The Audacious Rise of the Australian Populists

A blue field with the Union Flag in the upper hoist quarter, a large white seven-pointed star in the lower hoist quarter, and constellation of five white stars in the fly – one small five-pointed star and four, larger, seven-pointed stars.

By Christian Oliver

There truly is nothing quite like Australian politics. At the time of writing, the man currently at the helm of the Liberal National Party government is Scott Morrison, or ‘ScoMo’. If you know anything about Australian politics however, I might be so facetious as to suggest he will have been ‘back-stabbed’ and removed by a member of his cabinet by the time you get around to reading this. Although I am exaggerating, Morrison is the fifth Australian Prime Minister in as many years, and it is clear to see why so many Australians are losing confidence in mainstream politics.

‘ScoMo’ – a social conservative and the architect of the current hard-line asylum-seeker policies – mounted a late challenge to the Liberal Party leadership after the moderate Prime Minister at the time – Malcom Turnbull – failed to bat away a challenge from hard-right Peter Dutton. This led to a ‘spill’ for the party’s leadership between Morrison, Dutton, and former minister for foreign affairs, Julia Bishop. Bishop was subsequently eliminated following the first round, leaving Morrison to defeat Dutton 45 votes to 40. This all but extinguished the internal war raging within the Liberal Party between the centrists and right-leaners that led to the ousting of Turnbull.

To add to the rest of the chaos, Turnbull consequently resigned as an MP. The Liberals then failed – rather dramatically – to retain the seat, which culminated in the loss of their single seat majority. This left them with 75 of the 150 seats in the House of Representatives, and has forced cooperation with the cross-bench until the next general election in early 2019.

After the 2016 general election a survey by the Australian National University found that while 40% of Australians were not satisfied with democracy in the country, only 30% actually took an interest in the election and only 26% believed they could trust the government. It is also important to note that voting is compulsory in Australia, and that elections occur much more frequently than in the UK due to both federal and state polls. Furthermore, Australia’s confidence in their politicians was not helped in mid-2017, when 15 sitting politicians came to the realisation that they held dual-citizenships, and thus was required to resign, as a section of the Australian Constitution prohibits the holding of dual-citizenships.

The most recent general election culminated in a surge of support for independents and smaller parties led by charismatic leaders preaching an ‘us against them’ sermon. The importance of these leaders is by no means understated; as many have conceitedly chosen to name their party partly after their respective kingpins.

The greatest beneficiary to the decline of the mainstream traditional parties in Australia is Pauline Hanson’s One Nation Party. Hanson – a former fish and chip shop owner – was once reviled for her views on immigration, LGBT rights, and indigenous welfare. The nationalist politician now finds herself courted by mainstream politicians hoping to catch some of the populist wave currently sweeping the Western world. One Nation currently occupies two of the 76 seats in the national Senate; a single seat in the Queensland state parliament; and three seats in the Western Australian state parliament. Whilst rebuked in the chamber, One Nation found themselves rising further in opinion polls when Hanson arrived at the Senate question time dressed in a black burqa to couple with her call to ban the religious garment over the threat she perceived it had towards national security. Hanson has also served time in prison for electoral fraud.

Directly inspired by Donald Trump, Senator Cory Bernardi vociferously broke away from the governing Liberal Party to form the Australian Conservatives in 2017. Bernardi is by no means modest, as he once tweeted his wife to wish her a happy birthday by saying: “Life’s easy when we are both in love with the same man”. The ultra-conservative is vocally critical of Islam, rejects the idea that human activities have contributed to global warming, and believes that same-sex marriage will inevitably lead to polygamy and bestiality. The Australian Conservatives are yet to make any serious political advancement as they approach the two-year anniversary of their formation; as they hold just a single seat in the Senate in which Bernardi was elected as a Liberal candidate seven months prior to his party switch.

State populist politicians seem to cultivate much more support than at the federal level. Nick Xenophon is an example of this. Xenophon – another former Liberal powerhouse presenting a contradictory centrist position to his fellow populists – is generally viewed by the public as an anti-establishment ‘Mr. Clean’; pursuing representation for ordinary citizens in the South Australian government. The rather frank and outspoken army veteran Jacqui Lambie was previously elected to the Australian Senate for Tasmania in 2014, until she discovered she held dual-nationality. Lambie was largely elected due to the popular policy of ‘stop the boats’.

Uniquely, Australian populism does not find itself with a single key figure – like Farage was to the UK and Le Pen is to France – but with a copious number of diverse politicians with varying views. Whist many small parties have stood for election in recent years to only gain a small proportion of votes, with the acceptance of One Nation, their impact cannot be underestimated. Mainstream parties – and particularly the coalition government – are now having to reassess their position along the political spectrum in order to prevent further vote loss across all levels of government. This influence was on full display during the ousting of Turnbull as PM by right-wing leaners in the government during the Australian winter.

As One Nation now find themselves with growing power and seats in government, larger parties – specifically the governing coalition – find themselves forced to find cooperative grounds to pass legislation and make progress. Polling is also indicating that the party is likely to top the 22% of the vote it won in 1998 in its birthplace of Queensland by the next state election. It is unlikely that a populist party or politician will have as great an effect as Trump has had on America due to Trump’s use of the Republicans as a host and Australia’s voting system. It is, however, evident that populists are vastly gaining influence at the expense of both the dwindling federal coalition government and the rest of mainstream Australian politics.



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