The key to understanding what's happened in politics is the swing. They're discrete, measurable, comparable, and have real meaning. So, although we won't have definitive results until every vote is counted, the obvious takeaway is that ACT voters have backed a progressive, environmental agenda and rejected a conservative one.
Inevitably, media attention will focus on the counting of those final votes; who holds those key seats that have determined government. That's right and proper, because winning has delivered a huge prize to Labor. But while Andrew Barr has been returned, Labor won votes from the Liberals only to lose them to the Greens. This flow conveys a deeper meaning: people want something more. This is the real takeaway.
Voters here believe government is about more than economic self-interest. Promises to cut car rego and freeze rates won't be enough, by themselves, to sway the voters. We want and expect government to achieve things we can't accomplish by ourselves, whether that's providing services, helping the disadvantaged, or meeting overarching goals like fighting climate change. These are the tasks of government, and we expect politicians to be able to demonstrate they have coherent policies to accomplish them.
Most critically of all, politics is about reconciling individual needs with collective resources. It's about creating communities to resolve the challenges of the future. Over the last few weeks, Canberra has had a clear choice. Its residents looked at the policies and personalities of the respective parties and, leaving aside the detail and quibbles over particular policies or individuals, decided broadly what sort of society we want to be.
Which is all very interesting, of course, but what does it mean for the country?
Every election offers lessons and the key to future triumph is always there, buried in the detail. Definitive interpretation shouldn't be attempted until the final numbers are collated - but let's throw caution to the wind and examine the obvious lessons.
Firstly, the two Ps - policy and personality.
You can win without a likeable leader or coherent program (showing where the money's coming from and going to), but not both.
Secondly, the advantage is always with the incumbent.
Governments simply have to prove they haven't stuffed up, whereas oppositions need to make a case for change, which is always going to be more difficult.
And thirdly, every element is vital.
No matter if it's a temporary, COVID-inspired rate reduction (that just happened to coincide with this election) or the ease of voting electronically (easy, fast, whenever it suits), each tiny factor played its part in smoothing individual voters' path to plump for one party or the other.
Everything counts - particularly those things we don't notice. Take voluntary voting, for example. The reason Hillary Clinton isn't US president today is simply that she couldn't enthuse as many people to vote for her as Barack Obama did. Compulsory voting solves that problem, but shifts the battleground. The party strategists concentrate their efforts instead on one simple and decisive moment: framing the question your mind perceives in that split-second as you pause, pencil hovering in the air, before placing a 1 on the soft green ballot paper.
The key to this is, of course, shaping the "mood". Forget the supporters on either side - they're already committed. Search, instead, for the middle, because (as we've seen in the ACT election) these people will decide the result. How can essentially disengaged voters, people who don't really see politics as being a part of their world, be energised to understand the need for change or, alternately, convinced that things are going as well as they can?
Scott Morrison is Prime Minister today because Labor failed, a year ago, to mind those two Ps. For a lot of little reasons (including, perhaps, treachery) Bill Shorten wasn't the right personality, and the party's policies weren't coherently explained or sold. Personally, I though that was pretty much all there was to say.
Christine Wallace has proved me wrong. She's produced a terrific short book, How to win an Election, that's compulsory reading for anyone who wants to do exactly that. It's a deconstruction job, but not of individuals. Instead Wallace has grasped individual threads of Labor's campaign and shown how they weren't tightly tied together. That's why they unravelled when voters entered those white cardboard polling booths.
Nothing can be left to chance.
For a while Labor, federally, tried to pretend it was the natural party of government. That's fine, but it's only won 11 elections since the Great Depression; the Coalition's won 23. Another way of looking at the challenge it faces is to realise it's only won government from opposition three times since World War II. Despite global warming; ignoring disparities of wealth; regardless of economic problems - the chips are still very much stacked against the opposition winning in a year's time.
Compare Labor's federal task with what happened here last weekend.
The ACT election shows how difficult it is to throw out an entrenched government. COVID-19 has now given Morrison a chance to overturn economic orthodoxy. Already he's turning a huge hose of money at both favoured supporters and marginal electorates hoping for a new sports field, change rooms or road upgrade.
The ACT election shows how hard it is to craft policies that will appeal to specific interest groups while still retaining broader economic coherence. It demonstrates the difficulty of getting that message across and mobilising the support needed for change. It shows the enormous hurdles that need to be overcome before change can be achieved.
Labor may have won one election, but the federal party will be taking little comfort from this result.
Unless voters are convinced of the need for change long before the actual poll, their decision has already been (subconsciously) made.
- Nicholas Stuart is a Canberra writer and a regular columnist.