Stoking fear and hatred held the Coalition in power – finally Australia had enough

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·5-min read
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<span>Photograph: Asanka Ratnayake/Getty Images</span>
Photograph: Asanka Ratnayake/Getty Images

Preventing the future became the great cause of Coalition politics in this country under Tony Abbott. Social change? Stop it in its tracks. Climate change? Let coal burn. Tax reform? Keep propping up the prosperous.

So we have lived with logjam. Many see this as a failure of politics. They’re wrong. It was the triumph of a political mission for which there was never more than scant popular support.

Rather like steam buffs with an ancient locomotive, the electoral technicians of the Coalition worked to keep the whole thing going. Indulge a few fears here and stoke up some hatred there and the conservative majority held together election after election.

We watched them at work for a decade.

Refashioning language so that elite and progressive and virtue become pejoratives takes time and money, but it can be done to stifle decent voices in the party. Then redefine progressive wealthy electorates as – gasp – inner city as if the rich streets of Bellevue Hill and Canterbury were old slums with dangerous politics.

Related: The election outcome exposes a gaping disconnect between News Corp and voters

So far so good. Then copy the playbook of the Republicans. Use Christ to divide and conquer. Sure, there’s about 12% support in Australia for letting church schools expel gay and transgender kids, but that became government policy by default.

So easy to fix but it never got fixed.

Scott Morrison was running a magnificent act of defiance. But it began before him. Read the polls. The undisputed wish of Australians for years has been to see the planet cool, women and vulnerable kids protected, and corrupt politicians punished.

Nothing useful happened.

Purity doesn’t play well in politics. All governments have to appeal to the fringe to be elected. John Howard did so with amazing technical skill. What he could do with a dog whistle defies imagination. But he has been followed on the Liberal side by one blunderer after another. They’ve needed fog horns.

And all the way back to Howard, Coalition leaders have never understood – or never cared - that appealing to fear and prejudice means more than clever political positioning. You don’t just take your party down there. You take the country.

Labor hasn’t been immune to this. There’s a perverse rule of politics in this country that where the Coalition goes Labor follows. It’s why the health of politics in Australia depends so much on the decency of the Coalition.

Morrison never lost his skill with a wedge. That’s why Anthony Albanese has come to power with no plans to end what makes Australian politics almost unique in the world: the billions we spend subsidising the prosperous.

The party has snubbed progressives in its own ranks knowing that, come what may, the great class divide in Australia would keep them voting Liberal

Morrison’s talents were few. He was the man at the front door with a suitcase of brushes. Defying Australia took more skills than he possessed. But assisted by the best technical minds in the election business, he gave it a splendid go.

If this were Texas, throwing an unknown anti-trans campaigner into the mix might have won votes. Trans issues are big with white Christians in the USA. Living the body God gave you is being mandated by law in state after state.

But we are not America. That’s one of the great lessons of the result at the weekend. Katherine Deves’ presence in the election was weird and distasteful. The sight of John Howard walking the woman around her electorate was the saddest sight.

Christian lobbyists may be feeling a little down this weekend. They’ve lost the only prime minister likely to give them the legal cover they want to go on punishing women, gays and transgender kids in the name of Christ.

What sacrifices Morrison made for them! There he was, his political capital almost exhausted, standing between parliament and a bill to protect those fragile kids. Letting it pass would have endeared him to the country. But he stood firm.

Let’s not forget the law parliament wanted Morrison to amend was the work of the Gillard government. And let’s not overlook, when the vote came, Labor wouldn’t back employment protection for gay teachers. Sickening, really.

The great political hiatus of the last decade was only possible while decent conservatives held their breath and kept voting Liberal. All the way back to Menzies, the party has snubbed progressives in its own ranks knowing that, come what may, the great class divide in Australia would keep them voting Liberal.

Related: Tony Abbott and Scott Morrison have emptied the Liberals’ broad church | Katharine Murphy

Had Labor been a true progressive party over the last half century, the power of the class divide might have disappeared long ago. As it is, a trace of snobbery among conservatives and the social caution of Labor kept the divide in place until ... this weekend.

Clive Palmer spent millions and got nowhere. Simon Holmes à Court backed a bright idea and transformed Australian politics.

Talk of earthquakes and historic moments isn’t out of place. The election result is big. For the first time in a long time, our politics is not such a stranger to the nation. The logjam blocking change since Abbott may be shifting at last.

The irony is, it took the destruction of the progressive wing of the Liberal party to bring home to the party what thoughtful advisers might have been warning for a long time: we can use all the tricks in the political playbook to hold out for years against the wishes of the country, but it will leave the party on the nose.

That’s what’s happened. When all the votes are counted and the calculations done; when the defeated have disappeared from the field and the analysts have picked through the last pile of data, we will know in superb detail what’s happened here. But I don’t think the verdict will change much: the government fell because it was on the nose with Australia.

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