change is hard to come by in this country


So Shorten didn’t bring the thrill. Shouldn’t this government have inspired the requisite disgust? The short answer is yes. On any fair measure, it has been hopeless: ramshackle, mean, often laughable, possessing neither ambition nor philosophy. If it had lost this election it might have gone down as the worst that we have had.

But it didn’t, and now gets its chance at redemption – because the disgust wasn’t there. The question Labor will ask itself is: why not? After all, Labor was unified, while the Coalition divided. But 2013 is not so long ago as Labor wishes. It is also true that Morrison, old Liberal operative and recent treasurer, advertised himself successfully as a cleanskin. It’s possible that the resignations of old figures such as Julie Bishop, Christopher Pyne and Malcolm Turnbull – which seemed disastrous at the time – helped, providing a sense that we already had a new government. If that were true, why vote in another?

Bill Shorten concedes defeat late on Saturday night.Credit:AAP

I suspect there is also something in this question posed last week by Peter Lewis, of Essential: “Living in one of the most affluent nations on earth at the wealthiest time in human history, are we, as a nation, happy to just keep staring into our devices and maintain the status quo?” Morrison’s campaign was built around this hope. He didn’t upset anyone. He achieved this by not doing anything at all. Remarkably, this worked.

Saturday brought heartbreak for Labor. It is hard to overstate the hurt. Government had seemed so close, for so long. To watch that future bleed away as the night dragged on and votes trickled in was baffling and bruising for those in Labor ranks. Deliver a unified party, come up with an impressive platform, face down a divided government – what else could they have done?

Their greater sorrow will be the dreams lost, at least for now. A republic. Indigenous recognition. A higher minimum wage, and fairer taxation. More progress on climate change.

Several lessons will be learned. They may not be the right ones. This is the greatest danger for Labor. Shorten has several times said that the times would suit him. They didn’t, and that must force Labor to ask what it knows and doesn’t know about the times.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison and wife Jenny speak to the media as they arrive at the Horizon Church in Sutherland, Sydney, on Sunday.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison and wife Jenny speak to the media as they arrive at the Horizon Church in Sutherland, Sydney, on Sunday.Credit:Joel Carrett/AAP

And yet, while this was a brutal, unexpected loss, it was still a close election. This, surely, is the central fact of recent times: in the past four elections, three prime ministers have ended up on stage having to explain to the country that they cannot yet be sure of majority government. This is a lesson for Labor, with hindsight, but it is also a lesson for those of us assessing the result right now, including the prime minister himself: a nation’s mood is rarely monolithic.

Comparisons with 1993 and John Hewson are everywhere. But 2004 might serve just as well: a government with few ideas wins, at a time of relative complacency, against a leader who voters find concerning. Which set of lessons should be drawn?

The answer lies in nuance. For example, the simple conclusion that Labor shouldn’t take ambitious policy to an election is wrong. In fact, Labor has never won without ambition. The lesson, I suspect, is more specific, about creating losers on taxation. Similarly, there will be arguments that this result repudiates action on climate change. But hasn’t Morrison invested months in trying to repair the Coalition’s image on this issue? Little here is simple.

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One fact is hard to avoid, though it is not the only reason for the loss. Labor cannot win without a popular leader.

This is not the same as saying that the party might have won with someone else.

Who else would have opposed the 2014 budget, which saw off Abbott? History is never so straightforward that one strand can be surgically removed. Shorten is arguably the most important political figure of the past six years. Without his policies – on disabilities, the banking royal commission and superannuation reform – the government’s threadbare achievements would be still thinner.

The popularity question will affect the leadership contest already under way. Tanya Plibersek and Anthony Albanese go in with a headstart. Others will argue three years is long enough to win the public over. Cases will be made about the country’s ideological heart – inevitably simplistic.

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Morrison has perfected the art of sidling through the spotlight without saying anything. I am not convinced it can work for three more years – though I’ve been wrong before.

Both sides should remember that the elections this one most resembles – 1993 and 2004 – seemed bitter defeats at the time. In both cases, change came three years later.

Sean Kelly is a columnist for The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald and a former adviser to Labor prime ministers Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard.

Sean Kelly is a columnist for The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald and a former adviser to Labor prime ministers Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard.

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