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. A couple of typos: “a wealthy businessman [and?] smooth neoliberal”, “And this brings us to the possible fifth party. [Despite?] Turnbull’s near complete capitulation,…”

  2. The other cycle going on that has not received much notice is the gradual return of the ALP or in the case of the ACT and ALP/Green coalition to the treasury benches in the states and territories – in a couple of cases retaining office despite being in government long term – if the ALP wins in WA that will leave only NSW and Tasmania in the hands of the Liberal Party. This cycle seems to be increasingly driven by local issues and factors and less influenced by reaction to whoever is in government at the national level than it used to be.

  3. I feel within the Liberal Party there are those who follow the hard line.
    The said senator from down south has decided to leave he has quiet a few dismal supporters.
    These would include the previous leader of the party who is incensed that he was replaced.
    There is a person up in Queensland who has problem relating to normal people and relates to hateful
    rhetoric in as much he makes sure he puts out media statements of the most deplorable kind.
    As to how this will play out I think perhaps just one or two voters will wake up and realise that this kind of rubbish can not carry forward for a country that wants to hold its head up high

  4. I how many of you believe, as I do, that the uncertainty and bitterness of hidden unemployment, under employment, workers being rorted in the so called black economy is behind the movement to parties like One Nation? Just calling the current disgraceful and cynical method of measuring the unemployment rate would be a start.

  5. @poselequestion

    I agree. The major parties (ALP and LNP coalition) govern at the behest of capital. There is a set of big lies around unemployment. The official unemployment rate is a lie, there is no doubt about that. Because these parties are not responsive to worker and work-less angst, people do turn to populist parties like One Nation (or in the USA the Trumpist alt-right). People who turn to these racist and economically illiterate right-wing parties will be sorely disappointed. These very right wing parties will not make things better. Indeed, they will make matters even worse. People don’t know where to turn as they have been brain-washed into thinking market fundamentalist capitalism is the only possible system.

    There are only two possibilities. People will wise up before the system crashes or after it crashes. I fear it will take the latter, a major crash and economic crisis, to show people that late stage capitalism is not sustainable. It has inherent contradictions and is in conflict with the need for a sustainable environment.

  6. Ikonoclast :
    People who turn to these racist and economically illiterate right-wing parties will be sorely disappointed.

    They will likely be disappointed by the policy outcomes sooner or later. I seriously doubt Trump or anyone will make America great like it was at some mythological past time. However, they will get tribal satisfaction from having their guys running the show. That’s a significant. As I see it, the purpose of politics – on all sides – has degenerated from problem solving to making making people feel good about themselves.

  7. @Ikonoclast

    The official unemployment rate is a lie, there is no doubt about that.

    This gets said from time to time, but always without explanation. For me, it has the ring of claims like “the September 11 bombing was an inside job” or “ISIS is controlled by the CIA”. I’d appreciate it if someone who thinks the official unemployment rate is a “lie” would explain, using verifiable evidence, exactly what about it they think is a lie, what they think the true figure is, and why.

  8. So does the left wake up in the middle of the night wishing that Ted Cruz was president? Do they dream of a more effective Republican president?

    He is far more socially conservative than Trump and would be a far more effective president and certainly would spend less of his time tweeting or feuding.

    Trump is the equivalent of moving Kevin Rudd into the lighthouse but without captain chaos’ management skills, temperament or ability to work with others.

  9. @poselequestion
    It’s possible that the kind of economic distress you’re talking about leads people to vote for rightwing populist parties like One Nation. However, in order to work out if, and to what extent, that is true, it would be necessary to examine the demographics of the votes in some detail. If it turned out that unemployed people, and people working in part time jobs and struggling with poverty, were very highly represented in the One Nation vote, that would count in favour of the theory. However, if the unemployed and those in poverty were predominantly voting for some other party or parties (such as Labor, for example), then that would tend to count against the theory.

    The other thing the theory would need to explain is why the unemployed and economically distressed are voting for populist-right parties which, as Prof Q has pointed out, generally have economic policies that are pro-rich, rather than anti establishment left parties like, say, Socialist Alliance, which are explicitly concerned with economic inequality. Economic circumstances alone would not appear to explain this voting behaviour.

    An analysis undertaken by the ABC after the last Federal election (link: http: // www. .au /news/2016-10-28/who-elected-one-nation-xenophon-lambie/7825106) indicated that the One Nation vote was strongest in economically disadvantaged areas, which supports the theory (superficially, at least). However, Anthony Green opined that, despite the One Nation vote being highest in Labor-voting disadvantaged areas, the one Nation Vote in those areas tended to impact the Liberal vote more strongly than the Labor one, i.e. the One Nation Voters in disadvantaged areas tended to be people who would otherwise vote Liberal, rather than Labor. This suggests that some factor other than economic disadvantage is at play.

