Watching the US election as an Australian student in America, I saw up close the process by which Donald Trump was elevated to the US Presidency, turning a side-show into the main event. Thanks to surging populism and the role of feeble centrists in enabling extremists, dark storm clouds now approach.
But at least we Australians can take comfort in knowing that nothing like this could happen here. Right?
Surely, we are too relaxed and reasonable to jump on the bandwagon of dangerous demagoguery. Besides, our parliamentary Westminster system creates barriers to populist revolt and our democratic process is buttressed by compulsory voting, making it too broad-based to be hijacked by an angry mob.
So we're safe, right?
No. Not anymore. At the upcoming WA election we face the real risk that a bad fringe comedy act will take centre stage.
The Liberals justify their shift by arguing that One Nation has "evolved" and is today "a lot more sophisticated". Nothing could be further from the truth.
The WA Liberals' recent preference deal with Pauline Hanson's One Nation Party for the March 11 election has drawn deserved attention. With this deal Premier Colin Barnett has significantly increased the chances of the resurgent One Nation capturing seats in WA's Upper House and holding the balance of power. This could see WA effectively run by a Liberal-One Nation coalition, handing unprecedented power to our very own right-wing extremists.
Barnett's deal is radical. Until now, no state division of the Liberal Party has ever preferenced One Nation following John Howard's insistence it be placed last in all races for the 2001 Federal election. Back then even the most conservative Liberals recognised One Nation as beyond-the-pale extremists, with Tony Abbott campaigning against them and fundraising to finance legal cases against them.
The Liberals justify their shift by arguing that One Nation has "evolved" and is today "a lot more sophisticated". Nothing could be further from the truth. Hanson has renounced none of her famously racist views, including her belief that we are being "swamped by Asians" and that Aboriginal people should be denied their land rights. The only discernible "evolution" is that she's added Muslims to her list of targets, proposing Australia's very own Muslim ban.
Meanwhile, the rag-tag bunch of conspiracy theorists rallying to Hanson's cause are more unhinged than ever. Take Richard Eldridge, a One Nation candidate who has advocated taking up arms against "extreme Muslims" in Australia and derided gay relationships as "poo games". Is this the sophistication of which the Liberals talk? Is Eldridge really fit to be helped by Liberal preferences?
Barnett's backroom deal with One Nation is really driven by one thing: his desperation to cling to power. With Barnett deeply unpopular and One Nation support at 13 percent, near record levels, this deal is Barnett's last chance.
Ironically, the disillusionment that has fueled One Nation's resurgence in WA is partly the product of the Barnett Government's bumbling. By mismanaging the mining boom and its aftermath, the Liberals have left WA with soaring unemployment and the worst managed budget in the country. The Liberals' failure to focus on basic services has also undermined the Government's ability to provide quality schools and hospitals in line with community expectations.
The Liberal's embrace of Hanson could help normalise One Nation and its ideas as a political force.
Barnett is now trying to harness the protest vote against his own government to get back across the line. On top of terrible policies, a Liberal-One Nation government would trump Trump for political instability. Senator Rod Culleton's removal just months into his tenure was a small prelude to the chaos this bunch would bring. Even Barnett has said that One Nation's presence in the parliament would make "government very, very difficult". It shows the depths of Barnett's desperation that he is prepared to ignore his own warning.
Even worse, the Liberal's embrace of Hanson could help normalise One Nation and its ideas as a political force. This is eerily reminiscent of the way centrist Republicans dealt with Trump and the Tea Party. They didn't share their ideals but cynically tried to surf the associated populist upsurge for their electoral interest. We know how this ended, with the demise of the centrists and the triumph of the radicals.
Now, with this dark picture, am I stooping to Hanson-esque alarmism? Surely, One Nation is not going to make inroads and even if it does, it could not be that bad? Well, the same was said about Trump. Do we want to take the same risk at home?
If not, then what can we do?
If you lean Liberal, is this the time to draw a line in the sand and take a break from a party which is supporting extremism? If not now, then when? Taking a stand now is the best way to help the Liberal Party return to the sensible centre.
If you lean Labor, is now the time to get out, talk to your neighbours, knock on doors, and hand out how-to-vote cards on polling day? If not now, then when? Doing nothing could see you left with regrets like those now felt by many Americans.
This election matters. Rather than repeating the mistakes of the US, we can respond by showing both Barnett and Hanson the way; It is marked "Exit: stage right!"
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