The Coalition’s surprising win in the 2019 will no doubt cause great soul-searching in progressive circles. Labor had for months, if not longer, simply assumed that it would form Government after the election, with support from the Greens in the Senate. Labor and Greens candidates were riding a progressive wave of support for tackling issues such as climate change and discrimination.
Now, Labor must examine where it went so badly wrong. There are many reasons of course. Labor’s taxing and spending policies, including doing away with franking credits for self-funded retirees, gave a lot of people reasons to vote against it.
However, a closer analysis of the election results ought to focus people’s minds on a paradox of the 2019 election. The swing to Labor or to anti-Liberal independents, was actually strongest in quite wealthy urban constituencies – those constituencies where people had most to lose financially from Labor’s tax and spend agenda. Conversely, it was the less wealthy, outer-urban and rural voters who supported the Coalition in droves, and these are the very people who ought to have been most tempted by Labor’s promises of wealth redistribution. Labor increased its vote in inner city constituencies as well as affluent suburbs which represent the Liberal heartland. It suffered some big swings against it in its own heartland.
The swing against Labor in western Sydney
Take NSW as an example. An independent standing on a climate change platform in Sydney’s wealthy northern beaches, ousted former Prime Minister, Tony Abbott. Labor boosted its vote in the northern Sydney constituencies such as Berowra, Bradfield and Bennelong. In the Eastern suburbs constituency of Wentworth, the independent progressive Kerryn Phelps nearly hung onto her seat, once one of the safest Liberal seats in the country.
Yet this was counter-balanced by strong swings to the Coalition in less well-off areas. In Labor’s blue collar heartland of western and southwestern Sydney, there were significant swings to the Coalition even though Labor held onto most of its seats. In the constituencies held by prominent frontbenchers, Chris Bowen and Ed Husic, the swing was over 5% after weekend counting. All other western Sydney seats saw swings to the Coalition. Labor lost the outer-western suburb of Lindsay with a swing against it of over 6%..
That some of Labor’s leading figures should experience swings against them in safe Labor constituencies when all the opinion polls had Labor securing government, ought to be a cause for deep reflection. Queensland, of course, was a disaster for Labor, with a 4.4% swing against it overall. Some swings against Labor were much larger. Opposition frontbencher Shayne Neumann, who holds the blue collar constituency of Blair, centred on Ipswich, experienced a primary vote swing against him of over 9% after weekend counting. Tasmania, the poorest State in Australia, also saw wins by the Coalition.
Religious voters in the marginals
Labor may want to look at its attitude to religious faith amongst the causes of its disastrous performance. It did poorly in areas of Australia where religious faith – of all kinds - is alive and well. This was particularly the case in Queensland. As former Labor senator and demographer John Black noted, Queensland has a substantial number of religiously active voters across numerous marginal constituencies. Black notes that of the top 25 seats ranked for those active in religion, 15 are in Queensland.
Western Sydney offers another example. It is home to many devoutly religious ethnic minority communities, including strong Eastern-rite Catholic and Orthodox communities which have fled religious persecution in the Middle East. There are also many devout Vietnamese Catholics, thriving Chinese and Korean Protestant churches, and devout Muslims from various countries, especially Lebanon. Multicultural Australia is also religious Australia.
Kevin Rudd, who was not shy to proclaim his Christian faith, won support from many of these religious voters in 2007, and this was important to Labor’s victory that year. Labor has not won a majority in a federal election since then.
Labor and faith communities
Labor used to be a broad-based party. It had a significant number of MPs, and indeed union leaders, who identified as believing and practising Catholics, as well as some people from other Christian traditions. Few active Christians remain in the parliamentary party - although some still identify as Christians in the sense that they have not rejected their Christian upbringing and may attend the occasional church service.
The lack of authentically religious voices within Labor is one reason why the party made it very difficult for religious voters to support it in 2019. Another reason is its drift towards a secularism that has no place for religion in the public square. Many of its activist supporters seem openly hostile to those who hold traditional religious beliefs. It did not help Mr Shorten’s campaign that he appeared to attack Mr Morrison for his devout faith.
On social issues, Labor is now much closer to the radical Left than to the Labor Party of Hawke and Keating. As I wrote before the election:
Labor's biggest difficulty in winning over the votes of the faithful is to gain trust. People are concerned about the direction the party has taken in its years in Opposition federally, and while in office in the states ― in particular, the difficulty it seems to have in adopting positions on social issues that differentiate it from the Greens.
Labor’s positions on religious freedom
Labor’s lack of outreach to faith communities is reflected in the positions it took to the election on religious freedom, a concern to a large number of people, not least those who have fled religious persecution elsewhere. In its responses to a survey sent to both sides of politics by Freedom for Faith, Labor reiterated that it had supported the Ruddock inquiry; but it did not commit to implement a single one of Ruddock’s recommendations. It simply responded that if it were minded to implement any of them, it would consult first. It indicated that it was not opposed to having a Religious Freedom Commissioner, but shadow Attorney-General Mark Dreyfus said during the election campaign that he would not appoint one. Labor did not respond to the question about whether the Party affirms the right of faith-based institutions, including schools, to employ staff who adhere to the beliefs of the organisation.
Its track record in opposition did not inspire confidence either. It opposed all amendments to the Bill to introduce same-sex marriage aimed at strengthening the protection of religious freedom, and its one response to the Ruddock report was to defame faith-based schools, claiming that urgent legislative reform was needed to protect same-sex attracted students from expulsion.
Conversely, it made strong commitments to removing discrimination against students or staff in faith-based schools, but without a clear indication of how such schools could be assured of the right to teach and conduct the school in accordance with their religious values. Labor’s policy on religion was a policy for an aggressively secular society, not a multicultural one. In this election it faced a devoutly Christian Prime Minister and a party with a strong core of MPs who are practising Christians or Jews. For those voters who hold traditional religious values, the choice was not difficult.
The need to re-engage with religious voters
The election results demonstrate that Labor is losing its grip on parts of the country that it will need to win over if it is to regain power. It has great support from the progressive commentariat and the twitterati. Progressive candidates did very well in this election in quite wealthy urban electorates which used to be safe Liberal seats. However, this is not the whole of Australia, and notably, it is not actually Labor’s heartland. Labor appealed to the pockets of voters in its traditional constituencies with big Robin Hood promises. Yet this was simply not enough to persuade voters who are uncomfortable with Labor’s rejection of their values and who are concerned that so many Labor and Green activists seem hostile to faith.
Of course, Labor’s turn will come again; but last time around it had only one term of majority government. Even if it wins the Lower House, it needs enough members in the Senate to get its agendas through, with the help of the Greens.
The 2019 election showed that the policies that appeal to affluent, irreligious, university-educated activists in the inner cities do not resonate with voters across the country. Labor needs to appeal to their values. That may mean seeking to understand afresh the religious voices in the public square, and to treat people of faith respectfully.