Australia’s 2022 federal election played out in ways that few could have expected. Not only did it bring a change of government; it also saw the lowest number of primary votes for the major parties and the election of the greatest number of Independents to the lower house since the formation of the Australian party system. The success of the Teal Independents and the Greens, along with the appetite voters showed for ‘doing politics differently’, suggested that the dominant model of electoral competition might no longer be the two-party system of Labor versus Liberal. At the very least, the continued usefulness of the two-party-preferred vote as a way of conceptualising and predicting Australians’ voting behaviour has been cast into serious doubt.
In Watershed, leading scholars analyse the election from the ground up—focusing on the campaign issues, the actors involved, and the successes and failures of campaign strategy—and show how digital media, visual politics and fake news are changing the way politics is done. Other topics include the impact of COVID-19 and the salience of climate, gender and integrity issues, as well as voting patterns and polling accuracy. This authoritative book is indispensable for understanding the disenchantment with the major parties, the rise of Community Independents, and the role of the Australian Greens and third parties.
Edited by Anika Gauja, Academy Fellow Marian Sawer and Jill Sheppard, Watershed is the eighteenth in the ANU Press federal election series and the tenth sponsored by the Academy of the Social Sciences in Australia. The book was celebrated with an official launch on Wednesday 18 October at the Harry Hartog bookshop, Kambri ANU with host Academy Fellow Professor Frank Bongiorno.
Launch speech by Professor Frank Bongiorno:
I would like to associate myself with the acknowledgement of the traditional owners, the Ngunnawal and Ngambri peoples.
The Oxford English Dictionary tells me that a watershed is ‘The line separating the waters flowing into different rivers or river basins; a narrow elevated tract of ground between two drainage areas; a water-parting.’. I would take it that this is the sense in which the word is used in the title of the 2022 election study – and not ‘A shed in which clothes are washed’.
If it is a ‘water-parting’ that the editors do have in mind, what do we find on either side of the line?
On one side, stretching back to 1909 but even further back to colonial Victoria of the 1860s and 1870s, or New South Wales of 1887, we find a party system, dominated by two parties, or at by least two sides, who compete for all or nearly all seats and for executive power. For most of the twentieth century and even beyond it into our own, those two sides dominated the vote in national politics, leaving only scraps for independents and minor parties.
When I first studied Australian politics at the University of Melbourne in 1987, with Richard Lucy and Graham Maddox the authors of our textbooks, we learnt that Australia was a party democracy. I recall an essay question that year asking us to consider the barriers to a Bjelke-Petersen prime ministership. We were being well-schooled in a way of looking at Australian politics that still seemed to be mere common-sense and likely to endure. Interestingly, it was the federal election of just three years later, in 1990, which showed most clearly that the old order was disintegrating. The Hawke Labor government returned to office with less than 40% of the primary vote, a tally that would once have meant a landslide defeat. That election is the one from that era that most obviously looks forward to the present, and to the watershed election of 2022.
On the other side of that watershed in the title, Australian politics since the 2022 election, we have a House of Representatives primary vote divided into three roughly equal parts: Labor, Liberal National and Other – minor party and independents. Labor won an election with a primary vote that did not, as in 1990, slip just below the 40% mark but one that failed to rise much about 30%. We have a crossbench of 16 members, mostly Independents, and most of those Independents women, but with four Greens as well – three of them elected in 2022.
The scale of those successes – predicted by no pundit – is a measure of the novelty of that contest. Of course, the changes did not come out of nowhere: the modern community independent movement arguably had its genesis in the election of Cathy McGowan to Indi a decade ago, and it was prefigured by earlier Independent successes in regional seats. The Greens’ victories in the House of Representatives, and their strong presence in the Senate, have their origins in the failed effort to save Lake Pedder in Tasmania in the early 1970s. But the 2022 election saw the maturation and culmination of many things long coming. The bus arrived. The Australian Election Study conducted by our colleagues in this university have for some time been pointing to the decline of political trust, of life-long party loyalty, and of strong identification with a particular political party. The gaps between the voting patterns of men and women, of the tertiary educated and the rest, of the young and old, have been widening.