  10. And this is very dated but gives an historical perspective. It also mentions all the things the standard lying politicians don’t mention about unemployment, namely underemployment, hidden unemployment and so on.

    Click to access nh_11_07_02_clmi.pdf

    Yes, if you dig deep into the stats on the Australian Bureau of Statistics site you can find some of this data but the more concerning data is never part of the sanitised, stage-managed public debate.

    But same basic ABS data is also essentially a moral and political-economy lie even if not a technical lie based on the highly dubious metrics used to minimise the look of unemployment data. One hour a week work and you are counted as employed. What a joke! In fact, what a great big whopping lie!

    The lies are often in what is not said, what is glossed over, what is swept under the carpet (like high youth unemployment) and so on. The main lie is in the implicit assumptions and even expressions that 5% unemployment (even on a hugely dishonest under-counting measure) is normal, is the only way to stop inflation and is perfectly acceptable.

    The whole system is geared to lie systematically and repeatedly until almost everyone believes the lies.

  11. @Ikonoclast
    What you’ve shown is that Roy Morgan’s method, using a monthly sample of around 3000 and a subjective definition of unemployment, comes up with a higher unemployment figure than the ABS method, which uses a monthly sample of around 26,000 and a definitions provided by the International Labour Organisation. The Roy Morgan figures are interesting, but they don’t show that the official unemployment rate is a “lie”.

    Coming back to my earlier request, I’ll take it that you think the Roy Morgan figures represent the “true” unemployment figures (although why you would consider the Roy Morgan figures to be necessarily “truer” or more reliable than the ABS, other than because they are higher and therefore reinforce your prior belief, is an open question).

    So that answers part of my question. Coming to the other part, I’d appreciate it if you could explain, using verifiable evidence, what it is about the ABS figure you think is a “lie” and why.

  12. I should add that the unemployment discussion is clearly O/T for the thread, so if there is any continuation of it, it should probably be in the sandpit, to a avoid a derail.

  13. @Tim Macknay
    I am happy to see that Ikonoklast has the time, energy and patience to answer your query, which is a bit like suddenly asking for evidence that CO2 is a greenhouse gas. I thought it was well-known and recognised by now that the “official” unemployment figures are completely watered down for political reasons.

  14. As as child I used to love to watch car racing, but mainly for the crashes that always occurred from such an obviously reckless pursuit. As an adult, I love watching the conservative side of politics……..

  15. @Tim Macknay
    There is quite a lot of psychological research that indicates that stress makes people stupid, by which I mean more reliant on the basic wired in systems that we share with eg chimps and molluscs.

  16. I’m posting this here as it concerns the US Government and comments on the Monday Message Board are closed: A group of prominent Republicans have called for the introduction of a carbon tax-and-dividend scheme in the US. They’re arguing for it based on what they say are Conservative political principles. The White House has yet to comment, but a spokesman for Vice-President Pence endorsed the proposal. Also, apparently FWIW, a poll shows around 50%of Trump voters would support it. Obviously it remains to be seen if it has any legs, but it’s an interesting development.

    Link: http:// /conservatives-push- carbon-tax-address-climate-crisis-93520/

  17. I must confess I voted for Clive Palmer in Fair fax at no. 3 for the HoR in 2013 behind the Greens and the ALP.
    Remember Sunshine Coast/Buderim has been the area of Slipper, Bleijie, Dickson [senior and son], Brough, Ashby and many useless others.
    Clive was voted in as he was not from the LNP but proved to be totally useless as a member other than voting for the carbon Tax repeal which may have effected the value of his investments – he will have his chance to “front up” when he is cross-examined in the Federal Court soon re the bankruptcy of QNI and the employees apparently cheated out of entitlements. Charges [criminal] may be awaiting Clive.
    PS as a person interested in the law and Noosa crimes sometime Pauline Hanson should be asked about her 1. assisting Valmae Beck and 2. Her adviser Ashby taking Slipper’s diary !

  18. Tim great !
    I must confess again I am watching “The Chase” on 7 but don’t feel my admiration is any less admirable. I was wondering about the security of Cory’s[and Pauline’s] diary he is after all free in the bowels of the Senate.
    I anyone’s terms he “stole” Slipper’s/the Speaker’s of the HoR/our diary which is a jailable offence see Casilli v Wehrmann 2014 WASC

  19. @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.

  20. @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.

  21. 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.

  22. @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.

  23. 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.

  24. 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.

  25. 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

  26. @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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