While every year has its fair share of political instability, 2018 will surely be remembered as one of the most volatile in recent memory. The great uncertainty surrounding liberal democratic politics is not confined to one place. In Britain uncertainty abounds both in society and in the parliament over what a post-European future will look like in the aftermath of the 2016 Brexit vote. In the United States Donald Trump’s presidency lurches from one staffing-induced crisis to another. In Europe political leaders appear to be caught between fear of immigration on one side and fear of citizen anger of stalled economic activity on the other.
In Australia, it was a case of same old, same old. What would a year be in Australian politics without a leadership challenge in the governing party? It seems inconceivable that, having watched the Labor party destroy itself trying to reconcile the ambitions of Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard, the Liberal-National coalition would ignore the lessons of recent history and repeat the Labor disaster. Yet that is precisely what happened this year, although the beneficiary of the fall of Malcolm Turnbull as prime minister turned out to be Scott Morrison rather than Tony Abbott.
In accounting for the campaign they waged against him, Malcolm Turnbull’s critics inside the Liberal party cited a need to re-establish the party’s standing amongst its “base” as the driver of the search for a new leader. This was interesting and innovative: in the past, removing prime ministers was justified as a response to the shifts in the perceptions and preferences of the swinging voter.
In other words, the Liberal party sought to get rid of Turnbull for ideological reasons. Presumably, the move on Turnbull on the part of conservatives within the Liberal party was one of the consequences of Turnbull’s support for marriage equality in the previous year, and his threat to revisit the climate change issue via his ‘National Energy Guarantee’ policy. The Liberal party thus revealed itself to be riven with ideological division. Meanwhile, the National party revealed itself to exist in a moral vacuum where members of their parliamentary team could preach the virtues of traditional marriage and family values whilst having affairs with office staffers or “sugar babes” found on internet sites. Hypocrisy is an ugly political trait, and the National party seems particularly afflicted by it at the moment.
Given all of this, predicting a Labor election victory in 2019 hardly constitutes a brave political call. The signs of a massive defeat for the federal Liberal-National coalition government are everywhere, ranging from the Liberal party’s failure to win seats in by-elections (including previously safe seats like Wentworth), through to the dramatic fall in urban voter support for the Liberal party in the Victorian state election.
In light of the imminence of a change of government at the next federal election, a subsidiary question arises as to what direction the national policy debate will take when Labor comes to power. In the last days before Christmas, the Coalition tried to spruik a new narrative about the government’s economic credentials by drawing attention to the extent to which revenues from taxation are offsetting expenditure. All this does is indicate that the incoming Labor government will have a significant amount of money to spend on social programs. The surplus won’t be enough to deflect Labor’s intention to abolish negative gearing and various other taxation benefits to investors and retirees thereby indicating that Labor can be just as ideological on certain policies as its conservative counterparts.
The list of perennial policy difficulties including what to do about refugees and what to do about climate change will carry over into 2019, with or without a Labor government. The chances of a new Labor government being in a position to get its agenda through the Senate without amendment are slim. Winning the election will only be the starting point for a difficult year for Labor.
The year ahead looks like being very difficult in both domestic and international politics. Domestically Australians will be going to the polls, probably on 18 May 2019. Meanwhile, as Australians choose their next government, the international community continues to bicker over climate change, and watches nervously as Britain and the Europeans argue over Brexit and – perhaps more alarmingly – the United States and the People’s Republic of China contemplate their mooted trade war. These are issues whose economic consequences will impact on Australia. It remains to be seen if Labor and Bill Shorten will be up to the challenge of dealing with them.
* Nick Economou is a Senior Lecturer in Politics and International Relations at Monash University.