Australia Could Have Its Own Donald Trump

Addressing the anxieties underpinning this populist rage is tricky.

31/08/2016 5:27 AM AEST | Updated 31/08/2016 5:27 AM AEST
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"It’s terrifyingly easy to sketch One Nation’s map to further success."

If one person has redefined Western political discourse in the past year, it is Donald Trump. Commentators have all but exhausted the ways in which to describe him; depending on your standpoint, he's a one-man circus, a straight-talker, a demagogue, a fresh voice, a race-baiter, a champion of the disenfranchised, or some combination of the above.

One thing that he indisputably is is American.

No director, no author, no playwright could've imagined it better: he is a brash billionaire, the embodiment of the sybaritic materialism that shapes contemporary America. His defining characteristic is, perhaps, faith in his own ability.

That is why many commentators -- including foreign policy expert Tom Switzer and political campaigner Ed Coper -- have concluded that Australia could never have its own Donald Trump. They look at the cult of personality that he fosters, his emphasis on American exceptionalism, and can't make the leap to Australia, where our disdain for politicians and self-deprecating humour are legendary.

This view, however, fails to look at the bigger picture. Hindsight is 20/20, of course, but Pauline Hanson's recent electoral success reveals an appetite for Australian Trumpism. Her support heralds something sinister: a recrudescence of nativist politics in Australia.

Hanson herself cannot be the long-term avatar of Australian nativism for she lacks charisma and panders to the fringe too strongly to be a truly mainstream political force. She has, however, laid the path for a successor -- an Australian Donald Trump -- who could redefine political dialogue in this country.

How might this happen? It is instructive to look at history. It was the seat of Oxley, hitherto a Labor stronghold of hardy, blue-collar voters, which delivered Pauline Hanson victory in 1996. They decided that they'd had enough, enough of the bipartisan support for immigration, enough of the dislocating economic reform effected by both major parties, enough of politics as usual. The party of progress no longer owned these voters. They had, in Pauline Hanson, a vessel in which their cultural and economic insecurities bubbled to the surface.

Fast forward to 2016. Across Europe, illiberal parties have gained traction in a way unseen since the dawn of fascism in Italy in the early 20th Century. Such parties capture a plurality of support in a wealth of European countries -- France, The Netherlands, Austria, and others. Skepticism of immigration and the neoliberal economic order, coupled with hysteria about Islam's growing presence in the West have driven a furious reaction from voters.

And Australia? The lucky country? The beneficiary of 25 years of consecutive economic growth, the island immune from illegal immigration and the land of the fair go? We voted for a political figure who, in her maiden jeremiad to Parliament, declared that we are being "swamped by Asians".

It's terrifyingly easy to sketch One Nation's map to further success. Their popularity will see them siphon off more of the Liberal Party's xenophobic base, but it's in the disillusioned working class that the real gains are to be made. Bill Shorten courts such voters when he laces his speeches with protectionism, but he is merely stemming the bleeding. If Shorten loses the Labor leadership and Tanya Plibersek, or another member from Labor Left (save, perhaps, Anthony Albanese, who practically screams working class) takes over, such voters will have little tying them to the ALP.

It is very likely that the Labor party will gravitate further to the left in the next decade, in an attempt to draw young voters who have backed the Greens. The modern progressive party, with its coalition of women, minorities, and the highly-educated has less and less room for unions, less and less room for blue-collar voters. But such voters need a home, and One Nation (or some other iteration of the same nativism) will be all too happy to provide one.

Is there anything to be done?

Addressing the anxieties underpinning this populist rage is tricky. We can, however, introduce policies that chip away at their general causes: increase efforts to prevent domestic terrorism, an incidence of which would see Islamophobia balloon; invest heavily in re-training programs to rejuvenate communities stricken by structural unemployment; and ensure continued prosperity by not acceding to demands for curbs on free trade.

Such proposals are hardly revolutionary, but they are a much needed start. Ultimately, it will be our better nature that sees off the incendiary Hanson and her ilk, or our basest fears that empower them.

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