Billabongs (small, stagnant pools) feature heavily in Australian national identity1. So, when populist leader Pauline Hanson claimed earlier this year that her party, One Nation, would “drain the billabong” many observers wondered whether she and her party would emulate the man whose slogan she aped, American President Donald Trump, and, possibly, hold the balance of power in her home state’s parliament after Queensland held its elections in November.
Those elections have now occurred, and One Nation underperformed expectations, apparently winning only one seat in the 93 seat house2. This has led some segments of elite opinion to proclaim the end of Hanson’s influence, calling her party’s performance “a night from hell”. Wiser heads, though, saw things differently. Noting that the state’s two major parties, Labor and the Liberal Nationals, had together received a record low share of voters’ first preferences (known in Australian politics as “the primary vote”), they argued that Australia “is done with two-party politics”.
The latter assessment is undoubtedly more on the mark. Queensland voters behaved much as voters around the world, with urban voters trending towards leftist or centrist politicians outside of the two major parties and rural or small town voters swinging heavily towards blue-collar populism. Polling in advance of the next federal election show similar trends at work nationally. Australia may be “the Lucky Country” but it is not lucky enough to avoid the causes of populism.
Focus on One Nation’s voters, not the party
Hanson’s One Nation received nearly 14% of the primary vote, more than Germany’s AfD, Britain’s UKIP, or Geert Wilders’ PVV received in the elections that made them forces in their countries’ politics. But even this total understates One Nation’s appeal as the party did not even run candidates in 32 of the state’s 93 seats. While these seats were in more educated and wealthy areas where the party would likely have run much more poorly than elsewhere, this surely decreased One Nation’s vote by at least 3%. Statewide polls that could not quiz respondents on the candidate line-ups in the precise seats they would be voting in generally showed One Nation receiving between 16 and 20% of the vote in the run up to election day. That showing would have given One Nation one of the highest shares of the vote of any blue-collar populist party worldwide.
The perception of One Nation’s weakness is fueled entirely by Australia’s voting system. Had Queensland’s election been conducted under the proportional representation system in use throughout most of Europe, Hanson’s party would likely have held the balance of power between the centre-right Liberal Nationals and the centre-left Labor Party. Labor received only 35.6% of the primary vote while the LNP received only 33.7, and both parties’ totals would undoubtedly been lower had PR been used. The left-wing Greens’ 9.8% would not have been enough to permit a Labor-Green coalition to govern, which would have forced either a German-style grand coalition or an Austrian-style centre-right/populist government.
This fact means that One Nation’s voters still hold the balance of power even if their party does not. Their second-choice preferences will determine the outcome of any future Australian election, which in turn will force major party politicians to listen to their demands and compete for their votes.
One Nation’s voters are much like blue-collar populist party voters elsewhere in the globe. They tend to be less educated, poorer, and live outside the major metropolitan areas in places where economic growth has been slow to non-existent in recent years. They are very dissatisfied with the two major parties and feel patronised and neglected in favour of urban concerns. Indeed, a recent Essential Research poll found that voters who say they will support a party other than the Greens or the two major parties – a category dominated by supporters of One Nation or similar, smaller groups – were the likeliest to say that Australia’s economic system needed “fundamental change” (42%). They were also overwhelmingly negative about the country’s government, with 42% saying they had “no trust at all” in the federal government’s ability to “do what is right for Australia”; 54% said they were dissatisfied with the way democracy works in Australia, compared with only 33% among voters for the opposition Labor Party and 27% percent said they were very dissatisfied, about three times as many as Labor voters and twice as many as Greens voters.
One Nation voters are also likely to be culturally more conservative than Australians as a whole. Australia recently held a national plebiscite on same-sex marriage. While the nation as a whole voted 62-38 in favor of ‘marriage equality’, regions where One Nation is strong either opposed it or supported it by much lower margins. An Essential Research poll from early November supports the inference that One Nation voters opposed same-sex marriage, showing supporters of “other parties” to be the only group opposed to the practice3.
