Australia has always enjoyed a reputation for a blunt, no holds barred type of politics. A roughhouse, vibrant democracy, where progressive politics driven by the Labor party over the last 125 years has seen massive social and economic improvements for working families, though also many years spent on the opposition benches.
Our campaigns are bare knuckle, fools aren’t suffered and electors sort out the fakes pretty quickly. Electors like leaders who ‘tell it like it is’, ‘share my values’ and routinely round on leaders and parties when they’re ‘arrogant and out of touch’.
The one constant throughout these 125 years of politics has been the Labor party and those from both the far left and the broad right attempting to deny Labor the opportunity to govern. Australian politics is best summarised as Labor versus non-Labor. The largest non-Labor block is a coalition between the conservative, Tory-aligned Liberal party and the socially conservative, rural-based National Party.
More recently, though both major party blocks have seen an ever-eroding primary base, due to full preferential voting, the apparent margin between both sides remains relatively close. At the last federal election in 2016, the largest ever vote for the non-major parties was recorded. In many key battleground seats, the vote was one third to each of Labor, the Coalition and the ‘others’.
In recent elections in Australia, the ‘other’ vote has been contested by the Greens and a range of smaller parties. That was until the re-emergence of anti-immigrant, anti-foreign investment party, One Nation, led by an ‘ocker’ woman called Pauline Hanson. Her style has a natural appeal in Australia.
One Nation has become a lightning rod for any voter discontentment and disillusionment in Australia. Pauline Hanson lays claim to ‘straight talking’ and ‘telling it like it is’. She is also a shameless racist.
One Nation at its core is a racist party that seeks to build electoral support by blaming minorities. In its first incarnation between 1996 and 2002, it was heavily opposed to immigration and investment from Asia. Pauline Hanson’s maiden speech referred to the risk of Australia being “swamped by Asians” who she claimed “form ghettoes and don’t assimilate”.
Pauline Hanson has changed the focus of her attack since the re-emergence of the party in 2015. Asia is now OK as “some of my party members have Asian wives” and her sole focus of hatred now rests with people who practice the Islamic faith. In March of this year, she referred to Islam as a “disease” and stated that Australia had to “vaccinate” itself. She has called for the Muslim faith to be banned in Australia.
She congratulated then candidate Trump for his similar calls for Muslim related immigrant bans. His call for an economically isolated US is echoed in her similar calls for protectionist measures in Australia.
If Pauline Hanson’s party was just a rightwing, anti-Muslim movement then her impact on Australian politics would be minimal. She is, however, much more than a down under UKIP. Instead she has carved a swathe through both the Labor and Coalition voting bases. Her race messages are intermingled with protectionist and anti-globalisation messages that appeal to voters who are increasingly not sharing equally in the nation’s economic prosperity.
In French terms she is doing what Le Pen attempted – to build a vote based on race but enjoined to the disaffected, the anti-elites and those threatened by globalisation.
Much as Brexit can be seen as the choice for ‘everyone but Scotland and London’, so too One Nation plays an anti-elite, anti-global message to voters. The leave campaign’s infamous Facebook ad showing Syrians arriving in Turkey and therefore en route to Liverpool, Birmingham and Manchester is exactly the sort of fear and loathing One Nation trades in.
And their electoral success is measurable. Recent published polls show One Nation’s support in States like Queensland at one in five voters. In the most recent Western Australian poll, One Nation was predicted to win one in eight votes.
So how have the major parties responded?
Labor has stayed true to its social democratic roots and rejected any electoral deals with One Nation, rejecting the party outright, even to the point of favouring the conservative Coalition ahead of One Nation transfer votes.
The Coalition has been less scrupulous, instead resorting to electoral deals with One Nation. Despite Pauline Hanson’s recent comments, leading Liberal Ministers have described her as “much more sophisticated than before”.
However recently in Western Australia this ended in electoral disaster, as it has previously in Queensland, as conservative voters condemned their own party for endorsing such a racist political movement. Federally, the conservative prime minister, who is struggling against Labor’s Bill Shorten, has not ruled out further deals and he now consistently trails Labor in national polls. The current prime minister frequently does deals with Pauline Hanson to pass his legislation through Australia’s senate.
Labor not only has stood on principle against an electoral opponent tearing at its primary vote, it has also refocused on the needs and concerns of Labor voters who want secure and well-paying jobs, and for whom the Pauline Hanson xenophobia and blame game has simple appeal.
Labor has also rejected the cultural elitism embraced by the Greens and the hard left and returned to its roots as a progressive party that manages the challenges of economic development and embraces the opportunities for social improvement it also represents.
Rather than take the easy path to appeal to our darker angels and promulgate fear and loathing, Labor has campaigned consistently on progressive values coupled with sound economic management for the benefit of its base – working families.
And the results speak for themselves. In March in the Western Australian state elections, Labor went from 21 seats to 41 and the Coalition went from 38 to 18 seats – one of the biggest victories anywhere for Labor in its 125 year history. Labor won not only its base, but opened up a new constituency of conservative voters appalled at the Liberals’ deals with One Nation.
It shows that by standing up for our base and rejecting the cheap-race based politics of the right, the left can remain electorally successful. It also shows the left can be competitive amongst economically centre-right voters by rejecting rank racism and conservative parties who do deals with the hard right.