Unless things change this year, the Albanese Government will not deserve to win the next election. That said, neither will the Peter Dutton-led Opposition.
The Government’s slow decline in the polls, however, should not be ascribed to the loss of the Voice referendum, which many see as the main political event of 2023.
No, the 2023 event which will have the most significant political fallout was the Albanese Government’s loss of control of Australia’s borders.
When the final net migration figure of 518,000 came in, Government Ministers acted with genuine surprise, as if it was something that just happened and was not their fault and that they were not to blame. But it happened on their watch.
It happened after some warned a year or two ago that an immigration post-Covid “catch-up” would be disastrous.
In one year we had seven years’ worth of pre-Howard immigration. Right now, one in 50 residents in Australia came here last year.
Poll after poll screamed enough is enough. It was not a racist call, but a call about absolute numbers and about the Government’s mental block in refusing to associate high immigration with the housing crisis, higher inflation, supply-chain shortages, congestion, hospital queues, and stresses in the education sector. They refuse to see the bleeding obvious – blinded by big donors and lobbyists.
It will sound in the ballot box unless the Government sees the obvious and does something about it.
The Voice will be of little moment at the ballot box for the simple reason that nothing immediately changed for the better or the worse.
Hitherto, both major parties have had their head in the sand on population. But Dutton, ever the divisive opportunist sees an entry here. He will happily blow a dog-whistle to play on the very legitimate fears that people have about high population growth stressing the economy, infrastructure, and government services and taking some of their share away.
Average voters do not care about the bleatings of big business organisations about labour shortages wrecking the economy. They rightly see it as a myth. Higher wages may reduce profits. Good, they say. It’s about time we had a fairer share.
The Government’s response has been smoke and mirrors. “Cutting” immigration to a “more normal” 200,000 is not a cut. It is three times the pre-Howard immigration average.
Howard persuaded the electorate that he had controlled the borders by turning back refugees in boats. But he set up the pattern that if a person meets certain criteria they can come in as an immigrant as a right, irrespective of how many. There was no control of the borders as people came by air with documents and a legal right to come in.
To keep majority government, the Government will have to get back control of the borders. It will have to set and announce a number that voters will be comfortable with.
Until this is done, increasing housing supply (the big business mantra) is rowing against the tide and only generates more anger as people see paddock after paddock of agricultural land on city outskirts being consumed by cheek-by-jowl energy-inefficient boxes that impoverishes all except developers.
Australia’s reasonable carrying capacity is about 20 million. We have passed that. Any immigration beyond topping up the fertility gap sends us backwards.
Fixing that will enable the government to provide a fairer and more adequate distribution of services. That should extend to greater fairness in the tax system. That is the path to voter support.
But the major parties seem to have a tin ear despite voters sending a “plague-on-both-your-houses” message for some time.
Until now, what I call the “one-third, one-half rule” has prevented that message sounding decisively in election results. But that is likely to change before too long.
The “one-third, one half rule” in our single-member preferential electoral system means that one major party with about a third of the primary vote gets a tad over half the seals and the other major party with about a third of the primary vote gets a bit under half the seats.
And the almost one-third of the vote that goes to minors and independents gives them about 10 per cent of the seats.
The other big political story of 2023 is not the end of the Albanese honeymoon and the contraction of the Labor primary vote in the polls. Rather, it is a failure of the Liberal Party to be the big beneficiary of that.
The likelihood is a higher minor-party and independent vote and them winning more seats. And once they win a seat they usually keep it until retirement. And even then, there is a good chance a another independent will take their place
So, what about the Teals? Dutton is dreaming if he thinks he can get those seats back. And Labor is dreaming if they think they can get back the extra three seats the Greens won in 2022. The 15 minor and independent seats in 2022 is a post-war record. But do not expect it to be an aberration or a high-water mark.
More than 90 per cent of the House of Representatives seats went to preferences last election.
Dutton might imagine he can win an election on ruthless, evidence-bending negativity like Tony Abbott in 2013 – the only election of the past five which did not go down to two or three seats.
But Abbott won votes from Labor’s (fairly conservative) working class. That is a far easier thing to do than win votes from mainly highly educated, female professionals while at the same time engaging in abrasive, unco-operative oppositionism.
The story of the failure of the Albanese Government to cement and improve its position, is not a story of “here comes the Coalition”, but rather here comes perpetual and permanent minority government.
This is a psephological time bomb.
This article first appeared in The Canberra Times and other Australian media on 2 January 2024.