Immigration, particularly Muslim immigration, is One Nation’s biggest national issue, again much like similar parties elsewhere. The party has called for an end to Muslim immigration, and Hanson drew international attention when she wore a burqa on the floor of the Australian Senate to draw attention to her call to ban the garment’s wearing. These stances draw scorn from the country’s elites, including Liberal Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, but draw much support from Australians. A recent survey by the Australian Population Research Institute, for example, found that nearly half of Australians supported a partial ban on Muslim immigration, including 89% of One Nation supporters and 50% of Liberal voters. This echoed an earlier poll that found 41% of Australians favouring a total ban on Muslim immigration, with 66% of “other party” supporters and 48% of voters backing the Liberal or National parties in favour.
It would be a mistake, however, to see One Nation voters as solely concerned with migration or cultural change. One Nation’s platform opposes neo-liberal economic policies favored by most centre-right parties such as raising the retirement age for state pensions or privatising government-owned assets4. The Queensland party platform stated that One Nation would waive the state-levied payroll tax for new small businesses and fund apprenticeship programs for Queenslanders. It is, in short, a nationalist party that sits astride the left-right divide much like its populist neighbour across the Tasman Straits, New Zealand First.
Australian politicians begin to take notice
The importance these voters have has not been lost to some Aussie pols. The National Party has historically been the rural partner of the urban-based Liberal Party, creating a permanent centre-right Coalition. Their seats are where One Nation is appealing to voters, and some Nats have reacted to the Queensland vote by calling for the federal party to distinguish itself more strongly from the Turnbull-led government. Conservative commentator Andrew Bolt went further, calling on the Liberal Party to move themselves to appeal to One Nation voters by tackling some of their issues – and by removing Prime Minister Turnbull as someone unable to talk with them “without seeming fake or a fool”.
Such a move would not be without risk, especially if it involved a formal arrangement with One Nation itself. Such a deal in this year’s Western Australia election cost both One Nation and the Liberal Party votes, as rural voters open to voting for One Nation opposed the Liberals and urban Liberal voters opposed One Nation. Both parties tried to avoid that in the Queensland vote, with One Nation telling its voters to preference the sitting incumbent last in every seat it contested rather than the LNP candidate. But despite Queensland Labor leader Annastacia Palaszczuk’s statement that she would go into opposition rather than work with One Nation, her party’s slim majority will be because enough One Nation voters preferenced her party in accord with One Nation’s recommendation to deliver some key marginal seats.[xxiv]Even Labor, then, will have to figure out how to appeal to One Nation backers even as they vehemently eschew the party itself.
The experience Australia is having with One Nation is not just of particular interest. Australia’s challenge – how to address these voters’ concerns without embracing their worst inclinations – is the same almost everywhere. But the Australian example of blue-collar populism has particular instructive value for leaders elsewhere as the nation has not experienced a recession for over 25 years. If a rapidly growing economy still produces strong pockets of regional malaise, then the standard economic recipe preferred by the global “Ins” will not stem the populist tide. More particular attention will have to be paid to those left behind, geographically or in terms of skills and education, by the rapidly changing global economy if economic populism is to be channeled into something productive.
Cultural concerns also must be addressed. As Matthew Elliott recently pointed out in his UnHerd piece, talking about the virtue of rapid cultural changes such as multi-racial immigration or changes to the traditional family structure without accounting for the feelings of more traditional citizens amplifes their focus on and concern about that change. That was put into stark relief for me when I visited Sydney last year.
I went to do an interview in the Australian Broadcasting Company’s headquarters office building during my trip. I noticed a picture of an obviously Muslim woman in the back of the elevator as I went up. The picture was captioned “The Face of the New Australia”. When I came back down I got in another elevator and saw another picture with the identical caption. This one depicted a Muslim man.
When the new faces of the future country include no representatives of the old faces, that’s a problem. Too often, urban elites thrilled at the genuine humanitarian advances modernity is ushering in are failing to include all members of a nation in their vision of the future. So long as this failure to recognise the common citizenship of all members of a nation prevails, populism of some variety or another will continue to have political sway regardless of the quality of the stewardship or management our best and brightest can offer.