Why is Politics Failing?
WORDS BY JOSH WOOLLER
With the defeat of Marine Le Pen and the election of Emmanuel Macron in France, the entire world seemed to share a collective sigh of relief retreating from the wave of populism, which has subsumed Europe and the United States since 2015.
“Macron defeats populism”, cried CNN in the wake of the far-right candidate’s heavy defeat.
The same headlines were used following the defeat of Austrian presidential hopeful Norbert Hofer, as well as Dutch candidate Geert Wilders. Though despite their defeats, the proponents of populist far-right candidates still remain hopeful of being swept into office in the near future. British politician, and former leader of UKIP, Nigel Farage hailed the victory of Emmanuel Macron as an indicator of an almost certainty that Marine Le Pen would win in 2022.
So why are we unable to defeat populism? Why does it seem that there is an aura of inevitability of the West eventually falling to anti-globalist forces, as it already has done in the UK and in the US with the election of Donald Trump? I spoke to Andrew Charlton, the former senior economic advisor to the Rudd government about why politics is broken.
Before we analyse the strange failure of politics across the West, it is important to analyse what is happening in our own backyard.
2016 was the year of minor parties in Australia. They received a record 23.3% of the primary vote in the House of Representatives, and had even more success in the Senate. According to Andrew Charlton, the rise of the minor parties represents a “seismic shift” in Australian political culture. Of course, while Australia may not have its own embodiment of Trump, it does have figures that represent the sentiment championed by the US President during his campaign. Whether it be Pauline Hanson’s extreme views on immigration and nationalism, Lee Rhiannon’s views on the TPP or even David Leyonhjelm’s belief in lowering tax rates and having a ‘smaller government’, minor parties in Australia embody the sentiment of populism, which has taken over much of the West. The Australian public is abandoning the major parties. Bob Katter’s 2016 election ad depicting him shooting members of the LNP and ALP probably expresses this.
So why have people in the West rebelled against a perceived elite, ruling class of politicians? Andrew Charlton believes that if you’re on the left, it’s because of the lack of benefits globalisation has given the working class, while if you’re on the right, it’s because globalisation has eroded a shared culture and national identity. Though, what both sides of politics must be forced to admit, is that the traditional voting bases for left wing and right wing parties have begun a polar shift.
Charlton argues that historically, Western left wing and right wing parties have drawn on distinctive voting bases. The traditionally left wing party, such as the ALP in Australia or the Labour Party in Britain have historically been able to unite a coalition of inner-city progressives and the working class, while the right wing parties, such as the LNP in Australia and the Conservative Party in the UK have united fiscally conservative social progressives and conservative nationalists. The rift between these coalitions on both sides becomes increasingly blurred with globalisation and an increasingly connected world. The working class that has traditionally voted for the British Labour Party overwhelmingly supported Brexit because of the perception that immigration was impacting their chances of finding work and because they had not seen benefits of joining the European Union. Inner-city progressives, on the other hand have seen that benefit and thus overwhelmingly supported Remain. The Labour Party must therefore balance the sentiments of both groups within their traditional voting base. Chartlon believes that the reason populist, left wing leader Jeremy Corbyn is leading Labour “off a cliff” is because he’s only pitching his message at the original Labour voting base, the working class, in his bid to nationalise Britain’s industry.
In our own country, Malcolm Turnbull faces his own challenges navigating the divided voting bases in his own party. While socially progressive, fiscally conservative liberals reject nationalistic narratives, far right elements of the party, who see globalisation as a threat to ‘Australian identity’ want to see Australia, like Britain and the US, turn its back on multiculturalism and trade deals with the rest of the world. Turnbull must deliver compromise somehow to both bases, if he ever wants to win another election. Bill Shorten must do the same in uniting progressives and the working class. The Greens continue to steal votes from Labor’s traditional inner-city progressive constituency, as they are further to left on social issues, while Labor is also haemorrhaging voters to One Nation due to the many members of the working class’ rejection of immigration.
While we witness traditional parties’ voting bases draw further apart, one is left wondering whether the major party system in Australia has passed its used by date. We saw in France the death of both major political parties in the recent presidential election, in the US we saw a completely transformed Republican Party defeat a traditional Democrat candidate in 2016: are we about to see a reconfiguration of political coalitions in this country?
Andrew Charlton says, “we are reaching a tipping point where the public vote for minor parties is close to an all-time high reflecting a loss of faith in the major parties.” In the history of Australia, minor parties have only received more than 25% of the vote twice. On both occasions, we saw the dismantling of major political parties first, in the form of the Protectionist Party, which was forced to merge with the Free Trade Party and second the United Australia Party, which became the Liberal Party. With polling indicating that if an election were held today minor parties would receive 26% of the vote, it would seem that both the ALP and LNP would be well served to take notice. Western political parties may now be more divided by their stance on globalism, rather than traditional social and economic issues.