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September 08, 2013 10:27 AM It’s the Economy, Mate

Australia's election challenges conventional wisdom on the importance of the economy to voters.

By Max Ehrenfreund

Tony Abbott will be the next prime minister of Australia after his conservative coalition handily won yesterday’s election, forcing the Labor Party out of power after six years. Abbott won despite the fact that the Australian economy has expanded without interruption for 22 years, unemployment is low, interest rates are low, and household incomes have increased in real terms. The Australian election had nothing to do with the Australian economy.

The Labor government was effective in other areas as well, implementing educational reforms, a fiber-optic network, and a national insurance program for the disabled. Labor has been successful enough that Abbott’s Liberal Party has acquiesced on most of the issues. The Liberals are more socially conservative, but except for the carbon tax, which Abbott wants to repeal, there is little separation between the two parties on matters of governance. (The Liberals have almost nothing in common with the Republican Party here. The two main planks in Abbott’s platform, infrastructure spending and a major government-funded maternity leave program, would be anathema to conservatives in the United States.)

“How did a second-term government that delivered some of the best economic management in the world and established major reforms in education and health so popular its opponents were forced to agree to them manage to lose an election?” asks Bernard Keane.

The consensus among Australian pundits is that voters were disgusted by continuing intrigue inside the Labor Party. Abbott’s opponent, Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, took office in 2007, but three years later, his party replaced him with Julia Gillard. They brought Rudd back in June, hoping he could save the election. Many blame the rivalry between Gillard and Rudd and other internal conflicts in the Labor Party for its defeat. “This is a personal triumph for Abbott and the Coalition but, to a much greater extent, it represents a brutal and comprehensive repudiation of Labor and its inability to govern itself,” Michael Gordon writes. “Voters have cast their reservations about Abbott to one side in order to deliver a verdict on the Labor leadership soap opera that began after [their] 1996 defeat and intensified in the last three years.”

Mind you, it wasn’t that this “soap opera” prevented Labor from governing competently and actually improving the lives of Australian citizens. Yesterday’s election is a reminder that people don’t necessarily care about whether their government is serving their interests. It is a bitter but important lesson for would-be technocrats around the globe: Successful policies aren’t enough on their own. Voters have to be able to feel a personal connection to you and your party. Whether or not they’ll support you depends in part on their perceptions of your character, your empathy.

Consider this debate between Ezra Klein and Mark Leibovich on “the real structure” of Washington, D.C.: is it the policy experts who understand how the country is governed, or is it the press secretaries and professional schmoozers who understand how to manipulate people inside and outside of the Beltway? Klein really wishes the second group of people would just go away. Yet in Abbott’s victory, palace intrigues overwhelmed matters of policy. That is the peril of ignoring the courtier class.

If only people were more rational.

Max Ehrenfreund is a former Monthly intern and a reporter at The Washington Post. Find him on Twitter: @MaxEhrenfreund

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