Trumpism in Australia (crosspost from Crooked Timber)

I’ve had this post in draft for a while, not entirely satisfied with it, but on the rare occasion of Australia making the front pages of US papers I thought I should post it on Crooked Timber ready or not. It’s for an international, largely US audience, but readers here might be interested. I posted it just before the apparent confirmation that Bernardi will Bolt.

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 goods 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 abotu 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.

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 neoliberal 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 smooth neoliberal 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 this brings us to the possible fifth party. 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.

* I’m not going to attempt a complete definition, 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.

37 thoughts on “Trumpism in Australia (crosspost from Crooked Timber)

  1. @Jim Birch

    People pushed to extremis, like immiserated, impoverished and oppressed people, can behave like this – with anger and stupidity but also with great fury and energy – if pushed to revolution. Infuriated mobs and classes can become very powerful and they can overthrow entire systems. It’s building something better afterwards that is the real challenge.

  2. @totaram Wrong – unemployment figures have been undertaken on the same basis for years. Alternative measures relevant to employment are also available from the ABS. The rhetorical and policy use of the figures is where the debate should take place. Denigrating the professionalism of the ABS is not the place to start. Their problems have arisen from government resource cuts.

  3. As described, the Liberal party contains a number of ideologies. A conservative party will turn what are now internal dissonances into visible debate.

    They will now need a coalition of 3 to form gov, but i don’t see this as having any major effect, nor sign of growth in conservative opinions. I reakon they will eat much of the one nation votes however.

  4. @totaram
    That line really, really s**ts me – it is completely untrue. I get as annoyed at lefties who don’t bother finding out readily available facts because they want to go on believing what they want to believe as I do at all those righties who do the same.

    The ABS adopted the ILO (International Labor Office – a UN body) standard definition of unemployment in 1968 and have counted it the same way since then with only minor changes. The last of these was in 2014 as a product of budget cuts to the survey, and that probably INCREASED the measured rate slightly.

    Now it is true that the rise of part time and casual work means that the unemployment rate is a less reliable guide as to whether people can find the job they want than was so 40 years ago. But the ABS provides several alternate measures (employment rate, extended unemployment rate, underemployment rate) that are a better guide to that – its just that they don’t make news headlines.

  5. These ‘movements’ are all just an extension of the rorting that the rich are pulling on the under-educated poor. They create the poverty and then they create the party to provide the imaginary solution, which is just putting the boot in a second time. But who are ‘the rich’ i have no idea where they live.

  6. To clarify slightly, back in the 1970s and 1980s, official unemployment numbers were based on registrations with the then Commonwealth Employment Service, or on claimant counts. These were repeatedly adjusted by the Aust and UK governments, always in ways that reduced the number. So, there was a basis for the belief that the numbers were fiddled.

    The last such switch was to the ABS (international standard) number, which IIRC was lower at the time of the switch, but higher later. The international standard definition is stringent (no work at all in the past week, actively looking, ready to start immediately), but is consistent over time as noted above. ABS also publishes, but doesn’t headline larger numbers such as measures including discouraged workers (those who have given up looking).

    So, summing up, the measure used now has been used consistently for about the last 30 years, so it gives good comparisons over time. On the other hand, a rate of 5 per cent should not be interpreted to mean “only 5 per cent of the potential workforce is affected by unemployment”.

    Further discussion on this to sandpits, please.

    Further discussion should go to the sandpits.

  7. Doesn’t the National Party include a touch of ‘agrarian socialism’? ….not for unions or city dwellers of course… but plenty of support for the cockies

  8. @John Quiggin

    Survey data on unemployment is surprisingly recent. That does not stop a few outfits publishing unemployment and working hours data many decades earlier than when survey data was available.

    As an example, that Dutch Centre estimates hours worked in New Zealand back about 100 years. Funnily enough, when survey data became available in 1986, their estimate of hours worked dropped 20%

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