POLITICS

Why Australia Can't Keep Ignoring Its Poor, Disaffected Voters

How Australia can avoid a Trump-esque revolution.

11/11/2016 3:06 PM AEDT | Updated 11/11/2016 3:43 PM AEDT
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Fairfax Media

The parallels between the Trump presidency and the One Nation resurgence are clear, but the politicians on opposite sides of the Pacific Ocean have more in common than just their plans to limit Muslim immigration and vague promises to clear up their respective nation's capitals.

They were both swept to power on a tide of ordinary voters upset with their lot in life, some poor and some less educated, but more sick and tired of being ignored, humiliated and forgotten by their country's elite classes, and kicked by a global economy which comes down hard on their jobs and their way of life.

Other conservative politicians like George Christensen, Cory Bernardi and Jacqui Lambie are already taking notice, openly barracking for Trump and echoing his messages of standing up for the 'forgotten' people and the 'silent majority' against political elites; Bernardi has even been getting around in a "Make Australia Great Again" cap.

The lesson Australia's politicians must learn if Australia is to avoid our own Trump-esque revolution? We can't afford to ignore these disaffected voters anymore.

"American politicians haven't just ignored them. They've sneered at them, denigrated them."

Nick Cater is executive director of the Menzies Research Centre, a Liberal Party think tank. He told The Huffington Post Australia he saw clear links between Trump voters and Hanson voters, and that the major parties needed to quickly address a Trump-esque wave forming in Australia.

"The elite class sneer at the ordinary Americans. People feel looked down upon, sneered at, which reinforces their belief the elite is out of touch and hostile. That makes them more 'deplorable', they get sneered at more, and we're in this loop," Cater said.

"The tendency of the elite to look down on them, to use words like redneck, deplorable, uneducated, stupid, it only deepens the divide. It strengthens the lines. People become more attached to one side or the other."

A key wave of Trump's support was ordinary voters fed up with the political status quo; of elite politicians, journalists, experts and others passing them over, treating them as inconveniences or something to be frowned upon. He cites the widely-circulated graphic depicting Clinton-voting states as 'America' and Trump-voting regions as 'dumbfuckistan' as an example of how such voters were ridiculed for their beliefs -- that they were "dumb" for voting for Trump.

While Australia's social safety net is stronger than America's, with more support for the unemployed and at-risk, we do have a similar subset of population to the one that carried Trump to the White House; we have poor people, we have less educated people, we have people in low-skilled jobs affected greatly by global economic upheavals and technological change.

Democratic candidate Bernie Sanders, who lost the nomination to Hillary Clinton, said Trump's campaign "tapped into the anger of a declining middle class", which included working harder for less money, of jobs sent offshore, of the rich exploiting the system to get further ahead.

People like farmers and factory workers and retail staff and auto workers, jobs deeply affected by free markets and technology replacing human beings. A global market of free trade that ordinary people don't quite understand, except when their shifts get cut back or petrol gets more expensive or their family's breadwinner is fired because the factory is going overseas.

Labor leader Bill Shorten has said the U.S. election teaches that "where you have rising inequality, where you have divided societies and the middle class being squeezed, you create a vacuum that more extreme views will fill"; while former PM Tony Abbott claimed that without a "strong and sensible centre-right party", conservative voters "will find other voices to represent them."

Treating people as idiots feeds the 'elite masses' narrative.David McKnight

"It's crucial that elites and the media don't snark and decry and judge these voters. It's perfectly easy to disagree with people but treat them respectfully and engage with them," Margo Kingston told HuffPost Australia.

A former Sydney Morning Herald political journalist, Kingston was among the first in the media to take Pauline Hanson and One Nation seriously in the mid-90s. While politicians decried Hanson as racist and xenophobic, Kingston drilled deeper and claimed the One Nation vote was more about low-paid, less educated voter groups feeling ignored and left out of the political process.

"One of the big things in the U.S. election, the more the elite media put them down, the more they rise up. That's what happened with Hanson in the '90s. It was completely counter-productive," she said.

"Think how misconceived it was to ignore for the Democrats to ignore their base constituency that was suffering. They didn't argue on economics to point out that Trump's policies would have far worse results for the working-class, they just ignored it and went with identity politics which is guaranteed to turn off the working class."

University of NSW politics expert, Associate Professor David McKnight, agreed.

"Treating people as idiots feeds the 'elite masses' narrative," he told HuffPost Australia.

