May resigns – and Johnson is waiting in the wings

Against all odds: after years of bitter internal factional, personal and policy battles Australia’s conservatives won.

Too late now for Theresa May, but Australia has just provided a lesson:  get the politics right first and worry about the consequences later, writes Geoff Kitney.

When Theresa May picked up the telephone on Sunday and called her Australian counterpart, Scott Morrison, she must have been tempted to ask: “How did you escape?”

In the world of politics, at a time when incumbency has become a curse for many political leaders and especially so for the Brexit-besieged British Prime Minister, the conservative Australian Prime Minister had just pulled off what he called “a miracle”.

Against all odds, after years of bitter internal factional, personal and policy battles which had seen the main conservative party – the Liberal Party – have three different prime ministers in quick succession, Morrison last Saturday led his government into a third successive term in office. After having not won a single opinion poll during its last term in government, the Morrison government won the poll that mattered and was re-elected with a swing to it.

The Labor Party, which had gone into the election expecting a comfortable victory, suffered a national swing against it and, in key seats in key parts of the country, big anti-Labor swings.

Counting of votes since the weekend has reinforced the Morrison triumph, turning what initially seemed likely to be a minority government into a government with a working majority.

The result was the biggest upset in Australian post-war politics and, for the conservative side of politics, one of its most memorable victories.

Most extraordinary of all is that Morrison achieved victory with almost no new election promises. And he achieved it despite long-standing and deep divisions inside his own party over an issue that was expected to be one of the defining issues of the election – climate change and what to do about it.

As I have previously written for Chief-Exec.com, climate change has been the Brexit issue of Australian politics. It has driven a deep wedge into the conservative parties – the Liberals and the smaller, regional-based National Party which govern together in coalition.

Australian conservatives believe that there is a clear lesson in the way Morrison acted so decisively to back his conservative instincts on a policy position which clearly defined the differences between the two sides of Australian politics.

The conservative coalition has had a dozen different policy positions on climate change as it has wrestled with its own internal divisions to try to offer a policy which could be supported by all sides.

When the internal divisions led to a successful move to topple Morrison’s predecessor, Malcolm Turnbull, in August last year, it seemed likely that Morrison would simply be a stop-gap leader until after the general election that had to be held in May this year and that, after a widely expected Labor victory, the conservative parties would face a long period in opposition, bitterly divided over this core issue.

But what happened has confounded the political classes.

Once in the job, Morrison chose to go with his own conservative instincts on the climate change issue – to emphasise support for Australia’s great mineral resources industries and for the workers in those industries and to relegate climate action to an issue for the so-called “inner city elites” to worry about.

On election-eve his government gave the go-ahead for a massive new coal mine in central-Queensland, owned by Indian mining giant Adani, and accused the Labor Party, which opposed the mine as part of its climate change policy, of wanting to kill Australian workers jobs for the sake of “climate ideology”.

When the votes came in on Saturday night, there were massive swings to the Morrison government in Queensland and important swings which saved government seats in other pro-resources development states.

Conservative commentators have hailed Morrison’s decision to gamble on sticking with the natural conservative-rightwing instinct for development and jobs over progressive “do the right thing” policy on climate change as a model for all conservative leaders.

This includes Theresa May whom they believed made a massive mistake by not taking a hard-line conservative position on Brexit by drawing a line in the sand in her negotiations with the European Union and opting for a no-deal Brexit when the EU refused to make the concessions she was demanding.

With the British Labour Party under Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership having embraced a far more radical left-wing agenda than the Australian Labor Party, Australian conservatives believe such a strategy by Theresa May would have delivered a decisive advantage to the Tories which could have returned it to a dominant political position.

They point out that Scott Morrison’s predecessor Malcolm Turnbull had failed because he had tried to establish a centrist consensus on climate change when what the conservative rank-and-file wanted was a hard line which clearly defined the differences between the conservative coalition and Labor.

The result was the biggest upset in Australian post-war politics and, for the conservative side of politics, one of its most memorable victories.

As the British Conservative Party braces for a smashing in the European Parliament elections this week – fatally weakening Theresa May – it is very likely that the man who most desperately wants her job, Boris Johnson, has been receiving advice from some of his Australian friends suggesting that Scott Morrison’s “miracle victory” could be replicated in the UK.

Of course, there are a lot more complexities to the Brexit conundrum than in Australia’s climate change politics. But Australian conservatives believe that there is a clear lesson in the way Morrison acted so decisively to back his conservative instincts on a policy position which clearly defined the differences between the two sides of Australian politics.

While climate scientists warn that the Morrison government’s promotion of the coal industry and resistance to climate change measures is irresponsible and economists warn that Australia is in danger of losing a great opportunity to become a global leader in renewable energy, Morrison’s view was that the most important immediate task for him was to win the election and to worry about the wider issues later.

Australian conservatives following Brexit make the same argument ­– get the politics right first and worry about the consequences later.

 


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Headline image credit: Shutterstock.com

 

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