The parliament that emerged out of the 2022 election also looked like a better reflection of Australian society. Indigenous representation rose from 6 to 11 – it now exceeded the percentage of Indigenous people in society overall. The election also saw three Muslims elected. The representation of women improved considerably, despite several Liberal and Labor women losing seats. Women now form a majority of the Labor caucus. While several gay Liberal parliamentarians lost their seats, the successful Greens candidate for Brisbane, Stephen Bates, placed election advertising on the gay dating site Grindr. Lucien Leon and Richard Scully, in their chapter on the visual aspects of the campaign, have great fun presenting his campaign stickers, which urged voters to put Bates ‘on top’, and to ‘spice up Canberra with a third’. Other advice tendered was that ‘the best parliaments are hung’ and that ‘you always come first with the Greens’. Understandably, the voters of Fortitude Valley and West End found this kind of appeal more attractive than another three years of Scott Morrison’s curries.
The Australian election books have been appearing after each election since the 1987 election, and with ANU Press as publisher since 2010. As chair of the Social Sciences Editorial Committee, I am proud of this connection: it is a prestige publication. We are indebted to a long line of authors and editors – on this occasion, to Anika Gauja, Marian Sawer and Jill Shepherd. The book is dedicated to the late Marian Simms, without whose efforts to develop the series and keep it going and vital we might not be here launching another volume today. And I’m sure I can speak for everyone involved when I express gratitude to our colleagues in the ANU Press Office, and to the Academy of the Social Sciences in Australia for its continuing support of the series: we are indebted to its Executive Director, Dr Chris Hatherly, and I acknowledge Anna Dennis’s and Bonnie Johnson’s presence representing the Academy.
There is a generosity in the collaboration that produces this book. Most of us will be aware that the most prestige in political science is attached to publishing articles in high-impact international journals. The editors and authors of this book, as well as the referee we ask to evaluate the manuscript, are therefore performing the important service of explaining Australian elections not only to their academic colleagues, but to journalists, politicians, public servants, students, and members of the public. The open access approach of the ANU Press also ensures that this scholarship is widely accessible.
Those who come to it will find on show the Australian political science profession – with the occasional recruit – I should not say ‘ring-in’ – from history and law – at full stretch. It is, once again, a formidable display of what political studies in this country is capable of teaching us. We have impeccable work of discourse analysis and feminist scholarship, in chapters such as Carol Johnson on populism and Blair Williams and Marian Sawer on gender: both chapters show just how significant gender dynamics were in the campaign, as voters contemplated whether to give their blustering, bulldozing prime minister another three years in office. The COVID-19 pandemic, still ripping through the population during the campaign and knocking out Labor leader Anthony Albanese for a week, had drawn ever greater attention to national neglect of the care economy, an area dominated by women workers. The issues of sexual harassment and assault, including in the parliamentary precinct itself, gained an unprecedented attention and greatly elevated issues of gender equity. It was, along with climate change and integrity, among the issues that the Teal Independents, all of them women, emphasised in their campaigns. The editors indicate that the need, in this collection, to include a chapter on the issue of integrity, pointed to a shift in Australian federal politics where such matters had normally been seen as more relevant to state or local government. The Morrison government had failed to deliver on an anti-corruption commission while Independents such as McGowan and her successor, Helen Haines, had championed private members’ bills. As A.J. Brown shows in his fine early chapter in this collection, it became an issue that mattered, defying Morrison’s attempt to maintain it as a fringe issue.
