Trump down under?
Australia’s right-wing populists fail to understand the economic underpinning of Donald Trump’s appeal


“We’ve had Brexit, and that’s happened, and now America — good on you guys. You got it right. I’m so happy that Donald Trump is there.” So cheered One Nation leader Pauline Hanson in the aftermath of last week’s US presidential election, having broken out the champagne the previous day to celebrate the victory of the Republican candidate.

“Give people the power back to have their own democracy. I think Donald Trump will bring that to America and I can see in Trump a lot of me and what I stand for in Australia,” she modestly claimed of Trump’s victory. “People around the world are saying ‘We’ve had enough with the major political parties, with the establishment, with the elites, with the chardonnay set,’” she said, oblivious to the oddity of making a champagne toast to the victor of a foreign election, hardly the normal practice of the Australians she claims to champion.   

Over on planet Cory Bernardi, the maverick Coalition backbencher (currently on a three-month secondment to the working-class battler stronghold of the United Nations in New York) thought Trump’s win “a validation of all I have been warning about for many years”.

“There’s a global disconnect between … the cultural elites, or sections of the media, people like politicians who basically talk to themselves in an echo chamber and they don’t seem to engage or don’t want to understand the concerns that are voiced by the silent majority.”

Deposed prime minister Tony Abbott tweeted his congratulations to the president-elect who, in his opinion, “appreciate[d] that middle America is sick of being taken for granted”. Politicians, he later advised, should not place too much faith in polls, and would “ignore the conservative vote” following Trump’s triumph “at their peril”, prompting Malcolm Turnbull to argue that the present-day disillusionment of Australian voters was directly attributable to Abbott’s policies as PM.

“I think this stemmed from the 2014 budget and the co-payment,” Turnbull said on radio. “They felt they had been let down and it came as a shock.” And even Turnbull, following a congratulatory phone call, felt obliged to hail Trump as a “deal maker” who will “view the world in a very practical and pragmatic way”.

An orgy of explanations for Trump’s unexpected triumph in the face of his racist outbursts, misogyny and outrageous campaigning style have followed Tuesday’s result. (Though it is often forgotten that most polls in most states were actually within the margin of error.) Simplistic analyses point to the salience of race-based politics. More plausible explanations clearly show that enough white-working voters switched to the GOP in enough key swing states – the northern “rust belt” state of Michigan being the most obvious. Socioeconomic disadvantage was crucial, conjoined with cultural fears of the impact of globalisation on the US. The absence of Obama from the ballot paper is another fairly obvious reason. Then there is the fact Trump was the Republican nominee in a two–party dominant system that doesn’t usually elect a nominee from the same party three times in a row, whatever the merits of Hillary Clinton (personally I think she was a very weak candidate, ill-suited to the times and with far too much political baggage) or the messianic non-candidature of maverick Vermont “socialist” senator Bernie Sanders.

The claimed lessons for Australian politics and the potential for a Trump down under are rather more complex than those claimed by the president-elect’s antipodean supporters. Yes, there is the clear possibility of One Nation pursuing a similar vote-winning strategy (in fact the 2016 election was evidence that it already did so). One Nation polled strongly in many seats with lower socioeconomic status, especially Labor-held ones. If it replicates that result by running candidates in most lower-house seats next time around and preferences the Coalition over the ALP, then there will indeed be large-scale electoral implications.

In another respect there is a sense in which Trumpism is already with Australia: resentment towards the economic – and, in part, cultural – effects of globalisation. It was there in the first incarnation of One Nation after 1996, which saw two Coalition governments in Queensland and Western Australia tipped out of office, caused John Howard to adopt many of Hanson’s policies, at least in spirit, and it propelled One Nation’s resurgence in 2016. Putting aside the current gloating of the hard right, it was precisely the same disaffection with the political status quo and economic fears which saw the federal Coalition come very close to losing government on 2 July. It goes beyond traditional left-right divisions. One Nation is also a threat to Labor.

Labor’s fragile primary vote is being consistently undermined by the Greens on its left and by populist minor parties from the right – One Nation, the Jacqui Lambie Network and even Derryn Hinch’s Justice Party. In 1998, Labor won 40.1% of the lower-house primary vote, compared to 34.7% in 2016. The real measure of disillusionment is discernible in the senate vote: from 37.3% in 1998 to a very poor 29.8% in 2016. In the seat of Braddon in Tasmania, for instance, Labor polled above 40% in the lower house but just 20% in the senate over the same area. By contrast, as one analysis puts it:

“A third of the votes for the Jacqui Lambie Network came from the north-western Tasmanian electorate of Braddon. The average proportion of first preference votes across Tasmania for Senator Lambie was around 8%, but in some polling booths in Braddon a quarter of voters gave the party their first preference.”

Just like One Nation, high votes for the Lambie Network were correlated with socioeconomic disadvantage. This is taking place in safe Labor seats and is a trend to watch out for at the next federal election.

Despite these trends, Australia’s would-be emulators of Trump are arguably poorly armed for the task of replicating his success. Few possess his charisma and ability to produce cut-through lines. Most are obsessed with pursuing tangential culture wars rather than the material grievances and hip-pocket concerns which underpinned Trump’s pitch to voters on the basis of American jobs and border control.

Abbott is in no position to follow Trump’s popular rejection of trade deals – when his government signed off the Australia and China free-trade agreement, Abbott hailed it as “history making” and still boasts of ChAFTA as a key achievement. Likewise, Hanson, Bernardi and fellow-traveller George Christensen have little to say about the 10,000 Australians who lost their full-time jobs each month this year alone. Most of those jobs were replaced by casual, part-time and insecure work. 35% of the workforce is employed on a casual or contract basis and is thus denied job security, sick leave and holiday pay, and also faces stagnating or declining wages. In Victoria alone there are now more than 1.3 million people employed on a casual or contract basis.

This is the bread-and-butter issue that most working or working poor Australians are concerned about, not the obsessions of a few ideologues regarding the repeal of section 18c of the Racial Discrimination Act, the potential of same–sex marriage to promote bestiality, halal certification, the supposed Islamisation of Australia, nor the Safe Schools program. While they may talk about the importance of Australian jobs and pay lip service to manufacturing industries, none of these politicians is prepared to stand up for existing penalty rates, for instance, which make the lives of ordinary Australians a little more manageable, or take on the scourge of insecure work.

Our antipodean Trumpistas would be wise to consult the victor’s conciliatory speech late on Tuesday night. In it there wasn’t a word about Muslims, Mexicans or culture wars. Maybe it was just rhetoric, but Trump, echoing Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln and John Kennedy, was at pains to suggest his presidency would aim to “bind the wounds of division”. It was time for “all Republicans and Democrats and independents across this nation … to come together as one united people”. And when Trump boasted “the forgotten men and women of our country will be forgotten no longer” he did so with reference to bread-and-butter, material politics. “We are going to fix our inner cities and rebuild our highways, bridges, tunnels, airports, schools, hospitals. We’re going to rebuild our infrastructure … And we will put millions of our people to work as we rebuild it.” Perhaps Hanson and company missed that bit amid the sound of popping champagne corks.

Nick Dyrenfurth

Nick Dyrenfurth is the executive director of the John Curtin Research Centre. He is the author or editor of 12 books spanning history, politics and children’s fiction, including Getting the BluesThe Write StuffA Little History of the Australian Labor PartyMateship: A Very Australian HistoryA New History of the AWU and All That’s Left


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