Bill Shorten began the election campaign in full confidence that his crusade on fairness would win over Australian voters, only to be blindsided by the appeal of a more conservative message.
The brutal rebuff forces Labor to consider whether it misread the electorate or bungled its campaign by trying to redistribute wealth with a progressive policy agenda.
Monash University professor Andrew Markus said Australians usually nominated jobs, the economy and financial security as their top concerns and may have recoiled from Labor's sweeping plans for tax revenue increases.
"If there's a danger that your agenda challenges those economic factors, you're on pretty rocky ground," Professor Markus said.
But he and others cautioned that it was too early to assume the community was shifting to the right because poor campaigning, and a Coalition scare campaign, might also explain the rejection of Labor and its policy platform.
Asked at the outside of the campaign whether Australians were innately conservative, Mr Shorten expressed his faith in the willingness of voters to embrace his changes to tax concessions.
"I think the Australian people can detect unfairness at a long distance. I think they are more egalitarian than we give them credit for," he said in an interview with The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald.
But the swing to the Liberals suggested voters were sceptical of policies to raise $56 billion from changes to dividend rules, $32 billion from negative gearing and $30 billion over a decade from superannuation.
The result proved that Australians were more conservative than many thought, said Institute of Public Affairs chief John Roskam.
"It shows that Australia is still economically and politically quite a diverse country," Mr Roskam said.
"And it shows, as we've seen with Trump and Brexit, that Australian politics is realigning and the heartland of both parties is changing."
While Labor benefited from swings in wealthier urban areas, adding 5 per cent to its vote in the Liberal electorates of Goldstein and North Sydney, it lost ground in areas on the edges of the cities and suffered big swings against it in Queensland. It was in danger of losing the electorate of Macquarie, on the western edge of Sydney.
Social researcher Rebecca Huntley said issues like climate change were not working in Labor's favour as they had done in the past, forcing it to reconsider how it campaigned compard to the way Kevin Rudd galvanised support on the issue a dozen years ago.
The big message here is that the Labor Party's economic message has to be slogan-ready because they're already behind the eight ball.Social researcher Rebecca Huntley
"It divides people more," Dr Huntley said. "The environment is not necessarily helping the Labor vote in the way it did in 2007."
Dr Huntley said a belief in the fair go and equality remained strong but that Labor had not explained its tax agenda effectively enough.
Voters generally considered the Coalition to be the best to manage the economy, she said, and this meant Labor had to be doubly careful to explain its tax and economic policies with a compelling message.
"The big message here is that the Labor Party's economic message has to be slogan-ready because they're already behind the eight ball," she said.
Professor Markus said the outcome suggested Labor ran an ineffective campaign when it needed to take Australians with it on difficult reforms like the tax changes.
"It's overly simplistic to think of it in terms of the Australian people being conservative," he said.
"Whenever people look back, Labor will have to ask itself whether it went counter to the proven requirement for an effective campaign."
On social issues, Professor Markus said, a large proportion of the population was progressive when asked about questions like same-sex marriage or euthanasia, although Western Australia and Queensland were always likely to be more conservative.
"This counters the narrative that it's about conservatism - it's about effective campaigning."
Greenpeace Australia Pacific chief David Ritter countered the idea that voters were not as interested in climate change and his group and others had assumed during the campaign.
"The issue is practical, not ideological," he said.
"There's no doubt Australians want action on climate - people love renewable energy and nobody wants to live in a world of cascading disasters."
Mr Ritter and others pointed to the success of independent candidate Helen Haines in the regional Victorian electorate of Indi as evidence that action on climate change resonated with voters outside the big cities.
Mr Shorten acknowledged the challenges with his policy plans on Sunday.
"There's lots of lessons for Labor to learn from yesterday's result and I know that my party will," he said.
The party's deputy leader, Tanya Plibersek, suggested the problem was the tactical campaign plan rather than the policy platform.
"Our policy agenda, it was big, it was bold," Ms Plibersek said.
"But I think perhaps we didn't have enough time to explain all of the benefits of it to the people who would benefit."
- SMH/The Age