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  • Rikki Lambert

Albanese Labor leads a fractured, greener parliament

PM Albanese (left) sworn in by Governor-General David Hurley on Monday

Making sense of Saturday's result will take time, but there are some clear observations that can be made on climate, women and the future of Australian politics.

The largest demographic in politics - women - rejected the Coalition and in inner-city seats backed independent women to replace Liberal male politicians. Attack their allegiances and choice of teal colour all you like, the simple fact is there are a lot more women in the parliament now but not via Labor's quotas, but through the voters' verdict.

Independent Zali Stegall convincingly retained former PM Tony Abbott's seat of Warringah, Allegra Spender won Malcolm Turnbull's former seat of Wentworth against the Liberals' Dave Sharma and fellow teal independents Kate Chaney, Zoe Daniel, Monique Ryan, Sophie Scamps and Kylea Tink look set to join a broader crossbench.

Stunningly, Liberal-leaning Dai Le looks set to expand the rout against the major parties, seemingly knocking out Labor nominee and former NSW premier Kristina Keneally in Fowler.

Leaving the crossbench is Craig Kelly, dissident Liberal turned independent then putative 'next prime minister' for United Australia Party - routed in his home seat.

The UAP could yet snag a senate seat, in Victoria, but not Clive Palmer in Queensland. Ironically, Pauline Hanson could lose her own senate seat - perhaps Pauline Hanson's ON becomes Game ON? - as her SA candidate Jennifer Game looks likely to be the sole PHON seat winner, hot on the heels of her daughter winning a SA Legislative Council seat in March. Queensland senator Malcolm Roberts was not up for re-election and succession planning in One Nation may have been foisted upon them by the electorate sooner than they had planned.

Leading up to the election, the big issues were COVID-19 and the government's response, the recession and cost-of-living, and climate change. Clearly, though, the polls were right in indicating that the accusations against male MPs by women and the 'toxic culture' in federal politics had resonated with female voters. When Grace Tame rose to prominence as Australian of the Year the tide was turning against the Coalition.

On COVID-19 and its attendant restrictions, the election result demonstrated that in two states most heavily restricted - metropolitan Melbourne and Western Australia - voters overwhelmingly backed Labor on a two-party-preferred status. Call it Stockholm Syndrome or otherwise, voters in those states were not switched off of the Labor brand by their state government's handling of the pandemic. Quite the opposite. Much as Clive Palmer's UAP billboards proclaimed 'freedom freedom freedom', the inner city vote did not swing towards self-styled 'freedom' parties.

The debate about the handling of the economy never got onto the structural issues such as taxation and government debt. Instead, having learned its lessons from the failed Shorten Labor campaign of 2019, Labor stuck to cost of living pressures, namely inflation and to a degree a rare Reserve Bank election-time hike in interest rates. With wages suppressed, voters backed Labor to help them get more in their pocket even as the economy and business struggle to get back on their feet again.

This brings us to climate change and again, think what you will on that topic, the ideological chickens have come home to roost in the form of the Greens winning possibly two additional seats in Brisbane in addition to retaining Melbourne, and a record 12 senators. The strident work of scientists and academics to convince the younger generation of the importance of climate change - or the 'climate emergency' as the Greens describe it - has resulted in a stronger than ever backing of Greens candidates.

The Greens snagged another senate seat in Queensland as well, a geographic schism between the south-east of the state and the coal-mining regions beyond. The Labor party made less inroads into marginal seats in coastal Queensland than it would have hoped but did not need to, relying on Melbourne, Sydney and Perth to get over the line. With Labor in government in the Sunshine State, the transition to an economy without reliance on fossil fuels will be most keenly felt in a state that relies heavily on state revenue from coal royalties.

Labor may well govern in the House of Representatives in its own right by the slimmest number of seats, but in the Senate they will pass nothing without the support of the 12 Greens senators - or the Coalition. The Greens now have an established inner-city foothold and the metropolitan battleground now looks like four-way contests between Labor, the Greens, 'teal' independents and the Liberals - in that order - in future elections.

It will be intriguing to see if the Canberra press gallery evaporates concerns about a toxic culture, particularly towards women, in Canberra's Parliament House now there is a change in government. Debate could shift to ensuring an anti-corruption commission is established, which could bypass resolving and reforming a toxic culture that either permeates all, or just one political grouping, within the corridors of power.

The Labor and Liberal parties will need to go humbly to voters seeking to understand why, collectively, their brands have been on the nose more than ever before. The Nationals, to a degree, are in a similar boat as Michael McCormack the former leader told me on Flow on Monday morning. The risk is that the shifting sands of inner city voters' appetites could spread more broadly to every seat, including in regional Australia.

Conservative commentators and MPs have railed against the Liberal Party's shift to the left to try and retain the inner city seats. Re-elected conservative Liberal MP Tony Pasin said there was no point of difference between the Liberals and Labor in those contests. Conservatives are entitled to advocate a shift to the right but it is a recipe for a longer stint in opposition. The more sensible approach is to swiftly identify why voters turned on them and find policies that palatably sit within the Coalition playlist to win those voters back. After all, voters only weakly endorsed Labor's policies, and as Mr Pasin said, the government did have the 'lead in its saddlebags' of seeking a fourth term in office. Mr Albanese risks relying on independents to govern - either once the results are finally tallied in this parliament, or in the next - if Labor can't effectively handle economic recovery or whatever the world throws at it.

The proposition that religious conservatives threw their votes to Labor on, say, religious freedom reform is fanciful. Labor made no compelling case on this front and whilst the Coalition made no effective progress on this front due to the state of the parliament, it is inconceivable any current or immediate future parliament will. Religious freedom will go nowhere in this parliament. A longer term cultural shift would be necessary for the average voter, unaligned with a traditional faith community as they are, to determine in the present zeitgeist that the concerns of traditional belief need to be elevated to equal or greater status than the causes celebre within the accepted equality canon of post-modernism.

Mr Pasin said the result indicates that voters backed in genuine local representatives with a strong level of personal support in their communities. If so, it is a welcome development and not something to be feared by the Australian public.

The duty falls on the local media to probe candidates before elections on where they stand on policy so the voters know exactly what they are voting for each election - something Flow did to the best of our resources and abilities this campaign.


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