Published May 23, 2019
The Australian Labor Party’s unexpected defeat in last weekend’s election should be a warning for Democrats. The lesson: Don’t scare swing voters with a platform that’s too left-wing.
Labor and its leader, Bill Shorten, were confident of victory leading into the election. They had led in almost every poll for nearly three years. Infighting in the center-right Liberal Party, culminating in an internal coup that replaced moderate Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull with conservative Scott Morrison, had upset moderate and educated voters. This led Labor to adopt what Labor Sen. Penny Wong called a “bold” agenda to fight climate change, raise taxes on the well-to-do and increase government interference in the economy. None of these policies proved popular.
Climate change had an especially negative impact on voters dependent on mining and forestry. The state of Queensland is rich in coal, exporting much of it to China. Labor’s stated goal of cutting carbon emissions by 45 percent by 2030 led it to waffle on whether it would allow a new coal mine in the region. Queensland voters, desperately in need of jobs from that mine, shifted massively against Labor. Instead of gaining seats in the state as the polls had predicted, Labor lost two working-class seats and might lose a third when counting is complete.
These policies, especially the emphasis on climate change, were supposed to help Labor win over highly educated urban voters. The party did gain some votes among that demographic, but nowhere near what the polls had predicted. In the end, the Liberal Party lost only one wealthy, educated urban seat — and that was to an independent. It regained another wealthy Sydney area seat and held on to all the wealthy seats around Melbourne, Adelaide and Perth that were supposed to swing toward Labor.
But that shouldn’t be too much of a surprise considering the rest of the party’s platform. Labor proposed hiking income taxes on households earning more than 180,000 Australian dollars a year (about $124,000). It also proposed hiking the capital gains tax and eliminating a policy that allowed taxpayers to write off losses in investment properties, called “negative gearing” in Australia. Combined with other policies that would raise costs and reduce returns for business, these policies forced well-to-do voters with a choice: Do you care more about your pocketbook or climate change? In the end, they swallowed their distaste with a conservative prime minister and voted their self-interest.
Even the culture wars came back to hurt Labor. Shorten had outraged religious communities, Christian and Muslim alike, with stances that threatened their schools’ ability to teach traditional doctrine concerning homosexuality. He also failed to satisfy religious leaders with a strong commitment to religious liberty, leading them to fear that Labor leadership would force their institutions to affirm LGBTQ-rights ideology. Support for conservative Christian parties dropped and the Liberal vote rose in seats containing a large percentage of Muslims, East Asians and traditional Christians.
This should alarm Democrats. Progressives want rapid climate-change action, dramatic expansions in government spending, tax hikes on well-off voters and a rollback of religious liberty legislation. Candidates differ in the degree to which they endorse the most dramatic policies urged by progressives, but all bend the knee in their direction. Even if “moderate” Joe Biden becomes the nominee, the party platform is likely to include policies and language that Republicans can exploit to their advantage. Add the party’s seemingly doctrinaire support for third-trimester abortions — a policy so extreme that virtually no other Western country permits it — and a seemingly unlosable election becomes far less winnable.
The fact is that progressives, not conservatives, are wildly out of touch with America’s moderates. Data from the Voter Study Group, of which I am the founding director, demonstrate this. Major priorities of the Democratic Party’s left wing — climate change, racial and gender equality and gay rights — are not significant priorities for moderate voters. Similarly, moderate voters prioritize issues such as taxes and terrorism while progressives do not. Only on broad issues such as health care and education do moderates and Democrats share leading priorities. Savvy Democrats such as House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) know this; it’s probably why the leading issue in last year’s House election was health insurance and preexisting conditions. But it’s clear the party’s progressives want to make their priorities the party’s priorities in 2020, and it’s likely they prevail.
Shorten was a moderate man pushing an immoderate platform. He lost the unlosable election because both sets of Australian swing voters — blue-collar workers and upper-income moderates — rejected his party’s ideas. Don’t be surprised if the same thing happens here to Democrats in 2020.
Henry Olsen is a Washington Post columnist and a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.