Scott Morrison is not Australia’s answer to Donald Trump

We are now a week on from the election, and the scope of Scott Morrison’s triumph is beginning to be appreciated.

Pollsters and commentators are scrambling to make sense of an election result that went completely against the conventional wisdom and three years of polling data.

It is inevitable in this environment that comparisons would be made to Donald Trump’s surprise victory in the 2016 US Presidential election.

However, these comparisons are only valid at the most superficial level. Morrison is not Trump, and Australia is not America.

It is true that both Morrison and Trump came from a seemingly unwinnable position in the polls. And it is also true that Morrison is no ivory tower elite, lecturing the ordinary people on how their betters think they should live.

Certainly Hillary Clinton was perceived this way, and there is little doubt that Queenslanders similarly resented the ‘stop Adani’ convoy of condescension.

Yet here the comparisons end. People voted for Trump because they thought that America had lost its way.

The very nature of Trump’s slogan makes this clear: “make America great again” is the call of a group of people who want radical change to the current order.

In contrast, Morrison was a representative of the status quo. For a start, he is the sitting Prime Minister with a party that has been in government for six years, and close elections in Australia generally favour the incumbent.

Morrison is in no sense an outsider seeking to uproot the political order.

The agent of change in the Australian election was Bill Shorten. And though both would bristle at the comparison, the central economic message of both Shorten and Trump’s campaigns was surprisingly similar – specifically that our current economic approach has failed and we should return to the economics of the past.

Trump proposed tariffs and protectionism, Shorten wanted union controls and government intervention in wages policy.

Politicians on the left in Australia have borrowed from America and Europe a narrative that market economies have failed and it’s time to substantially reregulate companies, raise taxes and put government at the centre of society.

That this message failed in Australia where it succeeded in America is less surprising than you might think. The economic conditions in Australia are fundamentally different to the US.

For decades, income growth for the middle and lower classes in the US had been stagnant. In parts of the US rust belt, voters have felt the modern economy has left them far behind.

Inequality was rising. Drug use was a real problem – driven at least in part by the sense of hopelessness that a lack of economic opportunity brings. People were concerned that their kids would do worse than they did.

It is impossible to understate how important widespread income growth has been for Australian society and politics.

Even worse, it was not clear that the leaders of the country in New York, Washington and California knew or cared what was happening in these societies.

Clinton described them as a basket of deplorables and effectively told them she didn’t want their votes anyway. Sound familiar?

Yet, unlike much of the rest of the world, our economic story is overwhelmingly positive.

Australia does face real economic challenges but we have seen sustained real income growth across every level of society.

It is impossible to understate how important widespread income growth has been for Australian society and politics.

As the Productivity Commission found last year, inequality in Australia has risen only slightly over the past four decades. Data from the the Household, Income and Labour Dynamics in Australia reports show that absolute poverty in Australia has significantly declined over a similar period.

Shorten sought to attack the foundations of much of this success.

I noted before the election that the central choice was simple: if you agreed with Shorten that the economy had performed poorly in recent decades, you would support Labor’s plan to refashion it. If you felt that the Australian economy has basically done pretty well since 1983, you would vote for the Coalition.

When put that way, the outcome seems far less surprising.

The risk for Labor is that they will learn the wrong lessons from this defeat. And here the Trump comparisons have more validity, because as the US rapidly approaches the 2020 Presidential election, the Democrats have refused to learn anything and are still desperately re-litigating the 2016 loss.

So far, the signs here for Labor are not good. Three specific narratives have emerged on the left “explaining” the result.

The first, popular on Twitter, is that Australians are racist, greedy and/or stupid. Needless to say, this is neither helpful to Labor, nor likely to convince anyone to vote for them in the future.

The second, again straight out of the US playbook, is that Clive Palmer somehow stole the election with his advertising blitz. Given Palmer got just 3 per cent of the vote, this too seems far-fetched.

The last, which we have already seen from senior Labor figures like Tanya Plibersek, is that Labor didn’t explain their policies well enough to the electorate. Not only is this probably factually incorrect – given much of their 2019 platform continued from the 2016 campaign – but it also supposes that the electorate prefers Labor’s interventionist approach.

This seems to be a fundamental misreading of the situation. Regardless of the specifics of each policy, the overall direction of the Labor campaign could not be clearer. It was a straight class war argument. Rich versus poor, old versus young … everything was put in us versus them terms.

And at the centre of Labor’s platform was government. More taxes, more spending, more regulation and more government was Labor’s one and only answer.

Australians do not like that message.

They don’t hate the well-off, they want to be well-off. They don’t hate self-funded retirees; they actually don’t want to be dependent on the pension in their own retirement.

They think the country is broadly headed in the right direction. Morrison understood that, Labor did not.

If Labor dismisses this lesson and writes the 2019 election off as a Trumpian revolt, they risk losing the next election too.

Director and Founder of the Centre for Independent Studies

Professor of Public Policy and Director, Centre for Applied Macroeconomic Analysis in the Crawford School of Public Policy at the Australian National University


Sociologist, Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, University of Sydney.
Author of The New Authoritarianism

Director, Free Market Foundation, (Hungary)

Health Director, Health and BioSecurity, CSIRO

Director and Founder, Academy of Ideas, London, (UK)

Founder and CEO, Cognoscenti Group

Executive Director, The New Zealand Initiative (NZ)

Australian writer and columnist for the News Limited Press

Research Director, CIS

Programme Co-ordinator of the Masters of Urban and Regional Planning, The University of Western Australia

Chinese Canadian human rights advocate

Senior Research Fellow, Culture, Prosperity & Civil Society Program, CIS

CEO and Founding Director, China Matters

Former Liberal member of the Australian House of Representatives and Cabinet Minister

Pro Vice-Chancellor Arts and Academic Culture, and Professor of History, Australian Catholic University

Cancer researcher and clinical oncologist, with Genesis Care Newcastle

Founder and President, Middle East Forum, publisher Middle East Quarterly Journal, (US)

Professor of Economics, University of Melbourne

Senior Research Fellow and Director, Culture, Prosperity & Civil Society Program, CIS

Internationally acclaimed novelist and journalist, (US)

Head of Economic Research, Reserve Bank of Australia

Executive Director, CIS

Professor of Economics at Stanford University; Senior Fellow in Economics at the Hoover Institution and Chair of the Working Group on Economic Policy, (US)

UQ-CSIRO Chair in Personalised Nanodiagnostics, Professorial Research Fellow, School of Chemistry and Molecular Biosciences, University of Queensland

Diplomat, American Board of Pathology

Minister for Population, Cities and Urban Infrastructure

Liberal Party Member for Berowra

Australia’s Ambassador to China from 2007 to 2011, Chairman & CEO of Geoff Raby and Associates Ltd based in Beijing

Director of China and Free Societies program, CIS

Senior Research Scholar, Marron Institute of Urban Management, New York University, (US)