POPULISM IN AUSTRALIA: Why is there no electorally successful left populist party in Australia?

Western democracies have experienced a recent rise of populism, especially after the Great Financial Crisis in 2008 (Jiménez 2015), which led to unprecedented unemployment rates in most of these countries (Lagurashvili 2016). Many citizens were alienated by the austerity policies (Yuste 2016) and cutbacks in public expenses (Lagurashvili 2016) adopted by traditional parties in response to the crisis. In the same way, people lost faith in mainstream politicians due to their inability to tackle the recession and to the ideological convergence of traditional right- and left-wing parties  (McDonnel 2015Esparza 2016), succumbing to the rhetoric of charismatic populist leaders who claimed to represent the true interests of those who had been left behind. As a result, support to populist parties has grown considerably over the past years. In fact, in a study about the evolution of populism in Europe, Ronald F. Inglehart and Pippa Norris found out that right-wing populist parties have doubled their vote share since the 1960s (from 6.7% to 13.4%) (2016). Likewise, support for left-wing populist parties has increased from 2.4% to 12.7% (Inglehart & Norris 2016).  Australia is not immune to this global trend. As Andrew Charlton and Lachlan Harris claimed, populism has already arrived, albeit not in the emergence of a prominent party or figure such as Le Pen’s Front National or Donald Trump (Marks 2017), but in the form of increasing support for minor parties (Charlton & Harris 2016; Wroe 2016). These smaller parties, although ideologically divergent, share the idea of protecting the national market from the perils of international free trade and claim to return the sovereignty to the people. Last year’s federal elections were a turning point for these minor parties, which gained 20 Senate seats (34% of the vote) and 23.3% of the primary vote for the House of Representatives (Charlton & Harris 2016; Marks 2017).

Figure 1: Australian populism and the rise of minor parties (Charlton & Harris 2016)

In the Upper House, the Greens won nine seats, One Nation four, Nick Xenophon Team three and independent candidates Derryn Hinch, Jacqui Lambie, David Leyonhjelm and Bob Day won one seat each (Charlton & Harris 2016). Most of the votes lost by the governing Liberal-National coalition (475,000 first-preference votes) were not gained by Labour (it only won 182,000 of these votes), but by minor parties, which gained 293,000 votes (Charlton & Harris 2016). This backlash has occurred despite the relative strength of the Australian economy, whose unemployment is at historic lows (5.6%) and has experienced 25 consecutive years of growth (Pearlman 2016; Tamkin 2017). Nevertheless, populism is rather weak in comparison to other Western countries, especially left-wing populism, which has no political representation. This article will first discuss the meaning of ‘populism’, as well as drawing up an overview of the current Australian populist and minor parties. Finally, it will shed some light upon the petty success of populist parties in this country, with an especial emphasis on left-wing populism. To this effect, it will draw on a comparison with Spain, one of the few Western democracies with a strong left-wing populist party.

The term ‘populism’ does not have a negative connotation per se (Inglehart & Norris 2016, p. 25), but it is increasingly depicted in that way by the media, often to discredit an iconoclastic politician.  Conversely, populism is a political discourse which attempts to appeal to the masses by drawing a binary society divided into two homogeneous and antagonistic groups: ‘the people’, as opposed to ‘the related other’ (Esparza 2016; Saavedra 2015; McLoughlin 2016; Mudde 2013). Whereas the people is a “universal subject”, which encompasses the broad citizenry and is comprised of inherently good people who share the same interests and values (Zabala 2017); ‘the related other’, which can take on different forms depending on the type of populism, are to be blamed for the ills of the country (Stavrakakis & Katsambekis 2014, p. 122). Left- and right-wing populism are not easily discerned by their economic policies (both of them oppose globalization and capitalism, and claim to regain the power for the people), but by who they target as political enemies: left populists blame the oligarchy, “as an elite defined in socio-economic and power terms” (for instance, large corporations); contrarily, right-wing populism targets ethnic minorities or weak and deviant groups (Zabala 2017; Wroe 2016).

