Australia is usually seen as one of the countries with politics most similar to the United States. Both British colonies, founded by non-conformists, Puritans and Roundheads in the case of America, convicts in Australia’s case, both developed a frontier based on wide spaces. Australia has also stood out for being perhaps the most conservative country in the Anglosphere other than the United States. The Coalition of the Liberal and National parties, the former representing urban and business conservatives, the latter rural interests, has ruled for 60 of the last 82 years.
So, does the defeat of that conservative Coalition this past weekend hold lessons for Republicans in the U.S.? Yes, and the lesson is simple: if you are an incumbent government that wants to win reelection, you should keep your promises. The Australian results don’t show that voters rejected conservatism inasmuch as they rejected the efforts of Scott Morrison’s government to cynically use conservative issues during the campaign which the Coalition had shown little or no concern with over the course of nine years in power.
If you are the incumbent government seeking reelection, it is hard to scare voters about how opposition policies on the environment might raise gas prices when prices in Australia have already more than doubled in a year, much less to make an issue of male participation in female sports when the government itself had chosen not to take action on the issue mere months beforehand. It was insulting, like using a “dog whistle” everyone could hear. The intended recipients, especially in the upscale seats, were insulted to be asked to vote on the government’s words in the spring of 2022, and not its record the nine years before. In addition, it was a conservative campaign that rang hollow when the government had no clear plans to deal with the cost of living beyond suggesting the opposition might make things worse. Finally, Morrison’s government ignored the elephant in the room – COVID-19.
If anything, the conservative Coalition lost because they tried to fight the same campaign in 2022 as they had in 2019, running on everything except the single most important policy of their term in office. There was hardly any mention of Australia’s punitive COVID-19 restrictions, which saw the country nearly cut off from the wider world for over a year. Every government which confronted COVID-19 struggled with a response. It was, without a doubt, difficult for center-right governments whose inclinations would be to err on the side of individual freedom and the economy. Morrison could perhaps have defended his line; after all, much of the opposition favored even tougher lockdowns. Instead, he chose to pretend COVID had never happened. It was the worst of both worlds. It let the state governments, which enforced the most vigorous lockdowns and were Labor-led, off the hook, and it indicated the government did not even acknowledge the damage done to the economic prospects of millions, much less that it had any intention of helping them.
Oddly, the closest comparison to the conservative campaign is the one Terry McAuliffe ran in Virginia. Democrats were defending an eight-year tenure in office, which, while not by any definition disastrous, was a record they had to win or lose on. Instead, McAuliffe decided to run a culture war campaign against Youngkin and the Republican Party, effectively telling voters that whatever they thought of the Democratic tenure in Richmond, the Republicans would be worse because of their views on abortion, absentee voting, or parental involvement in education, or COVID. It did not work because Youngkin merely denied the more extreme charges while framing his positions in forms that appealed to swing voters’ concerns. Merely observing Youngkin was “pro-life” turned out not to be a winning strategy any more than the conservative Coalition suggesting Labor advocated cutting CO2 emissions or opposed a ban on male participation in female sports.
The lesson of the Australian result for Republicans is that deeds matter. It is all well and good to have effective messaging. It can even win you an election or two. But when you have been in power for years, clever messaging on issues you have done nothing about and have no plans to resolve comes across as insulting, not compelling, to those who care about them. It is a warning, too, for Joe Biden, who seems prepared to run a 2024 campaign against “Ultra MAGA” in which he will blame Republicans for everything he failed to accomplish while suggesting they will make things worse. Entirely absent will be any effort to explain how reelecting him will make things better. He should indeed pay attention to the Australian results. Not in the form of seeing another victory for a center-left party, but rather an example of a government that lost votes almost everywhere by blaming everyone but itself for national problems while providing no defense of its record or plans for the future.