By Colin Packham
SYDNEY (Reuters) – Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison may have won more than just another three years in office for his conservative coalition government.
By winning what was seen as an unwinnable election, the unexpected leader has cemented his authority over the Liberal Party, giving him the muscle to end a decade of instability that has seen a revolving door of prime ministers.
It was a stunning personal victory for Morrison, who largely flew solo during campaign as senior ministers stayed close to home to defend seats thought to be at risk.
“It was a one-man show. There will be much written about this in the years to come,” Haydon Manning, a professor of political science at Flinders University, told Reuters. “He delivered the victory against the odds.”
Morrison became prime minister as a compromise candidate after a right-wing faction ousted Malcolm Turnbull as Liberal Party leader last August.
The resulting Liberal-National coalition was behind in every opinion poll – including an exit poll on Saturday – since Morrison took over, with voters angry at Turnbull’s ouster and frustrated by a perceived lack of action over climate change and a dearth of fresh polices.
But Morrison on Saturday defied those odds, securing re-election in what he described as a miracle. The coalition is on course to win a third term either with the support of independents or through an outright majority.
After a decade of political turmoil that saw both Labor and the coalition depose several prime ministers, changes Morrison introduced last year mean that it is now very difficult for his party to remove him now that he has won an election.
The secret of Morrison’s success, lawmakers, election strategists and analysts say, was twofold.
First, he could see a path to victory through target areas such as the urban fringes of Queensland state, where he won enough seats to offset expected swings against the government in city-based seats.
And he was able to frame the ballot as a contest between him and Labor leader Bill Shorten, whose reform agenda was portrayed by the government as at odds with Australian aspirations.
“Morrison’s biggest asset was Bill Shorten. He made the election a personal contest and in the end, the people never liked or trusted Shorten,” John Hewson, former leader of Australia’s Liberal Party, told Reuters.
Hewson now shares a connection with Shorten: as Liberal leader in opposition in 1993, he similarly lost what was considered an unloseable election after releasing a detailed and comprehensive tax reform policy well ahead of the vote.
In this weekend’s election, Labor proposed removing two generous tax concessions enjoyed primarily by older, wealthy Australians. But rather than winning favour with younger voters, the policies become the target of Morrison’s campaign, fostering suspicion of Labor.
Morrison – who centred his campaign on his government’s economic credentials – used Labor’s tax proposals as evidence that the opposition was “coming after your money”.
A Labor strategist said the government successfully cobbled together a coalition of support among voters in urban fringes and rural townships.
“They won a lot of voters from older Australians with its attacks about a retirement tax. But we lost votes from younger people that we didn’t expect,” said the strategist, who declined to be named as he is not authorised to talk to the media. “We didn’t do enough to talk about jobs for these people in these regions.”
Shortly after the first vote counts were released on Saturday evening, it was clear a shock was in the works.
Although Morrison’s support for the mining industry was expected to deliver victories in the north of Queensland, a state where coal is a major employer, victories in the outer suburbs in the south of the state belied exit polls.
On Saturday, Morrison embarked on a last-ditch visit to the southern island state of Tasmania before flying back to his Sydney electorate to vote. That bore fruit, with the government’s winning two seats in Tasmania from Labor that may help deliver an outright majority.
Morrison was also able to limit swings against the government in Victoria, seen as the major weak spot after a stinging rejection of the Liberal Party at state elections in November.
In rural areas, the National Party comfortably fended off what were expected to be strong challenges from independent candidates after the party had lost safe seats in state elections.
Throughout the campaign, Morrison continued to privately stress that a victory was possible, Treasurer Josh Frydenberg said on Sunday. But he often seemed alone in that belief.
“I have to say, until it happened, I didn’t think it would happen,” Liberal Senator Arthur Sinodinos said on ABC TV late on Saturday night.
(Reporting by Colin Packham; Editing by John Mair and Gerry Doyle)