The election victory was clearly a triumph for both the style and substance of Prime Minister Scott Morrison.
But the most important post-election issue now is the battle to control the narrative surrounding the causes and meaning of the result.
The advantages the PM enjoyed over his opponent are now obvious. These included his mastery of policy detail, his capacity to speak directly to the aspirations of middle Australia, and his authenticity and ‘ordinary everyman’ persona in expressing everything from footy fanaticism to his Christian faith.
Tax policy — given the targeting of Labor’s franking credits, CGT, and negative gearing policies by the Coalition — certainly played a definitive role in the outcome.
However, those who believe the result is proof that the Liberal Party does best when it sticks to so-called ‘sensible centre’, and focuses solely on bread and butter economic issues in isolation from social and cultural issues, can take little comfort or credit for the result.
The key economic issue at the election was Labor’s un-costed climate change policy, to say nothing of the decisive impact of the Adani mine controversy in Queensland.
But it was the so-called ‘Modern Liberals’ who, since the fall of former Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, have pushed — and continue to push — for the Coalition to take greater action on climate.
This message plays well in the Mod Libs’ own leafy affluent inner-city seats — as the defeat of Tony Abbott in Warringah shows. But it does not resonate in the outer suburbs and regions more interested in jobs and power prices than in waging a moral crusade against coal and for renewable energy.
Climate change was therefore not just an economic issue: it was the key cultural issue that illustrated the divide between ‘insider’ elites and ‘outsider’ ordinary Australians that swung the election for the Coalition.
Almost all pundits were convinced that the political centre of the nation had shifted on climate policy and Labor’s 50 per cent renewable energy target and 45 per cent emission reduction policies would be endorsed by the mainstream.
But such punditry was hopelessly wrong: Morrison — the Prime Minister who literally carted coal into the parliamentary chamber — proved where the true centre of mainstream opinion lies on climate policy.
By rejecting the advice to avoid differentiating the Coalition from Labor, the election has proved that the best way to define the centre is to fight and win political arguments and cultural debates on the important issues.
The broader cultural meaning of the election result has also struck many pundits who now rightly recognise the negative role played by Labor’s focus on identity politics and progressive ideology, particularly over the issue of religious freedom, which turned off mainstream voters.
This completely confounds the view that ‘culture war’ issues are the obsession of only the reactionary ‘fringe’ or conservative ‘base’.
Jeremy Sammut is a Senior Research Fellow at the Centre for Independent Studies.
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