QUARTERLY ESSAY 74 The Prosperity Gospel



Judith Brett

Erik Jensen’s arresting descriptions of the campaign trail remind us of the many reasons for Scott Morrison’s miracle win: Labor’s complex policy agenda, Bill Shorten’s unpopularity, ScoMo’s energetic, self-confident campaigning, Coalition scare campaigns, angry retirees, Queensland regionalism, Clive Palmer’s millions, the Greens’ foolish anti-Adani caravan, popular local members. Labor’s election post-mortems will be exploring them all. The question is: are larger patterns discernible? Here are three I can see.

The first is there in the fact that there are so many plausible reasons, each one making a small contribution to the final result in an increasingly volatile electorate. The Australian Electoral Study has not yet had time to crunch the numbers, but the 2019 election is likely to continue the trend of declining stable identification with the major parties. In 1967, 70 per cent of voters reported always voting for the same party, in federal and state elections and for both houses. In 2016, rusted-on supporters were only 40 per cent of the electorate. Most people are only marginally interested in politics, but with compulsory voting, come election day, they have to make a decision. For the rusted-on, the decision has already been made, but the rest are open to persuasion. So the popularity of candidates has become more important. (How else to explain Tony Abbott’s ejection from Warringah, or the success of Helen Haines in Indi?) Particular issues push and pull electors different ways. And how one responds to the leaders seems more significant than ever.

Paralleling the decline in stable partisanship is a decline in trust in politicians and in the popularity of our leaders. Shorten’s unpopularity was always going to be a drag on the Labor vote. In deciding whether to vote one way or the other, “I don’t like him” is as good a reason as any for many voters. Shorten’s problem, it seemed to me, was that he was difficult to read and to identify as a social type. Up against Morrison’s public persona of “what you see is what you get,” he was at a serious disadvantage. In time, the electoral study will tell us how much. The point, though, is not to find one major cause, or a primary determinant, but to recognise that in a de-aligned and distrustful electorate there will be multiple factors influencing people’s vote.

My second larger pattern is the grip mining has on Australia’s imagined and actual economy. We are so used to hearing about the Hawke–Keating government’s successes in deregulating the Australian economy that we can overlook its failures. In his policy speech for the 1993 election everyone expected him to lose, Keating spoke of his dream that Australia “could become a great manufacturing country, a country which made things for the world to buy. Things which bore the stamp of Australian work and genius. I became convinced that Australia could be more than a quarry and a farm.” Keating’s bold attempt to free Australia from its historical dependence on farming and mining was doomed by the rise of China, which has decimated our manufacturing industry. We now make even less that the world wants to buy than we did in 1993, and the quarry is much bigger. In 1991/92 Australian exports were 21.1 per cent rural, 25.9 per cent mineral and fuel and 21.4 per cent manufactured products. By 2013/14, minerals and fuels were 50.1 per cent, and rural and manufacturing exports had shrunk to around 12 per cent each. Iron ore and coal are our top two exports, and natural gas our fourth. Keating wouldn’t have predicted the third: education-related travel services, including the money overseas students spend on fees and living expenses. But universities scarcely figured in the Coalition’s campaign, and only marginally in Labor’s. And neither had a plausible plan on how to prepare the Australian economy for a likely global shift away from fossil fuels. Miners and farmers were the symbols of economic responsibility in this campaign, together with the tradies in building and construction which operate in the domestic economy.

The third is the enduring emotional patterns that underpin the Liberal Party’s individualism and its policy staples of lower taxes, secure borders and a Budget under control. As Morrison told us repeatedly, he believes in “a fair go for those who have a go,” for those who make a contribution and don’t just seek to take. This is Robert Menzies’ society of leaners and lifters, and Hockey’s age of entitlement, though in slightly less accusatory language. It’s not so much the self-congratulatory appeal of seeing oneself as a contributor that gives this pattern its power, but the anxieties it evokes: of the never-ending demands that the needy, with the government as their agent, might make on the resources we’ve each marshalled to support ourselves and our families. Unregulated flows of asylum seekers evoke similar fears.

For many voters, Bill’s hand in their pocket, taking, obliterated the benefits of Labor’s policies. The hostility to franking credits was out of all proportion to the relatively small number of people affected. It became a generalised symbol of Labor’s propensity to tax, while promised benefits such as dental-care subsidies for pensioners barely registered. Morrison made no overt attacks on government-provided services, which would have opened him up to a Labor scare campaign. Nor did he indulge in the demonising of dole bludgers and asylum seekers. Instead, he projected a world of scarce resources, with individuals and families competing with each other to get ahead, and a modest tax refund to reward their efforts. For many unaligned voters, it was enough.

Judith Brett


This correspondence discusses Quarterly Essay 74, The Prosperity Gospel. To read the full essay, subscribe or buy the book.

This correspondence featured in Quarterly Essay 75, Men at Work.


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