Digital Snapshot

by Sophia Brook

Australian federal elections 2022 – The Liberal government and Labor’s pre-election campaigns

Digital Snapshot #25/21

19 November 2021

A potpourri of current affairs topics from Australia, New Zealand and the South Pacific brought to you by KAS Australia and the Pacific. The weekly digital snapshot showcases selected media and think tank articles to provide a panorama view and analysis of the debate in these countries.

Disclaimer: The views expressed in these articles do not necessarily reflect KAS Australia’s position. Rather, they have been selected to present an overview of the various topics and perspectives which have been dominating the public and political debate in Australia and the Pacific region.

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In the past, the most common types of election in Australia have either been a simultaneous half-Senate and House of Representatives election or a double dissolution election. With regards to the next elections, the latter can be ruled out, as there are no possible triggers. The latest possible date for a simultaneous half-Senate and House of Representatives election is 21 May 2022. Which date the Prime Minister chooses depends on how politics unfold, i.e. he will most likely hold an election when he thinks his government has the best chance of winning.

There are a few complications to the election schedule, however, and to the coalition government’s election campaign in general. First of all, with a series of recent decisions by NSW MPs to retire from office, there will be a number of by-elections in that state early next year (as it looks unlikely that they will happen this year), which might interfere with the government’s pre-election polls. In addition, South Australia is due to hold its state elections in March 2022. Apart from these issues, on a political level, there are the internal disagreements between the two government coalition partners, which, especially regarding climate-related policies, have become more pronounced recently and might make a coherent, unified campaign somewhat difficult.

Nevertheless, in the wake of his G7 and COP26 visits and with Australia’s internal border restrictions easing, PM Morrison last week set off on what the media have widely called an election campaign trail without an election. With the coalition government’s approval rating sliding in recent polls, PM Morrison appears determined to make up for lost time, announcing regional travel plans, releasing the government’s climate modelling for its 2050 targets and making announcements regarding electric vehicles, interest rates and investments in quantum technologies. Opposition leader Anthony Albanese followed suit with a series of media appearances, during which he questioned the coalition’s overall trustworthiness and ramped up the Labor party’s criticism of current government policies, with a special focus on climate-related issues. As of yet, no official election date has been announced, but the campaigning seems to have begun. Although there are no official campaign slogans yet, last week’s announcements have already highlighted potential directions the Liberal and Labor parties are likely to go into and issues they will focus their campaigns on.

Under the general theme of ‘Who do you trust to manage your economy?’, the Liberal party has started its campaign by highlighting economic benefits, the preservation of freedoms and an emphasis on their determination to act in Australia’s national interest without being pressured by foreign actors. During his recent visit to Victoria, PM Morrison stressed the fact that Victorians (who are led by a Labor government) had had to endure severe lockdowns during the pandemic, which had damaged the regional economy and impacted businesses and individuals alike. He emphasized that the government was all about opening up the country and implementing economic recovery, something that, according to the Liberal party, a Labor government would be unable to accomplish. What he did not mention was the fact that it was a federal government decision to keep Australia’s international borders closed until now, which resulted in many Australian citizens being left stranded overseas, unable to return due to limited access to flights, high costs of hotel quarantine and a general passenger arrivals cap, limiting the number of entries into the country. He also avoided to mention the supply issues related to the Covid vaccine rollout, which prolonged the public’s vulnerability to the virus and was one of the main reasons for the lockdowns.

In an effort to highlight the positive side of his COP26 appearance, which has been criticised by media and opposition parties, who are accusing the government of being behind the world concerning climate-related issues, as unsatisfactory, PM Morrison and other Liberal MPs unveiled their policy for a ‘can-do capitalism’ approach. This aims to reduce emissions based on technology-driven transformations of industries, without negative impacts on businesses and the farming industry or costs for the public. Embedded in the recently released ‘Future Fuels and Vehicles Strategy’, government support systems for the electric vehicle market are part of this plan. A policy, Labor was quick to point out, that had previously been ridiculed by PM Morrison when it was proposed by the opposition during the last election. The fact that PM Morrison in the past openly announced that electric vehicles would ‘end the weekend’ and would not be able to ‘tow your trailer” does not make the PM’s position any easier.

