not to mention Clive Palmer using his wealth to direct primary votes away from Labor.
That’s been accompanied by a significant rise in distrust of our political system overall.
The experience of the last decade suggests that, unless it succeeds in managing the economic impacts of the pandemic that are still developing, Australia will see a further flight to minor parties.
Governments’ competent handling of the pandemic so far has partly restored flagging trust in politics. But it’s the handling of the recession that will determine if that restoration is to be anything other than temporary.