Minor (and often populist) parties are on the rise in Australia. Its vote share has risen from 15% to 23% over the last four elections (since 2007). This upwards trend is more salient in the Senate, where support for these parties has increased from just 7% to 35% (Charlton & Harris 2016). What is more, in a recent poll by Fairfax-Ipsos at the end of last year, nearly one third of respondents declared that they would vote to minor parties and independents (Pearlman 2016). Therefore, it is no surprise that One Nation has doubled its support to 10% since November 2016, now matching the Greens, whereas a further 9% would opt for other minor parties or independents (The Guardian, 27 February 2017). According to Dr Zareh Ghazarian from Monash University, this trend is explained by the favourable stance of the two main parties on global free trade, which has led to an increasing support for minor parties, which tend to be protectionist (2016). The most prominent of these parties are Pauline Hanson’s One Nation, Nick Xenophon Team and the Greens.

One Nation is characterised by a critique of the establishment combined with a strong opposition to foreign immigration, especially Muslim (McLoughlin 2016). It propounds a zero net immigration policy, a royal commission into Islam and prohibition of Burqa and the building of mosques (2016). As for the economic policies, it has promised to hold a royal commission about the financial and banking sector (2016). According to Stimson and Goot, the party draws most of its support from old, Christian, rural and Australian-born blue-collar workers with low levels of education (Jupp 1998).

The Greens, even if they do not use a populist rhetoric, share some programme proposals with Southern European left-wing populist parties, such as the implementation of a universal basic income, four-day working week (Stone 2017), increase in company tax rate (Crikey, 6 May 2013), abolition of the International Monetary Fund, World Trade Organisation and World Bank (Healy 2000). However, according to Michael Brull and Osman Faruqi, the Greens are not perceived as an anti-system fringe party due to their pragmatism and “parliamentary deal making” (Wilson 2016). As a result, they have been unable to gain from voters’ disaffection with ‘the establishment’ (McLoughlin 2016).

NXT is a centrist personal party founded by Senator Nick Xenophon in 2013. It presents itself as an alternative to mainstream parties and claims to defend “national interests” and “Australian Made & Australian Jobs” (Nick Xenophon Team). Expect for its emphasis on protectionism (Pearlman 2016), its policies do not differ much from Labour and Liberals, but it is in the populist discourse and appeals to the disenchanted populace where the main difference lays.

Despite this slight increase of populism in Australia, it is far from the extent which populism in Europe has reached. The main reason was the relatively minor prevalence of the 2008 GFC in this country, largely due to the huge revenues from the mining boom (Wilson 2016) and to the Keynesian policies implemented by the Rudd administration (Brown 2010). Indeed, inequality increased, but “those who suffered most remained on the margins” (2016). Furthermore, the Luxembourg Income Study Database showed that disposable income for ‘Generation Y’ (people aged 25-29) has dropped in all the studied countries except for Australia, where it has experienced the biggest increase among the three age brackets (Barr & Malik 2017).

Figure 2: Percentage growth in household disposable income above or below national average growth rate, by age of head of household or spouse (Barr & Malik 2017)

In contrast, Spain and Italy, two of the countries where left-wing populist parties have done best, have experienced the steepest decrease in the disposable income. Therefore, out of the three factors that the study ‘The Spanish Exception: Unemployment, inequality and immigration, but no right-wing populist parties’  cites for the upsurge of right-wing populisms (namely, high immigration, deep economic recession and disenchantment with traditional parties (Elcano Royal Institute 2017)) Australia does not meet the second condition.

Former Western Australian premier Geoff Gallop has alluded to three differences between Australia and European countries: The EU, which has acted as the scapegoat of many European countries (as has been the case with Brexit); the huge benefits from the mining boom, which helped mitigate the impact of the 2008 GFC and the decline of the manufacturing industry; and the pragmatism of the Australian electorate (Wroe 2016). Additionally, in contrast with Europe’s proportional representation, which facilitates the emergence of new parties (Wroe 2016); preferential voting, compulsory voting and single member electorates act as a holding brake to insurgent parties (Chiu 2016).

As far as left-wing populism is concerned, Australia does not have a single member elected at neither the State nor Federal Parliament. The chief reason for this can be found in Pawel Swieboda’s affirmation that left-wing populism tends to thrive in those countries stricken by economic crisis, whereas right-wing populism is more likely to arise in those countries where immigration and globalization are the main challenges (Saavedra 2015). Therefore, should Australia experience a conspicuous populist rise, it would be right wing. Likewise, Jorge Galindo, political scientist at Geneva University, asserts that populism in debtor countries tends to differ from creditor countries (2015). In fact, in Spain, Greece and Italy, all debtor countries, have seen the appearance of left-wing movements to cut the debt burden (2015). Contrarily, Australia has not received any financial bailout which obliges its government to implement severe austerity measures.

