Make No Mistake: This Is Our Trump Moment
By Lilith Zaharias
As the dust settles on what must be the most surprising federal election result this century, it’s worth exploring how and why this happened and what it means for our future. If nothing else this result should well and truly spell the end of opinion polls as a basis for policy making - or leadership changes.
As much as many commentators and politicians have been claiming otherwise, to describe this as a victory for Scott Morrison just doesn’t reflect what has happened. Yes, he will form the next government, although whether that is with or without a majority remains to be seen. However, in most seats throughout the country, the Liberal first preference vote either declined or remained stagnant, reflecting a broad failure on Morrison’s part to win over new voters. In seats where the Liberal primary vote did increase, such as Lindsay in Sydney’s west, this was far more to do with disgust around the previous Labor incumbent than with positive feelings towards the Liberals.
So how then did the Coalition gain so many seats, especially with such a strong swing towards them in Queensland? Essentially, they benefited from second preferences after huge swings to One Nation, Clive Palmer’s UAP, and other far-right minor parties. The election victory belongs, in essence, to them.
If you’ve been following international politics for the last decade, this won’t exactly come as a surprise. To put it kindly, globally we have been seeing growing dissatisfaction with “establishment” politics. To put it less kindly but more accurately, voters have been fleeing to the far right throughout the world.
It’s true, in some limited cases the anti-establishment left has seen similar success. Greece has had an elected socialist government since 2015, and the huge popularity of Bernie Sanders in the 2016 Democratic party primaries shows an appetite for leftist anti-establishment reform. It’s true also that the Australian Greens increased their vote at Saturday’s election as well, even as Labor crashed. On this interpretation, an argument can be made that voters didn’t so much vote *for* One Nation as against business-as-usual politics of the two major parties, led as they were by two equally bland and unimpressive old white men.
A similar argument has been popular in the wake of Donald Trump’s victory in the 2016 US presidential election. The corresponding popularity of Bernie Sanders in the lead up to that election is advanced as proof that, rather than voting for Trump, American voters chose to reject Hillary Clinton and her same-old brand of establishment neoliberal politics.
There is some merit to this. As inequality grows throughout the capitalist world and jobs are less and less secure in the light of aggressive globalisation, struggling working class people are easily won over by political figures who offer to solve their problems; fed up with the usual proposed solutions which have only made the rich richer, they are prepared to listen to more extreme ideas. The far right globally has been incredibly successful in blaming immigration for high joblessness – the “they took our jobs” narrative is powerful because it offers a clearly distinguishable enemy and a readily available solution.
More recently, the right has also had considerable success in stoking fear around environmentalists’ push to phase out fossil fuels. Tellingly, former prime minister Tony Abbott (who lost his seat of Warringah to an independent who campaigned strongly on climate change, one of the few bad news stories for the Liberals on election night) alluded to this in his concession speech. “Where climate change is a moral issue, we Liberals do it tough,” he observed. “But where climate change is an economic issue, as the result tonight shows, we do very, very well.” Translation: the far right has chosen to ignore the moral urgency of climate change in favour of stoking fear of lost jobs, because it works for them. Parties like One Nation, not bound like the Liberals by a more moderate element, are in an even better position to capitalise on this.
Of course, such economic arguments fail to acknowledge the very real impact that racism and sexism have played in the victories of the far right. Whilst the fear that they stoke might be economic in root, it serves to further other already marginalised people – and it succeeds only because racist sentiments are already widespread.
Australia has a big racism problem – and the problem is we don’t like to talk about racism. An illustrative example: where I was handing out on election day, a One Nation volunteer was accosted by a young man who swore at him and called him a “racist cunt”, before balling up a piece of paper and throwing it at him. After the fractious voter had left, Labor and Liberal party volunteers expressed their sympathy with the One Nation volunteer, who was stubbornly denying even the slightest hint of racism in his party while the others smiled and nodded. In essence, the accusation of racism is more beyond the pale than racism itself. (Earlier in the day the same volunteer physically threatened me after I told a voter to “keep One Nation's racist filth out of the Senate”).
We live in a country where we use notions of free speech to defend some of the most vile and abusive racism (see for example Fraser Anning) and yet tut disapprovingly if someone is called a racist. A country where demagogues like Pauline Hanson can complain about political correctness, and coyly suggest she has “the guts” to say what everyone else is thinking, while protected from criticism by outdated notions of respect and respectability. A country where the supposed “sensible centre” regularly suggests the bigotry of people like Hanson and Pauline are morally equivalent to the strong language used by the Greens and others to denounce them. Racism has become normalised as a legitimate political viewpoint, no more or less valid than any other “difference of opinion”.
These developments are concerning, and so far the left has failed to make a strong case in reply. The Labor party, trapped by its centrist to centre-right union backers, has failed to do anything more than equivocate, whilst the Greens have been locked in internal squabbles that have detracted from what was otherwise a strong progressive campaign.
Many were surprised by the result – granted, me among them. There are two factors in particular that contributed to the unreliability of the opinion polls. First and foremost, opinion polls are shockingly unreliable at the best of times. Sampling a few thousand people at best, they create a false environment not necessarily reflected in the decision to be made on election day. Secondly, however, remember that this victory wasn’t really the Liberal party’s, but One Nation’s. This is important because a strong factor in how reliable poll results might be is what social scientists call “social confirmation bias”. Essentially, people being surveyed in opinion polls might be reluctant to admit to views that are seen as less socially acceptable – so, for instance, may not honestly reveal an intention to vote for One Nation. The stronger the far right becomes in Australian politics, the less likely opinion polls are to be accurate.
So, where to from now? Short of any 1975esque constitutional crisis, we are guaranteed a conservative government for the next three years. In the meantime, the Labor party is likely to be wracked by self doubt and navel gazing. The risk is that they will see this result as a repudiation of the moderately progressive agenda that they brought to this campaign, and lurch further to the right. Should this happen, the role of the Greens in advocating for the left will become even more important, and they will need to quickly overcome the factional argy bargy and focus on a coherent and long term campaign. Science and simple observation of rapidly escalating extreme weather events tell us that the climate emergency is becoming more and more urgent, and meanwhile the human cost of the Coalition’s regressive social and economic policies will need to be fought as well.
The coming years will be tough, for some exceedingly so. It’s crucial that we understand what went wrong this election so that we can focus on a way forward.