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Is Australia’s election result a teal revolution or an old story of centre-right flight?

Van Badham

History shows us that when a centre-right party drifts from the priorities of their ‘broad church’, their support and party structure fractures

The newly elected leader of the Liberal party Peter Dutton (right) and deputy Sussan Ley in Parliament House on Monday.
A photograph of Robert Menzies looks on as the newly elected leader of the Liberal party Peter Dutton (right) and deputy Sussan Ley speak in Parliament House on Monday. Photograph: Mike Bowers/The Guardian
A photograph of Robert Menzies looks on as the newly elected leader of the Liberal party Peter Dutton (right) and deputy Sussan Ley speak in Parliament House on Monday. Photograph: Mike Bowers/The Guardian

It’s been almost two weeks since Australia parted ways with its nine years of conservative Coalition government.

The new Coalition leadership fight for burnt scraps on a scorched landscape. Though the Nationals held their heartland, the Liberals lost more seats in 2022 than when John Howard was decimated by Kevin Rudd in 2007. Even with their own lowest primary vote since federation, preferences have flowed Labor into government with the largest parliamentary majority since Tony Abbott’s in 2013.

The novelty of the federal election is not the seats that Labor won in the suburbs and the regions, but those the Liberals lost across its own old urban heartlands to non-Labor candidates from the “teal” independents and the Greens. Even the impressive 10.94% primary swing that won the Greens the former Labor seat of Griffith tells this story. Labor’s Terri Butler lost a fatal 1.98% from her primary but it was Griffith’s Liberals who lost a whopping 10.04% from theirs.

Former Nationals leader Barnaby Joyce and former prime minister Scott Morrison are both insisting voters merely wanted to “change the curtains” after nine years of a Coalition government. Flames and floods lapping at such curtains strongly suggest that what drove old Liberal votes to teals and Greens was electoral desperation for action on climate said government refused to provide.

As the Liberals will – or not – recriminate, 16 crossbenchers now sit amid the 151 seats of our House of Representatives. It is unusual and significant, but it is neither “unprecedented” or a “revolution”.

Friends, we have been here before – specifically, at the collapse of Stanley Bruce’s centre-right Nationalist government in 1929 and then the collapse of the centre-right United Australia party government in 1941. Note the dates: both were ideological character tests failed by governing centre-right parties at the height of Australian emergency.

A civics lesson with this history: our geographically based lower house electorates are represented by single members. This structurally encourages major party groupings to coalesce around broad centre-left and centre-right positions to assemble the parliamentary majority necessary to form government.

The implications of this within a system of compulsory voting is that – unlike the contests of mobilised polarity that now define elections in the United States – Australian elections are all fought around the ideological centre. Preferences from the edges dribble towards each side, but winning the centre determines who gets the power of government.

History shows Australia that when a governing centre-right party drifts from the priorities of their “broad church”, it’s not only their support that fractures, it’s their party structure, too.

In 1929, Bruce’s bitter pursuit of unions despite the approaching Depression resulted in not only the fall of his government but the loss of his own seat; a right-leaning independent’s preferences flowed against him. Bruce’s Nationalists splintered and shattered, yet a centre-right that thirsted for government soon reformed their parliamentary presence into the UAP.

By 1941, the UAP had achieved government, but then-PM Robert Menzies unwisely dashed to the UK rather than face encroaching military threats at home. His resignation was demanded, leadership chaos followed. Two right-leaning independents threw support behind Labor and John Curtin. Labor crushed a riven UAP in 1943.

Yet Menzies learned from his Waikiki-holiday-level misjudgment. The Liberal party he led to creation in 1944 re-amalgamated those on the centre-right into a liberal-dominated movement rather than a conservative one. The “old survivor” knew that while conservatives would always grudgingly vote for liberals, he’d seen the reverse was not guaranteed. We are seeing the return of this phenomenon now.

Menzies’ Liberals regathered their disaffected centrists and went on to win non-conservative voters with tealish support for unions, welfare measures, expanded public education and even the maintenance of Curtin’s full-employment policy.

Menzies regained government in 1949. His party retained it for 23 unbroken years. On the other side, Labor’s most enduring government similarly encouraged the aspirations of the ideologically centrist small-business-curious. The Hawke-Keating partnership clocked up 13 years of government – something of which Anthony Albanese is very well aware.

Can Albanese gateway a centre-right who this time voted teal or Green towards his party? Maybe. Some.

Peter Dutton is unlikely to scoop up the Liberals’ misplaced moderate voters and chart a winnable course for the middle. He’s already in insistent pursuit of a “silent” conservative majority out there no demographer can find.

This centre-right flight could bring about the destruction of Dutton or his party. Ideological velocity and personal ambition have ever spurred non-Labor politicians to amalgamate. Governing is beyond them otherwise – and rarely does a protest movement arise without a thirst for the power that lies elsewhere.