Several chapters use innovative methods to examine aspects of campaigning, especially online. Glenn Kefford and Stephen Mills take us inside the major campaigns, but they are also able to ‘follow the money’ on online advertising as an indication of the strategies pursued by parties. In this chapter, as well as in several others, leadership was critical: the public’s growing sense that Morrison wasn’t up to it especially, and a benign attitude towards Albanese despite the damaging gaffes he committed early in the campaign. In their revealing study of media coverage, Andrea Carson and Simon Jackman find that most voters are more exercised on Facebook about matters such as a gorilla’s 65th birthday than Australian elections, but that when they do engage, they do so most intensively on its more personal aspects, such as the performance and personality of leaders and candidates. The media companies themselves, in their posts to Facebook, emphasised hip-pocket issues. Still, many editors and journalists seemed to think it was more important to test the memory of the Labor leader than subject the record of a three-term coalition government to scrutiny.
All authors are respected, leading scholars in their fields, who bring both theoretical insight and historical literacy to their work. We have Rob Manwaring sand Emily Foley placing Albanese’s program in an international comparative context for social democratic parties, seeing it not as a ‘small target’ but a ‘thin labourism’ – a ‘back to basics’ approach emphasising jobs more than equality or welfare. They point to the brittleness of Labor’s electoral position but Marija Taflaga, in a chapter on the Liberals, is arguably dealing with a broken rather than a brittle party. She does us the favour of a tour through the labyrinthine factionalism of the state Liberal parties without making our heads spin completely. Anika Gauja emphasises the vulnerabilities that lurk beneath the surface of the National Party’s apparent resilience: nonetheless, unlike the Liberals, whose position in the House is its worst since the war, the Nationals did manage to hold on to their seats despite some strong Independent challenges. Chapters by Stewart Jackson and Josh Holloway on the Greens, Jill Shepherd on minor parties and Independents, Carolyn Hendriks and Richard Reid on the Teal revolution, and Ariadne Vromen and Serrin Rutledge-Prior on third party campaign organisations including the all-important Climate 200, together evoke the upsurge of both tested and new modes of politics, from local grassroots through to the national and the intricate web that connects them. TikTok came into its own; the Coalition found itself fighting the last war on social media, as in so much else in its campaign. There are authoritative accounts of the results from Ben Raue and Antony Green, while Murray Goot return to the familiar territory, for him, of opinion polling to test the continuing validity of an election pendulum designed for another era. He still reckons it has life in it. Studies by Michael Maley, and Ferran Martinez i Coma and Rodney Smith explore the electoral system itself and its many adaptations in the age of Covid, such as the need for an expansion of telephone voting. The 2022 election was a watershed in another respect; so widespread has pre-polling become that only a minority cast their vote on election day itself. If this was not just a Covid effect, the retailers of democracy sausages will, in time, also need to change their ways.
I want to underline just how important studies such as this one have become. The rise of fact-free partisanship makes the kind of considered discussion being carried on here more significant than ever. The Australian election book appears close enough to the election for that contest still to be of general interest at least to political tragics, yet it is also far enough behind us for a bit of scholarly perspective.
My own feeling is that the election looks as significant now as it did on the Sunday after it happened, and perhaps more so. At that stage, we did not yet know just how seriously Scott Morrison had debased the basic principles and practices of responsible government. We knew that Robodebt was a scandal, and unlawful, but we did not as yet have such a vivid picture of its destruction of basic standards of administration and decency. Many Australians will quite rightly be deeply disappointed that one of the government’s key commitments, the full implementation of the Uluru Statement From the Heart, will not now come to pass. But it’s also worth reminding ourselves, while we bemoan Peter Dutton’s opposition to it, that the rot set in years ago, when Malcolm Turnbull rejected the Voice as a ‘third chamber’ back in 2017. In that respect, 2022 might now seem less of a watershed than just another step towards the unravelling of constitutional recognition. Or election might stand as a watershed marking the end of the movement for reconciliation that commenced at the end of the 1980s and the beginning of something else, although quite what we cannot yet know. But First Nations people might be forgiven for seeing the 2022 election less as a watershed than as a perilous river journey bringing on more of the same.
Congratulations, again, to editors, authors, publisher and sponsors. Read it! Buy it! I have much pleasure in declaring Watershed: The 2022 Federal Election launched.