This position is made even more difficult by the fact that the Liberals’ coalition partner, the Nationals, openly opposes stronger climate targets, with Nationals leader Barnaby Joyce stating that the Nationals had not signed the COP26 agreement. This dilemma is further complicated by the pending by-elections in NSW, where Liberal candidates are becoming increasingly worried that their chances might be reduced and their seats be taken by Independent candidates if their own party does not adopt stronger climate targets before the election. As a result, PM Morrison is feeling the pressure from two sides, who both form part of the government and which he both needs in order to keep his majority in the House of Representatives.

Having covered economy and climate, PM Morrison this week also announced a foreign and security-related policy, promising a $100 million investment in quantum technologies (including $70 million for a commercialisation hub to foster strategic partnerships with like-minded countries) and releasing a list of 63 critical technologies that are to be protected from foreign interference, including next-generation networks (i.e. 5G and 6G), cybersecurity technologies and low-emission fuels like biofuels and hydrogen.

Last but not least, in a hit against the opposition, PM Morrison claimed that fuel costs and interest rates would be much higher under a Labor government. The latter point being dismissed by Reserve Bank of Australia (RBA) governor Philip Lowe, who noted that the cash rate was likely to remain at the current record low of 0.1 per cent until 2024.

In contrast to the Liberal party’s economic focus, the Labor party appears to be running their campaign according to the motto ‘Who can you trust’ and ‘Who can deliver on climate’. Rather than setting out by announcing their own policies, Labor leader Anthony Albanese started his media appearances by criticising government announcements and questioning PM Morrison’s overall trustworthiness. He highlighted inconsistencies in the Liberal policies and reminded the public of contradictory remarks, made by PM Morrison during the last federal elections, intended to underline the government’s unreliability. When the coalition published their climate modelling, the basis for their 2050 emissions targets and policies, critics soon pointed out that the modelling itself only led to an 85% achievement of targets by 2050 and that their strategy relied heavily on technologies that do not exist yet. Albanese used this fact to highlight that the government could not be trusted to deliver on climate targets and would be unable to commit to targets that were increasingly asked for by the public and the business sector alike. Albanese pointed out that the Labor party would be better placed to fulfil the Australian public’s and the world’s expectation of a stronger Australian commitment to climate protection. He did not, however, make any specific announcements regarding his own party’s climate targets and strategies. This might be because the opposition does not want to make early announcements that PM Morrison could then use against it or it might be that the Labor party wanted to see coalition plans first, before deciding on its own targets in order to come up with a slightly more ambitious strategy that, at the same time, does not endanger their own chances of being elected. According to recent reports, the party is currently weighing up between three different options for a 2030 climate target, trying to find the balance between keeping the party’s left factions onside and avoiding becoming a potential target for a coalition scare campaign. As a too ambitious climate target was mainly made responsible for the party’s election loss in 2019, any decision needs to be well-thought out and supported by the entire Labor party.

In a more noticeable pre-election pledge, the Labor party this week announced their plan to expand suburban and regional access to full-fibre NBN, with a $2.4 billion investment to boost the system. Apart from benefitting households, this plan also promises to create 12,000 jobs for construction workers, engineers and project managers in cities and the regions.

Critics have so far accused Anthony Albanese of not utilising PM Morrison’s weak points and not being forceful enough. Although he has had a stronger media representation over the last two weeks, he will need to keep up the momentum in order to get Labor’s election message across. With parliament going on break at the beginning of December, politics tend to get quiet over the holidays.

With both major parties getting ready for an election campaign, the pre-election campaigning has well and truly started. PM Morrison’s approval ratings will largely depend on how his government proceeds to manage the aftermath of the Covid pandemic and whether he can resolve the trust issue that has been much-discussed recently. The Labor opposition’s chances will mostly depend on whether they can convince the public that they can manage the post-pandemic economy as well as deliver on stronger climate targets. Whatever the outcome, the Australian public can likely expect more positive announcements from both parties in the coming months.