This week marks one year since that election. It has been another opportunity to relive the folly of the self-assured commentators that predicted that Bill Shorten would be our new Prime Minister when day dawned on 19 May 2019.
In fairness, they got it wrong because the polls got it wrong. What the polls missed, for reasons that still are not clear, is that large swathes of Labor’s traditional working-class vote deserted a party that had drifted off into a green-left, climate change embrace.
Labor’s formerly wedded on voters were rightly more worried about real threats to their own jobs rather than empty promises to save the planet. The transformation of once-safe Labor seats has been remarkable.
I live in what used to be the Labor stronghold of Capricornia. Labor has held Capricornia for almost 90 of its 120 years as a Federation electorate. Until recently, the Liberal and National parties had only won the seat during the DLP split, and at landslide victories for the Coalition under Malcolm Fraser, John Howard and Tony Abbott).
Labor’s success was built on a bedrock of unionised meatworkers, railwaymen and miners that dominate the industries of Central Queensland. These hard workers no longer feel welcome in a party that idolises the celebrity of Greta Thunberg over the humble decency of a coal miner.
Capricornia saved Malcolm Turnbull in 2016. It was the last seat to be declared and the Coalition won by just over 1000 votes. This was the first time the Coalition had retained the seat since the DLP split. By 2019, thanks to Bob Brown and Adani, the LNP won with a thumping 12 per cent margin, or by more than 20,000 votes.
The numbers don’t lie. In North Rockhampton, the Labor party recorded a primary vote of 61 per cent in 2007. By 2019, the Labor vote had halved to less than 30 per cent. The LNP won every statistical district in Rockhampton in 2019, a previously unthinkable outcome.
Central Queensland is the starkest example of how the Liberal and National parties are now the true parties of the worker, but it is evident across the country. The swing to the Coalition at last year’s election was three times higher in statistical areas that had above-average mining employment. And, last year’s Australian Election Study, produced by the Australian National University, showed that 42 per cent of “tradies” (those with a non-tertiary qualification) voted for the Coalition, compared to only 32 per cent for Labor. Last year’s election was a “hi-vis” revolution. (As an aside university-educated voters split equally 36 per cent to each of the Coalition and Labor, and 17 per cent to the Greens.)
If you are toiling in a mine, in a factory or on a shipyard, there is no way you can trust the Labor party, and its green hangers-on, with your economic future. It is the Liberal and National parties that have been fighting for the productive industries of Australia, and the jobs these industries create.
The question now is can the Liberal and National Coalition retain the support of the workers? Or, to put it another way, what must we avoid doing to keep their support?
We must avoid getting sidetracked into championing the latest climate change fad, be it net-zero emissions or 100 per cent renewable energy. These policies destroy the jobs of miners and factory workers. The workers have voted for us because they see us fighting against the Greens that want to take away their jobs. If we weaken that fight, we weaken any desire for the worker to vote for us.
We must avoid the snake oil of the latest technology that offers deals that are too good to be true. The latest is “green steel” which offers the same wondrous promise of Kevin Rudd’s green car industry or Bill Shorten’s electric cars. The idea of green steel is to make steel from hydrogen rather than coking coal. This technology is yet to work anywhere in the world. Given that hydrogen is five times more expensive than coal or gas, no one can explain how this new steel industry will be competitive. Your average Australian worker has a great antenna for this kind of rubbish.
What we must do instead is promote practical and tangible ways of boosting Australia’s wealth and creating jobs. That means building dams that will open up the 40 per cent of our north that receives 60 per cent of our rainfall. That means letting farmers develop their own land to grow more food. And yes, that means building a coal-fired power station here rather than just exporting the world’s highest quality coal overseas for others to create jobs with.
These are the policies that won the Liberal and National Parties the support of the working class at last year’s election. For the foreseeable future, there will be a lot more workers in Australia than radical greenies. If we continue to fight for the policies that improve the lives of workers, we will continue to receive their support and stay in government even without the help of a coronavirus, locked down, Bob Brown.
Matt Canavan is a Liberal National Party Senator for Queensland and former resources minister.