Unlike Australia, Spain has seen the irruption of a left-wing populist party (Podemos), whereas right-wing populism is absent from the national political scene. This has been largely due to the high-unemployment rate, as well as the deterioration of living standards. In fact, unemployment peaked 27% in the first trimester of 2013 (El Mundo 2015), whereas it was almost five times smaller in Australia (5.7%) by the same period (Australian Bureau of Statistics 2013). Equally, the population living below poverty line was significantly higher in Spain (22.3%[1]) (20 Minutos, 26 May 2015) than in Australia (13.3%[2]) (Social Policy Research Center 2016, p. 8).

Furthermore, the combination of specific socio-cultural, historic and political circumstances in Spain acts as a buttress to the propagation of radical right. The 39 years of Francoist dictatorship has made Spaniards reluctant to far-right ideas, as well as to every symbol associated with this totalitarian regime such as the Spanish flag or the national anthem. This has created a rather weak national identity which, together with the belligerency of regional nationalisms (Basque and Catalonian nationalist movements) have overshadowed Spanish nationalist sentiments, most characteristic of the far right (Alonso & Kaltwasser 2014). Finally, the overarching Latin background of the Spanish immigration, who shares the language and religion with Spaniards, has made its acceptance easier, thus further hindering the advance of the populist right (Elcano Royal Institute 2017, p. 22). Consequently, in the absence of suitable conditions to the surge of a radical-right party, the populist left has been the only one to capitalize on public frustration and disaffection with the political establishment. This is why Podemos, a new left-wing populist party founded in 2014, has managed to achieve 8% of the votes in the last European elections (Kioupkiolis 2016, p. 104) and soared to 21% in the 2016 national elections (5,049,734 votes), becoming the third largest party (El País 2016). On the contrary, Australian increasingly multi-ethnic population makes it relatively easier for right-wing populists to attract the vote of the disenfranchised white blue-collar workers, which is exactly what has happened in the last Federal elections with One Nation. Moreover, Australia has not endured a fascist totalitarian dictatorship, thus its population may not be as vigorously opposed as Spanish population.

The incursion of both left-wing and right-wing populist parties in the political arena has flushed out the crisis of credence and legitimacy of traditional parties and the discontent of people with mainstream politics (Zabala 2017). The wave of populism has not hit Australia yet thanks to the steady growth of its economy, but the first negative by-products of the neoliberal economic policies (such as poverty and inequality growth (Social Policy Research Center 2016, p. 8)) embraced by both main parties are already taking effect, as a result of which public frustrations have escalated. Accordingly, minor parties with bitter anti-establishment rhetoric have increased their support, and as Jonathan Pearlman states, they could further prevail if the economic situation takes a turn for the worse (2016). And certainly, the situation does not seem brighter if we look at the income growth stagnation and serious house affordability problems, especially for young people, who are also facing several difficulties to find proper secure permanent jobs (Mudde 2013). The young generations have been particularly hard-hit by the crisis, and according to Grattan Institute’s 2014 report about wealth across generations, their situation will not improve over the next years. In fact, they will be the first generation to be poorer than their parents (Cooke 2016). The economic stagnation has impacted another segment of the population: blue-collar workers in rural and industrial areas (Kampmark 2017). This is why right-wing populism has drawn most of its support from this group. In fact, the annual gross state product growth in Western Australia and Queensland, the nation’s mining hubs, has reduced from 9.1% to 1.9% and from 6% to 2% respectively, as a result of “commodity price rout” (Scott & Heath 2017).

Figure 3: A comparison of annual gross state product growth over the past five years (Scott & Heath 2017)

In contrast, this figure has doubled in Victoria and New South Wales (home to the biggest cities of the country). All the above explains why 40% of Australians believe that their polity should be profoundly transformed, whereas only 6% of them are satisfied with the current system (Parker 2017). What is more, 25% of the population considers the government should be tougher on national security, and 50% agrees with Hanson’s claim to ban Muslim immigration (Parker 2017). Whilst many experts expect that support for right-wing populism will continue to increase, very few have given credence to the possibility of a successful left-populist party in Australia. Neither do they think that this left-populist upsurge will come from the Greens, since they are not regarded as an anti-establishment party (Murphy 2016). As Cas Mudde states, this trends are very hard to predict (2013), all will depend on the ability (or inability) of the two established parties to tackle the current economic challenges of the country and the way public frustration is channelled.

[1] This data is from 2015

[2] This data is from 2016



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