With a swing of just over 3%, the Labor Party has come closer to winning the 2016 election than it had any right to expect when ejected from office in September 2013. It has come closer to winning than it could seriously have hoped when Malcolm Turnbull replaced Tony Abbott two years later.
Labor’s disappointment can only arise from the peculiar opportunities provided by the disintegration of Abbott’s prime ministership in the wake of the 2014 budget, and the collapse of Turnbull’s reputation as he stumbled from one mishap to the next over the nine months of his leadership.
On a literal-minded reading of the national polling, Labor might have been considered a slight favourite. That it was not owed a great deal to state-based and marginal seat polling, which suggested Labor did not have the votes in the right places.
Misleading backgrounding of journalists by party officials and media group-think appear to have played a role in the widespread perception that the government would be returned with a reduced but comfortable majority, despite polling that suggested a very tight result.
As the prospects of a large lower-house crossbench appeared to recede, so did the belief the result was likely to be a hung parliament. This is still a possibility, but the Coalition in recent days has edged closer to governing in its own right.
The campaign itself – one of the longest in Australian history and surely one of the dullest – was hardly as suitable to Labor and Bill Shorten as has subsequently been suggested. Labor, with some justification, made much of its willingness to go out on a few policy limbs in a manner that has been unusual among opposition parties since John Hewson’s loss in the “unlosable” Fightback! election of 1993.
But by the final fortnight it was more a campaign about general impressions than policy. In this contest, Shorten did not firmly establish his superiority to Turnbull.
For Turnbull, the most critical purpose served by the campaign was that it placed the government in caretaker mode. As a result, the gathering sense of disappointment with his prime ministership went on hold. Abbott and his allies mainly went quiet. There were no more humiliations arising from ham-fisted management of the tax debate.
Shorten suddenly looked less like a prime-minister-in-waiting than an opposition leader asking for a chance – inevitably a less-dignified posture, however competently he campaigned. And he did campaign very competently.
Few believed Labor could pick up the 21 seats it needed to win. In all the post-election euphoria on Labor’s part, and all the recriminations and bitterness within the Coalition, it is easy to forget that this prediction turned out to be correct. The publicly released opinion polling barely moved during the campaign; it was more or less 50-50 at the end, as at the beginning. Shorten did not break through sufficiently to give him a majority.
Labor’s primary vote remains low (in the mid-30s), reflecting the reality that large numbers of voters whose preferences helped Labor voted for independents and minor parties and only regard it as the more palatable of two not-very-tasty meals on offer.
The uncertainty engendered by Brexit probably helped Turnbull a little, or should have done, by working against a Labor opposition that on its own admission intended running larger deficits in the near future to fund its programs.
Shorten valiantly argued that Brexit underlined the necessity of countering economic inequality and social marginalisation, but it was not an interpretation that could help him win because things are less desperate for most Australians than they are for Britons. There is less anger here, in large part because there is less deprivation.
The Coalition has made much of Labor’s “Mediscare” campaign. But as even Turnbull now seems to realise, his side of politics has given voters little cause to trust them with Australia’s system of universal health insurance.
One can already see a great myth growing up around Mediscare, which is likely to provide the enduring collective memory of this campaign, the “lesson” to be applied and bent to future uses. But it did not give Labor the break it needed to win.
The endlessly fascinating federal-state election cycle – sometimes a potent factor in shaping election results – was possibly also in play, working against Labor.
A year ago, Labor would have benefited in Queensland and Victoria from the unpopularity of recently deposed conservative governments. But the Victorian and Queensland Labor governments have now been in office long enough for their shine to wear off, and for the odour that had emanated from their conservative predecessors to have dissipated.
The large swing in Tasmania was useful, but could only deliver Labor a small number of seats. Nor was the very good showing in New South Wales quite enough for Labor.
Labor is rightly pleased with the seats that it has picked up. Despite the fact that it was not enough to form government, it is enough to keep Shorten in his job for now. The situation in the Coalition will be more turbulent; Turnbull’s position has been weakened.
In the end, though, there was little sign in the electorate of the emotions that might induce voters to throw out a government after a single term. Voters were angry about the dishonesty and self-indulgence of the Abbott government; certainly angry enough to toss it out. There is disappointment with Turnbull, but little enthusiasm for Shorten and Labor.
Voters have given Turnbull one more chance, keeping Shorten on ice in case he’s needed. But if Turnbull survives the internal party fractiousness, and governs in the future as he has done in the past, the Spycatcher Trial of the mid-1980s may well turn out to have been the high point of his public career.
Authors: Frank Bongiorno, Associate Professor of History, ANU College of Arts and Social Sciences, Australian National University