John Quiggin on Australia’s flirtations with Trumpism

After the cataclysm of Trump’s election, quite a few US-based friends asked me about moving to Australia. I had, as they say, good news and bad news. First, the bad news. Over the last few years, Australia has had no less than four Trumpist political parties, two of which currently form the government. We may yet get a fifth. The good news is that, in most respects, they have been surprisingly ineffectual. That’s, partly because of constraints in our political system, and partly because of the inherent limits of Trumpist politics.

First, the parties:

The Palmer United Party (PUP) was created as a personal vehicle by Clive Palmer, a billionaire (at least on paper) who had fallen out with the mainstream conservative parties of which he had been a big financial supporter. Palmer’s personal appeal was very much that of Trump, the idea that someone doing well for themselves through dodgy looking deals had what takes to drain the swamp of politics, PUP did well in the 2013 election, propelling Palmer into Parliament and electing several members to the Senate (you can get more details in Wikipedia). The party fell apart rapidly. Palmer lost his seat in 2016, and his business empire fell apart at the same time.

Pauline Hanson’s One Nation party. Another personal vehicle, again led by a renegade conservative. Hanson was an endorsed candidate for the (conservative) Liberal Party (see below) in 1996 when she got thrown out for making racist comments attacking Aborigines and Asian migrants. She was elected anyway and formed One Nation, which had an upsurge of success, particularly in my home state of Queensland. One Nation support was biggest in depressed semi-rural areas. In ideological terms, One Nation was Trumpist long before Trump, hostile to trade and migration, anti-intellectual, suspicious of banks and big business, but incapable of doing anything much about them. The mainstream conservatives, still confident in the inevitable success of neoliberalism, eventually managed to crush the party, an effort led by future Trumpist PM, Tony Abbott. One Nation re-emerged in 2016, electing four Senators including Hanson. By this time, the mainstream conservatives were themselves dominated by Trumpism and had little hesitation in engaging with Hanson as a partner in political bargains.

The National Party (originally the Country Party) is the rural/regional branch of the mainstream conservatives. It operates in a permanent coalition with the Liberal Party. It represents the same voters as Hanson, and shares many of the same predilections. However, its status as a junior partner in the Coalition means that it has, until now, focused primarily on extracting pork-barrel concessions for its constituents, rather than mounting a serious challenge to hard neoliberalism.

Liberal Party. Fourth, there is the Liberal Party, the dominant party in the current governing coalition, which broadly resembles the US Republican Party, though with a time lag of a couple of decades. Historically, it was a coalition between relatively moderate soft liberals, hard neoliberals and proto-Trumpists, with the hard neoliberals in the ascendancy. The soft liberals have been driven to extinction over the last couple of decades. The last Coalition government, in office from 1996 to 2007, represented the classic patter of the neo-liberal ascendancy, relying on dog whistle appeals to Trumpist voters, but pursuing the standard free-market agenda. Over time, however, Trumpists have become increasingly dominant.

The 2013 election brought the Liberals to power under the leadership of Tony Abbott. However, he proved so unpopular that he was replaced by Malcolm Turnbull, a wealthy businessman and smooth neo-liberal who was widely seen as reviving of the soft liberalism of the past on social questions. As it has turned out, however, Turnbull has acted as a puppet for the Trumpists who dominate the party, abandoning everything he was supposed to stand for in a desperate attempt to cling to power. Under Turnbull’s leadership, the Coalition scraped back into office in 2016, with a majority of a single seat in the House of Representatives, and a minority in the Senate. Individual Trumpists have used this precarious position to bully Turnbull into even more supine compliance, threatening to bring the government down if he does not.

And the Fifth Is… This brings us to the possible fifth party. Despite Turnbull’s near complete capitulation, one Trumpist, South Australian Senator Cory Bernardi has been sufficiently dissatisfied to set up (though not to launch) yet another party, to be named the Australian Conservatives Party.

The good news is that the Trumpists haven’t achieved very much. They’ve adopted a brutal policy of refugee detention, but it’s been a running sore for them, which is why Turnbull was so keen to make the deal that got him into trouble with Trump. They’ve stopped action on climate change, but coal-fired power stations have kept on closing. The idea of subsidising new ones, recently floated by Turnbull, was dumped on by just about everybody. They’ve used parliamentary manoeuvres to avoid a vote on equal marriage, but it’s obviously going to happen before long. And their attempts to use a spurious budget crisis to promote savage cuts in public spending (and, contradictorily, big cuts in company tax) have gone nowhere.

What’s more, after scraping back in, Turnbull has been consistently behind in the polls. Given the precedent he set in deposing Abbott, his survival as PM rests on the absence of any obvious replacement. The next election is nearly three years away, but it’s hard to see this government getting back in.

Footnote. I’m not going to attempt a complete definition of Trumpism, but the core elements are white/Christianist identity politics, a pro-rich but not pro-market economic policy agenda and “big man” authoritarianism. Although these elements predate Trump’s rise to power, explicit support for Trump is now part of the package.

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John Quiggin is a professor of economics at the University of Queensland, and commentator on Australian politics. This article is cross-posted, by arrangement, from his website.