Personally, I can’t stand Australians. I mean, Kylie is lovely, and I was very sad to see Shane Warne die. But I had one once as an exchange student for three weeks, and he was one of the most genuinely unlikable people I have ever met. He confirmed, in my mind, that Aussies are uniformly arrogant, self-obsessed, and unworthy of being in Eurovision.
Not that I’m still bitter about the Ashes or anything.
Nevertheless, my political antennae have been turned towards the Antipodes over the last couple of days via the Australian federal election. Bad news for our sister parties in the Liberal-National Coalition. Scott Morrison, erstwhile tourist board rep and Aussie Prime Minister, lost power to the Labor party under Anthony Albanese, who look set to take power in a minority government.
Since no foreign election can be allowed to go past without commentators immediately using it to confirm all their pre-existing theories and prejudices, it falls upon me to say that this defeat leaves the United Kingdom as the only country in the Anglosphere with a centre-right government.
Not so long ago, ConHome was celebrating that our cousins in Canada, New Zealand, and Australia mirrored us in being led by broadly similar stalwarts of the centre-right. Whether Stephen Harper in Ottawa, John Key in Wellington, or Tony Abbott in Canberra, the consensus was for free-markets and spending control from the Rockies to the Outback, and via David Cameron’s Downing Street. Post-2008, Tories were de rigeur amongst the English-Speaking Peoples.
And yet now we see a sea of red across our former Dominions, punctured only by the dark hue of Justin Trudeau’s latest attempt at Blackface. The simpering posterboy for international wokery took power in 2015, followed by Guardian golden gal Jacinda Ardern in 2017, and now Albanese. One shudders to remember that we almost joined them with Jeremy Corbyn only five short years ago.
Looked at together, the narrative writes itself. The Great Recession in 2008 sobered up the sensible folk of the Anglosphere from the free-spending lefties they had tolerated when times were good. So they voted blue. But years of tough Tory medicine have ground them down, and the comforts of the left seem attractive again – the ice cream after the tonsils are removed.
However, like any simple explanation, this ignores much essential info. For one thing, the Conservatives took power in Canada in 2006, and not with a majority until 2011, whereas the Liberal-National Coalition only took power Down Under in 2013. That was after losing it in 2007 under John Howard. We know from the Coalition’s own experience that changes in government not because of some newfound enthusiasm for Milton Friedman, but because of economic turbulence and unpopular incumbents.
Moreover, the centre-right only lost power in New Zealand in 2017 because of a deal between Saint Ardern and the Kiwi cousins UKIP and the Greens. The Nationals remained the largest party, with a larger vote share than Johnson managed in 2019. Meanwhile, Albanese looks set to come to power on only 33 percent of the vote, and Trudeau has polled behind the Conservatives at the last two elections. Neither represents a surge in support for the left.
The Ardern example is also pertinent. She has commanded glowing reviews from the global media and won over 50 percent of the vote in 2020, coming on the back of huge personal popularity due to her handling of the Wellington terrorist attack and of the early stages of the pandemic. But she is now behind in the polls and looks set to lose to the Nationals next time. From that, we can take the most obvious message of this weekend’s vote: that different countries have different politics.
Of course, it is easy to feature spot. Various Liberal MPs in middle-class, leafy constituencies – think Surrey, but with more kangaroos – lost their seats to independent female candidates campaigning on a platform of tackling climate-change and cleaning up politics. Those Tory MPs with slim majorities and the Lib Dems breathing down their necks in the Blue Wall might want to take note.
Or they might not. Morrison’s government had a successful economic record, with low unemployment, and weathered the pandemic in a broadly popular manner, even if it’s approach was rather draconian. But the Liberal-National Coalition had only just scraped home in 2016 and 2019 and had the natural baggage of any administration in power for too long. Their defeat was a long time coming.
So was that of Bill English in 2017, or Stephen Harper in 2015. That they did not all win or lose office at the same time should tell you the most obvious lesson: each government was elected on a particular platforms, for particular reasons, in particular circumstances. Platforms, reasons, and circumstances that were country-specific, even if comparisons can be drawn.
If there is a question to ask, it is as to why our Conservative government has lasted longer than any of its Anglosphere cousins. Partly that is down to electoral systems and election frequency. Australia and New Zealand both have elections every three years, whilst the former uses a run-off system for elections, and the latter the Additional Member System beloved of Holyrood, Germany, and Politics A-Level classes.
But we have hardly struggled when it comes to election frequency in recent years. Neither has Canada, which also uses first-past-the-post. The Government’s hold on power is also not because of frequent changes in Prime Minister, either. The Liberals dumped Abbott for the loathsome Malcolm Turnbull in 2015, and almost lost, and the more appealing Morrison barely won in 2019. Changing leaders is no sliver bullet – for every John Major there is a Gordon Brown.
Instead, it is because our Tories have reinvented themselves more successfully in office than any of their equivalents. A party elected in 2010 to implement spending cuts won re-election in 2019 pledging to overturn them. Brexit was a boon, and no country other than Britain could produce a Boris Johnson. Even if he was born in New York. But the basic point stands: in its own messy way, the party moved to meet the voters just fast enough to stay in office.
Many bemoan this ideological slipperiness, calling for a return to proper Conservativism. What that means in practice is usually what ever a grumpy Telegraph op-ed says it is this week. Yet if the basic, fundamental reason for voting Tory is keeping the other lot out, then a little flexibility is surely worth it. I put up with some spending increases in 2019 to keep Corbyn out of Number 10 – and Morrison, English, Harper et al would have bitten off their arms for Johnson’s success.
And to show what a nonsense drawing spurious parallels is, I shall finally turn to that semi-detached member of the English-Speaking Peoples’ that I have so far neglected. Yes, that erstwhile Great Satan and Home of the Brave, the United States. I have not done so so far as it so obviously debunks any idea of a uniform Anglosphere trend. It moved to the left when others moved to the right, and then reverse-ferreted in spectacular fashion on two successive occasions. It may yet do so again.
Obama’s victory in 2008, or Trump’s in 2016, or Biden’s in 2020, was as much a product of tiredness with the incumbent as it was the personality of the winning candidate. From that, we can learn the most important lesson about elections: in a democracy, no party can last in power forever. Even the most remarkable survivors in modern politics, like Japan’s Liberal Democratic Party or Sweden’s Social Democrats, have seen their hegemony challenged. The former was once in government undefeated from 1955 to 1993; the latter was continuously from 1932 to 1972. Both have seen unprecedented competition in recent decades, even if both are back in power now.
Neither major party has ever achieved such a prolonged period in government in this country since the introduction of universal suffrage, and all to the good. As awful as Labour governments can be, no Conservative government deserves a stranglehold on power if the consequence is for it to become exhausted and unresponsive. The real message of Australia’s election for our Tories is that it is in their hands whether they can renew themselves sufficiently to remain in power beyond the next election.