Australia Has Lost Faith In Politics, And The Far-Right Is Reaping The Benefits

Do you want fascists? Because this is how you get fascists. 

Auspol Australian politics far right fascists

After the first Parliamentary sitting of 2020, the portion of the country that has not already turned away in disgust from national politics is left wondering what the hell just happened.

Australia’s low expectations have been met and exceeded, and that’s terrible news for everyone except far-right grifters and amoral opportunists.

Shortly before parliament sat, the scandal around the Government’s choice to rain public cash on target electorates led to Nationals deputy leader Bridget McKenzie resigning — even as fires burned outside the capital.

Barnaby Joyce, who just before Christmas declared that he was “sick of the Government in his life”, tried to become deputy Prime Minister, which would involve quite a bit of Government in his life.

The grants scandal has entered its second act, with an additional $150m under the microscope, and the relationship between the ruling Coalition parties has fractured. In the parade of nonsense you could be forgiven for missing the spending disclosures that showed Clive Palmer spent more than $80 million at the last federal election.

The sports rorts scandal — as serious as the alleged wrongdoing is — won’t hurt the Government in the same way as Morrison’s failures during the bushfire crisis did, because the behaviour is in line what people expect from their political leaders. The most recent Essential Poll found that a third of people had not even been following the story.

While all this might be great fun for those of us who like watching Tories squirm, it’s the tip of a very big and unfriendly iceberg. And folks, we are headed right for it.

Do you want fascists? Because this is how you get fascists.

Lo’ Expectations, Lo’ Problems

Writing in August last year about the prospect of a Trump re-election, Rolling Stone’s Matt Taibbi said “Middle Americans got so used to getting nothing out of elections, they started treating national politics for what it had become to them, a distant, pretentious sitcom.”

There is no distinct line we crossed when we stopped thinking of political leaders as even potentially useful. Certainly there was no meeting where it was decided.

But somewhere along the way large parts of Australia formed the view that political leaders are not capable of improving their lives or their communities. And when people stop voting on the basis of who can make a practical difference in their lives, that leaves an opening for people offering false and easy answers to their problems, pedalling blame and division, often on racial lines.

Professional pollsters and researchers know this problem. The hardest part of testing messages to target Pauline Hanson voters is finding enough of them willing to take part in research. Outfits will pay top dollar — two to three times the average focus group rate — just to get people in a room to discuss their views.

What emerges from these groups is a deep sense of outrage and disillusionment with not just the candidates or parties, but the political institutions themselves. A concerning number of people are voting for the candidate that presents as most hostile to a system they no longer see as valid.

This is not just an Australian problem — the fact that ten percent of people who backed Bernie Sanders in the 2016 primary voted for Trump in the general shows that when you’re throwing a brick through a window, you don’t really care what kind of brick it is.

This Memes Business

Which brings us to Clive Palmer’s election disclosures. The fact that his immense outlay failed to deliver seats to his party is not really the point. Much of the $80-odd million spend was dedicated to relentlessly negative ads undermining the ALP campaign at the last election.

If their object was to contribute to an unlikely Morrison victory, it certainly looks like they hit their mark.

Before and during the 2019 campaign, social media operators associated with disgraced far-right senator Fraser Anning, and Palmer’s United Australia Party, pumped out not just anti-ALP and anti-Greens election messages, but also racially hateful and conspiracy-driven posts.

And before Palmer turned his sights and his money on Shorten, his page was targeting then-PM Malcolm Turnbull.

It is in the interest of the far-right for people to lose faith in democracy. While people believe that the Government they choose can make a difference in their life — provide jobs they can count on, equitable access to quality healthcare and education, opportunities for their children and hope for a better life and a better society — the power of hate-merchants is kept in check.

The 2018 Victorian election shows this in action. The Andrews Government ran a disciplined campaign that focused on Government-funded manufacturing jobs in regional centres, reforms to improve renters’ rights, infrastructure building and free TAFE courses. They won in a landslide over Matthew Guy’s law-and-order campaign that promised to crack down on “ethnic gangs”.

Restoring some faith at a national level after years of leadership tussles, scandals and in-fighting will not be quick or easy. But it’s desperately needed to close the cracks that opportunists and far-right grifters have used to infiltrate our politics.

But the truth is that the hard-right has weaponised disillusion with our political system in ways that threaten not just our politics but the basics of everyday life. In everyone’s interest, they need to be stopped.

Lachlan Williams is a writer and communications consultant based in Melbourne. He has worked for the union movement and advised a Labor MP. You can bother him on Twitter.