SYDNEY, Australia – Outgoing Prime Minister Scott Morrison pushed Australia to the right and called himself “a bit of a bulldozer”. His Labor challenger, Anthony Albanese, presented himself as a lowly Mr. Fix-It, promising to seek “renewal, not revolution”.
In the end, moderation prevailed. Mr Albanese won Saturday’s election with a campaign that was gaffe-prone and light on politics but promised a more decent form of politics, delivering a stark rejection of Mr Morrison after nearly a decade of Tory leadership in Australia.
It was a combination that carried powerful echoes of President Biden’s victory a year and a half ago. Both Mr. Albanese and Mr. Biden are political lifers, working-class fighters with decades of experience in government and a reputation for pragmatic compromise.
But they also both face the problem of how they won. The disgust of an incumbent put them in power. To govern and stay in power is to rally the enthusiasm of a fickle public.
“It’s a question of whether he can be a galvanizing leader,” said Paul Strangio, a politics professor at Monash University in Melbourne. “If he can learn on the job.”
Reflecting Australia’s general discontent, voters did not just hand Labor a clear victory. They gave more of their support to smaller parties and independents who ran against the political status quo, with a wave of popular enthusiasm for candidates demanding more action on climate change and greater accountability. of the government.
In Sydney, Allegra Spender, an independent, was to defeat Dave Sharma, a moderate from the conservative Liberal Party. In Melbourne, the current treasurer, Josh Frydenberg, who has often been mentioned as a future prime minister, was expected to lose to fellow freelancer Monique Ryan, a pediatrician, while freelancer and former journalist Zoe Daniel also won in the suburbs. from the city’s bayside.
“What it says is that the community can make a difference,” Ms Daniel said at a victory party on Saturday night.
“Climate, integrity, equality,” she added. “Now we have a chance to really make a difference.”
Along with victories for independents, minor parties – from the Greens on the left to the United Australia Party on the right – have also made progress, providing what analysts have described as a “tipping point” in a country that is gradually moving away from dominance of the big party.
“Voters have sent the message to the main parties that their support cannot be guaranteed,” said Jill Sheppard, professor of politics at the Australian National University.
“It’s really a massive change,” she added. “And that’s one we haven’t really figured out yet.”
For Mr Albanese, who has spent his entire career in Labor Party politics, including 23 years in parliament, this sea change presents an unexpected challenge.
Contrasting his approach with the pugnacious style of Mr Morrison – who led a government that passed few memorable laws but managed to manage the early months of the pandemic – Mr Albanese ran a “small target” campaign.
He offered progressive reforms, including a promise to raise the minimum wage and provide more support for health care, nursing homes and child care. However, he mostly focused on changing the tone and style of leadership.
“I want to change politics,” he said after casting his ballot in the Sydney neighborhood where he grew up on Saturday. “I want to change the way it works.”
Without a grand, well-defined vision already sold to the electorate, some analysts said it would be harder for Mr Albanese to push his agenda forward quickly.
“That doesn’t make it impossible, but governments need momentum,” said University of Sydney politics professor Tim Soutphommasane.
Some of the issues voters want to see resolved are not surprising. The cost of living is rising. Businesses are grappling with labor shortages and wondering when the usual flows of skilled migrant workers will return. The pandemic has exposed gaps in health care and nursing homes.
Bigger questions – how to shed light on a political system awash in black money, or how to build a less racist and more equal society, or how to counter a more ambitious and belligerent China – have been largely ignored by Labor and its opponents. in the countryside.
“It was a very mundane election campaign, but that doesn’t negate the fact that there is still a global pandemic and war and shifting global power dynamics in the Indo-Pacific,” said Professor Sheppard, of the Australian National University.
Mr. Albanese, 59, arrives with a reputation for building consensus and praising colleagues in his cabinet on issues in which they have greater expertise. During the campaign, Penny Wong, who will be foreign minister, announced Labor plans to expand aid and diplomatic ties to Southeast Asia in a bid to counter Chinese influence.
“He has an experienced and quite talented frontbench, so I expect him to govern in a very collegial way,” said Professor Strangio, of Monash University.
“The general view is that he is professional,” he added. “He’s not exceptional. But maybe this is the kind of leader we need – a step change, pragmatic, stubborn, doesn’t think he’s the smartest man in the room at any time. This may be the kind of government that would suit Australia’s circumstances.
At the best of times, Australians tend to see their government as more of a service provider than a battleground for ideology. Now, with the pressures of the pandemic and the geopolitical fallout from the war in Ukraine, they are even more eager to see policies that produce tangible results, and they are less confident that traditional party politics can get the job done.
“We have these antiquated parties that are male-dominated,” Roslyn Lunsford, 74, a constituent from Sydney’s west, said on Saturday. “It’s the same old, same old – we need a broom to cross.”
As if he could sense the need for a bolder policy statement, Mr Albanese opened his acceptance speech on Saturday night by promising to support the Uluru Statement from the Heart, a call for Indigenous Australians to establish a role official for the First Nations peoples of Australia in the Constitution. It was published in 2017 – and rejected by the Conservative coalition.
Likewise, Mr Albanese pledged to make equal opportunities for women a national priority, to end Australia’s ‘climate wars’ which have stalled promises to cut emissions, and to make the country a renewable energy superpower.
Acknowledging growing concerns about government integrity and the oversight of public spending, Mr Albanese also promised to quickly pass legislation to create a federal anti-corruption commission, following a broken promise by Mr Morrison in the last elections.
“Tomorrow we begin the work of building a better future,” he said. “A brighter future for all Australians.”
To achieve this, he must now persuade a more fractured and demanding country to believe in him and stick with him, at a time when he is cautiously emerging from two years of Covid isolation, with a surge in coronavirus cases, inflation rising and the growing public debt which fuels anxiety.
At the same time, China’s regional ambitions have become more threatening, with a new security deal in the Solomon Islands. And the violent bushfires of 2020 have given way to extreme flooding – a constant reminder of the country’s vulnerability to climate change, even though it remains the world’s largest coal exporter.
The challenges are colossal. Opposition from a more conservative Liberal Party promises to be fierce. And many analysts note that Mr Albanese lacks the charisma of former Labor leaders who won elections and steered the country in a new direction.
“It usually takes excitement and a bit of glare in a Labor leader to change government,” said James Curran, a historian at the University of Sydney. “Albanese shakes up this historic apple cart.”
Victoria Kim contributed reporting from Sydney, Natasha Frost from Melbourne and Yan Zhuang from Cessnock, Australia.