A few historical reflections on the 2019 elections

By Dr Christopher Waters, Deakin University

Menzies & Holt

Since 1914 only one Labour government has won power in an election from Opposition promising a broad-ranging reform program: the Whitlam government in 1972. The Curtin government came to power in 1941 when the cross benches changed their votes in the very special circumstances of the war. Two other ALP election victories from Opposition were the Scullin government in 1929 and the Rudd government in 2007. On both occasions a key explanation for the ALP victories was that the centre-right parties went too far and hard on industrial relations and were rejected by the Australian people. While the third victory was by Hawke in 1983 on the promise to be a centrist, consensus government which would emphatically not be the Whitlam government again. The conclusion from history then is that the centre-left has always had an enormous struggle to convince the Australian people that it should be elected to ‘civilise’ capitalism by major social reforms and redistribution programs.

The other side of the coin in this analysis is that since 1914 when the Australian people vote in a centre-right coalition government they always stick with their choice for lengthy periods. In 1917 it was twelve years, in 1931 it was ten years, in 1949 it was twenty-two years, in 1975 it was eight years, in 1996 it was eleven years and in 2013 it will now be at least nine years. And significantly all these centre-right coalition governments have won a minimum of at least three elections, with the Fraser era the only one that was not returned at least four times. The difficulty of left leaning reforming ALP governments winning elections from Opposition and then staying in government is one bedrock feature of Australian federal politics. The longevity of centre-right coalition governments once elected is another dominant feature of Australian political history. As I have said to my university students in the past, only half-jokingly, ‘if you want to change the country join the ALP, but be prepared for a long wait and only a fleeting opportunity; if you want to be in government join the coalition parties’.  

Paul Keating

In other words, rather than a surprise election outcome, 2019 fits neatly into the long-term pattern of Australian political history. If not for the opinion polls being so wrong, the 2019 election would not appear remarkable at all. Such long-standing patterns in Australian political history lead the historian to look to long-term structural explanations for why the nation is consistently cautious when it comes to voting for even a very timid ALP taxation and redistribution package. These structural explanations for Australians’ reluctance to alter the balance of the economy might include the composition of the Australian population, which has over the last century been based largely on immigration, the long held perception, until recently, of Australia as a ‘frightened country’ on the edge of Asia, the Federal system of government, which allocates delivery of services to the states and makes fundamental change difficult, and the rural-city divide. Do such bedrock features of Australian society over the last eleven decades make Australians cautious in their politics and less likely to embrace radical change? Perhaps so, although more work needs to be undertaken to tease out if there is any empirical basis for such arguments.  Yet perhaps the most fundamental and obvious, but often ignored factor that generates a centre-right mood and a reluctance to embrace radical economic change is Australia’s liberal capitalist economy. Politics in Australia is at its most fundamental level a contest between capital and labour. As Paul Keating declared, if a political party has both capital and labour onside it will win. It should come as no surprise then that the ALP’s longest run in government during the 1980s and 1990s was under Hawke and Keating, when they implemented a pro-capital agenda which business cheered on, but to which the broader labour movement largely glumly acquiesced. Keating did not state the obvious other side of his political principle, which is that when labour is opposed by capital it almost always loses.

Analysis of elections typically starts from an assumption that each side comes into the election with roughly equal resources, even if sometimes that assumption gives way to the argument that the union movement gives the ALP an advantage, or the backing of business gives the Coalition an advantage. Yet whether you examine the long-term history of Australian politics or each individual election campaign, there is no doubt that the centre-right of politics comes to each contest with a significant advantage of structural power through the liberal capitalist economic system. This economic model structures Australian society, and the resources of the corporate, agricultural, real estate and small business sectors almost always favour the centre-right parties. This can take many different forms, including in 2019 the $60 million advertising spend by Clive Palmer. It is also true of the lines of communication within Australian society, where the private enterprise media nearly always favour the centre right parties. This bias has been exacerbated in recent years by the positions of the giant private social media companies. Moreover, the working of the private sector in the day-to-day business of selling the consumer society provides a huge structural advantage to the centre-right parties. In so many ways through advertising, sporting sponsorship, and popular commercial culture, the private sector sets cultural norms and forms the hidden assumptions and values of the broader Australian society. The power of the private sector produces a political culture that reinforces the fundamental ideas presented by the centre-right parties at elections. These include emphasising individual rights over community rights, arguing the private sector is much more efficient than the public sector, stressing individual rewards over collective generosity, dividing the deserving citizen against the undeserving citizen, pushing the idea that competition is more efficient than co-operation and emphasising the virtues of consuming goods and services. By contrast, the resources, influence and capacity of the trade union movement and special interest groups that favour the centre-left are much smaller and weaker, especially in setting the bedrock political culture and mood of the Australian people.

All this suggests that the 2019 election, far from being an aberration in Australian political history, fits a long-term trend. The ALP has always faced an uphill fight in presenting a bold, redistributive agenda based on democratic socialist ideas. The 2019 election has confirmed that political truth yet again.


Chris Waters is an Honorary Associate Professor at Deakin University. Chris teaches twentieth-century world history, the history of Australia’s involvement in the two world wars, and Australian political history. He has published widely in national and international journals.

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