Americans tend to think that our politics are unique and that President Trump has caused all our political disruption. That’s not true.
The same patterns of populism, cultural conflict and the movement of well-off and educated center-right voters away from their traditional party are happening around the globe. Australia, which holds its national elections Saturday, is a case in point.
Two major forces have dominated Aussie politics since World War II: the center-left Labor Party and the center-right Coalition. The Coalition consists of two parties, the socially conservative and rural-based Nationals and the urban-based Liberals. The Liberal Party has traditionally sought to unite free-market liberals and social conservatives under one tent. This alliance is now fraying under the same pressures that are dividing Republicans in the United States and the Conservatives in Britain.
Mass immigration is one reason for the fraying. Australia’s island status has made it relatively easy to control illegal immigration. But legal immigration is high. Nearly 30 percent of all Australians are foreign-born, and the number rises each year.
This has led to the rise of a new populist party, Pauline Hanson’s One Nation. Hanson is a longtime anti-immigrant crusader who first rose to political influence in the mid-1990s. The recent influx of immigrants, combined with the increase in immigrants from Muslim countries, has given her a second moment in the sun.
Uneven economic growth has also contributed to populism’s rise. Much like in the United States and Britain, growth has clustered in major cities such as Sydney and Melbourne. Rural areas in Queensland and Tasmania have lagged behind, and the old manufacturing regions in South Australia have slumped. These trends have sparked a series of other brands of populism, such as the Nick Xenophon Team, which performed well in South Australia for more than a decade until its collapse in the last state election.
More recently, these trends have inspired the new United Australia Party, led by Australia’s Trump, Clive Palmer, a wealthy businessman trying to gain political influence. His party platform focuses on distrust of politicians and addressing economic hardship by cutting taxes and raising spending — the classic populist formula. Both Hanson and Palmer take their cues in some fashion from Trump. Hanson has pledged to “drain the billabong” (an Australian word for swamp) while Palmer’s UAP says it will “Make Australia Great.” Polls show that the two parties together will receive between 5 and 10 percent of the vote, much of that coming from voters who normally would have supported the Coalition.
Cultural conservatives are waging a battle for influence through other means as well. Sen. Cory Bernardi left the Liberal Party in 2017, joining forces with a Christian party called Family First to create the Australian Conservatives. Two other Christian parties are battling in the election, and these groups combined should pull a couple more percentage points away from the Coalition.
But the real battle is within the Liberal Party. The battle between conservatives, who want no action to combat climate change and were opposed to the same-sex marriage referendum that passed in 2017, and liberals has been intensifying for a decade. The leaders of these two factions, former prime ministers Tony Abbott and Malcolm Turnbull, respectively, have deposed each other or forced his rival’s departure in a series of increasingly vicious intra-party coups since 2009. The current prime minister, Scott Morrison, emerged as a compromise candidate after the conservatives succeeded in unseating Turnbull last year but were unable to elect their preferred candidate, Peter Dutton.
This final coup has led to revolt among center-right educated voters, who saw Turnbull as a modern Liberal. An independent candidate won Turnbull’s old seat — the extremely wealthy and hitherto safe seat of Wentworth — in a special election late last year. Another independent is challenging Abbott in his rich and previously safe seat of Warringah this year, and polls show he might lose. Other independent candidates in well-off, Liberal seats near Perth and Melbourne might also win, while voters in still other leafy Liberal enclaves are backing the Labor candidate in protest over Turnbull’s ouster and Morrison’s decision to make an alliance with the UAP.
The Nationals also face pressure in previously safe seats. Their alliance with the Liberals has cost them standing among their hard-pressed rural constituents, and the party suffered heavily in the recent New South Wales state elections. Challenges from independents, the small Shooters, Fishers and Farmers party, and Labor could drastically slash the ranks of National MPs. Should this happen, rumors say the Nats could break off the seven-decade-long Coalition agreement and try to rebuild their party.
Polls show the Coalition behind, although it gained strength since the start of formal campaigning last month. While the betting markets think Labor will win, some savvy observers aren’t so sure. Tom Switzer, executive director of the Centre for Independent Studies, notes that “during the past half century, close federal elections always favor the incumbent.”
But win or lose, Morrison and the Nats will still need to address the concerns that are unraveling conservative politics worldwide. Caught between a populist and conservative yin and a economically complacent and socially progressive yang, Morrison and his allies might find that task to be as daunting as his fellow conservative leaders have across the globe.