An Electoral Brush Fire in Australia
It was another election that couldn’t be lost until it was. Rived by years of infighting, Australia’s conservative governing coalition was trailing in the polls. The opposition Labor Party’s polls showed it all but certain of ousting Prime Minister Scott Morrison, and its action platform on climate change seemed bound to resonate in a country devastated by drought, heat waves, brush fires and the loss of its magnificent Great Barrier Reef to warming seas.
On Saturday, in another surprise of the sort that had stunned Americans and Britons, Australian voters handed Mr. Morrison what he called a “miracle” victory. His conservative Liberal-National coalition, sharply opposed to cutting down on carbon emissions and coal, is expected to take 77 seats, one more than enough for a majority.
In hindsight, there are many reasons Mr. Morrison defied predictions. One was his success in projecting himself as the average Joe, a rugby-loving, beer-drinking evangelical Christian in a baseball cap who peppered his speeches with folksy Australianisms and slogans like “a fair go for those who have a go.” Urban Australians rolled their eyes, but polls show that whatever they thought of his party, the larger pool of those Mr. Morrison called the “quiet Australians” — a category similar to those who voted for Brexit or President Trump — consistently favored him over the Labor Party’s Bill Shorten.
The troubling message was that even on an island-continent where the ravages of climate change are there for all to see, especially after the hottest summer on record, invocations of economic stability, secure jobs, cuts to immigration and conservative family values trump the unknowns and costs of dealing with climate change.
Climate action supporters rallied outside Parliament House in Canberra, Australia, on May 5.CreditRohan Thomson/EPA, via Shutterstock
The surprise result also appeared to reflect a recent tendency of pollsters to underestimate the strength of conservative candidates and causes. Benjamin Netanyahu’s victory in Israel in 2015, and Britain’s Brexit vote and Mr. Trump’s election, both in 2016, confounded pollsters’ and pundits’ predictions and have caused considerable analysis and soul-searching in the world of survey research.
There are many possible explanations for these polling misses, from voters’ lying to survey-takers or avoiding pollsters altogether, to faulty turnout models, to a tendency by polling companies to reinforce one another’s findings, a phenomenon called “herding.” The industry is hard at work trying to correct these problems, and the generally accurate polling in the United States’ 2018 congressional election was a good sign.
Like other victorious conservative populists, including in the United States, Mr. Morrison had the advantage of an easier message: change is risky and expensive; leftist plans to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases will wreck the economy, which has grown without interruption for 28 years. In the final debate between the candidates, each was told to ask the other two questions. Mr. Shorten used both of his to promote Labor policies, which included tackling climate change and wide-ranging reforms; Mr. Morrison used his to attack Labor policies.
The conservative coalition made the cost of addressing climate change the dominant issue. One economic model cited by Labor estimated that the 45 percent reduction in carbon emissions would cost the economy 167,000 jobs and 264 billion Australian dollars ($181 billion). Mr. Morrison used the study to claim Australia could not afford its current programs to reduce emissions and invest in clean energy.
It is certainly discouraging that so many voters in a democratic society could choose to shut their eyes to the obvious and immediate danger of climate change. The election gave added evidence that climate wars have become an adjunct of the politics of grievance that have brought populists to power in America, Europe and elsewhere, and have rent electorates into bitterly opposed camps of urban and provincial, young and old, activist and cautious.
But Mr. Morrison’s victory does not necessarily mean he will do nothing about greenhouse gases. The pressure to take action is certain to grow, especially from the young, who demonstrate a strong concern for the climate, and several candidates who pushed a climate-change agenda did win. (Alas, the government is likely to support a hugely contentious coal mine proposed in the northeastern state of Queensland, which would be among the world’s largest if approved, but Labor gave mixed signals on what it would have done.)
What the Australian election outcome revealed was the urgent need to broaden the message for reducing carbon emissions, and to separate it from the divisive culture wars afflicting Western democracies.
Mr. Morrison confounded the pundits with his victory. He could now confound them even more by showing that he is ready to lead Australia, a country where the ravages of man-made climate change are most evident, in fighting back. As the first director of Tourism Australia, Mr. Morrison approved the cheeky “So where the bloody hell are you?” advertising campaign. The next target of that Australian brashness should be the climate. Otherwise, a new generation of voters will be putting that question to him when the next election rolls around in three years’ time.