"Trump and One Nation, yes they're tapping into racism but also genuine economic grievances. It annoys me the way progressives write these people off. They can't conceive how anyone would vote for Hanson or Trump. It shows how out of touch they are with ordinary people."

Cater said the roots of a Trump-like political movement in Australia have been growing for some time, reflected in the diverse group of 11 crossbenchers in the current Senate.

"This has been going for a while around the world, but now it's gone 'whack' -- hence Brexit, hence Trump, the 30 percent 'none of the above' vote in the lower house at this last election. That's unprecedented," he said.

Mike Segar / Reuters
Donald Trump greets supporters during his election night rally in New York

Cater said former PM John Howard had nipped the growing Hanson vote in the bud in the 90s by bringing her supporters into the fold, listening to them and making them feel appreciated -- but such political pragmatism had evaporated in recent times.

"It's not that he adopted their policies, but he gave them the time. He was criticised for even engaging, but that stopped the breakout," Cater said.

"We got lazy about that. We've had another breakout. There's continuity in this, from Clive Palmer to Hanson and then the slightly different ones like Xenophon, and oddballs like Lambie. You watch the preferences in the Senate, they flow to one another. This is clearly, in my mind, a Trump-ist formation in embryo."

So what can Australia's politicians do?

The message is that Australia shouldn't go down the path of America, and let voter disaffection get to such levels as we have seen in America. Politicians have already started to address it; Nationals MP Darren Chester tweeted on Friday that he looked forward to Aussie leaders starting to "discover regions" and pay attention to rural populations.

Liberal MP Andrew Hastie told HuffPost Australia on Thursday that "the Coalition would be foolish to neglect the deeper truth about this and that is there is a silent majority."

On the flipside, conservatives like Bernardi, Christensen, Lambie and the One Nation group have heralded President Trump and spoken of how they would like to see a similar movement envelop Australia.

"There's something people don't realise, people in the ALP and elsewhere. They've all supported neoliberalism, free trade, deregulation, privatisation, but it's inconceivable to them that it could be hurting some people can hurt people," McKnight said.

"Trump was able to, and Hanson tries to, speak to a broad range of everyday people. It is an old way of doing politics but it has a great resonance."

He said Bill Shorten and the ALP took "tentative" steps to embracing this idea in Australia, but needed to more fully embrace the working class to stave off a Trump-esque lurch to the right.

"Shorten tried to tap into this populism. He was against tax cuts for big business, getting stuck into the banks. A lot of the U.S. issue is elites underestimating the common sense of ordinary people. I think Trump is a con man, what he says and what he does are different things, but a key part of his appeal was free trade, runaway companies, jobs. That is what progressives should be addressing. You have to address ordinary peoples lives as they experience them.

"If politics leaders are honest about what neoliberalism has done, it will break down xenophobia. If you address genuine economic grievances, you can stop some of them from diverting to that. It's not just Trump; it's Brexit, the rise of the xenophobic right in Europe. Its a global phenomenon, due in part to neoliberal policies.

"You've got to go back to an older form of progressive politics, about material equality, not just about race gender so on. It's not that those issues aren't important, they might just not cover the field."

Kingston agreed.

"There's no doubt globalisation has disproportionately affected people on low incomes and enriched the already wealthy. I'm optimistic that Australia's form of democracy is strong, that we can lead the world on a comeback to liberal democracy. There are losers at the bottom end, you have to address that. You need transition plans, you need jobs," she said.

She also called for changes in the way media report politics.

"You can't ventilate this in 'you're an idiot' journalism. It has to be in 'no, that's not correct' journalism. If America shows anything, it shows we must build trust in mainstream media. America has got to the stage that they don't respect anything the media says. It's fact free," she said.

"The old conflict model [of reporting on politics] doesn't work. We need reporting on consensus. Part of it is politicians won't move because they're scared of getting their heads bashed in by media. How about some stories about the consensus points? It's just as advantageous for the rich to not have a blow up as it is for the poor."

Cater said the simple answer was to not forget about these forgotten people.

"They're not part of the rich business community, or unions. They're just ordinary battler people. Howard had his battlers. It's interesting that Trump used the term 'forgotten Americans'," he said.

"They're the people you don't hear from, they're not organised, they just get on and do their job, work hard, get the kids to school."

"I'm downplaying the economic angle here, because there are economic manifestations, but this is a more cultural movement. It's people feeling jacked off for being ignored."

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