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Rippling Trumpism

The view from Australia
A billboard showing a man with both thumbs up. Under him, text:

The most profound legacy of Donald Trump’s presidency may well be the fact that, both in the United States and outside it, his success has emboldened a rogue’s gallery of people who absolutely did not need emboldening: far-right demagogues, aspiring fascists, and faux-populist rabble-rousers. Even if Trump himself is a busted flush—which is by no means certain—his style of politics lives on in the United States in the rhetoric of Marjorie Taylor Greene et al., and in the hilarious pathological mendacity of now-indicted Congress member George Santos. Around the world, too, Trump-like figures have grasped for power: the 2018 election of Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil is one example, right down to January’s ransacking of government buildings in Brasilia after Bolsonaro failed to win re-election.  

As someone who was born and raised in Australia—I currently live in Melbourne—and who spent nearly a decade living in the United States, it’s been fascinating to watch Australian conservatives’ attempts to adopt Trumpist tactics. We even have a genuine homegrown aspiring Trump in the form of Clive Palmer, a bloviating mining baron who spent some $120 million during the federal election campaign last year on advertising for his populist United Australia Party, plastering its slogan “Make Australia Great”—lolsigh—on billboards around the country.

During the same campaign, incumbent prime minister Scott Morrison grabbed onto the Trump playbook as he sought to retain power, taking an increasingly autocratic hold over the workings of both his own Liberal Party and the Coalition it has formed for decades with the rural-focused National Party.

As a quick aside: it’s said that Trump was so famously rude to then-Liberal Party leader and prime minister Malcolm Turnbull during their first phone call in 2017 because he saw the word liberal and reacted exactly as one might expect. But the liberal in “Liberal Party” refers to economic liberalism, not social liberalism—in Australia, the Liberals are the conservatives, a fact that rarely fails to confuse Americans who find themselves studying our political landscape.

Anyway, as the election approached last May, Morrison announced that he was making a “captain’s pick”—selecting several candidates himself rather than letting them emerge from the state party apparatus. One of Morrison’s hand-picked candidates proved particularly controversial: Katherine Deves, a political neophyte from Sydney notable only for her frequently expressed and deeply unpleasant views on transgender people. When footage emerged of Deves likening her efforts to prevent trans women from participating in women’s sports to being in the French resistance during World War II, a media shitstorm ensued: Deves apologized-but-not-really, Morrison made it clear he agreed with her views against trans participation in sports, and those who supported Deves traded arguments and insults on social media with those who found her views obnoxious.

This whole sequence of events will no doubt sound familiar to anyone who’s followed recent U.S. elections. And that seemed to be the idea: Morrison’s coalition was adopting U.S.-style culture war tactics in a last-ditch bid to swing the election. But here’s the thing: none of this worked. At all. Deves lost, defeated soundly by incumbent independent (and, um, former Olympic skier) Zali Steggall. The Morrison government lost too, meaning that his conservative coalition was ejected unceremoniously from power after almost a decade in office, replaced by a majority Labor Party government for the first time since 2007. Clive Palmer’s populist party holds only a single seat in the Senate.

And most notably, the electorate simply didn’t care about the culture war issues the right embraced. In a post-election study into the key issues in the election, the Coalition’s chosen culture battlegrounds didn’t register at all. This is quite a contrast to the United States, where conservatives—and, depressingly, alleged liberals—have spent the last year relentlessly trotting out nonsense about schools providing litter boxes for children identifying as furries, and stoking panic about gender-affirming medical care for children.

The failure of Australian conservatives to win the 2022 election foreshadowed the weak showing later in the year by Republicans in the U.S. midterm elections. Both elections raised doubts about the effectiveness of the hard right’s style of culture war campaigning in appealing to anyone beyond their own base. Having lived in both countries, I’ve been thinking about the reasons that Trumpism hasn’t flourished in Australia to the extent that it has in the United States.

We know that Australia isn’t somehow inherently resistant to the lure of the culture war. If anything, the opposite is true—pretty much every federal election in which the Liberal/National Coalition has emerged victorious over the last thirty years has been because of its uncanny ability to know which of the electorate’s buttons to push. For the majority of those years, refugees have served as the right’s punching bag of choice.

In Australia, the Liberals are the conservatives, a fact that rarely fails to confuse Americans who find themselves studying our political landscape.

This tactic reached its nadir with the flat-out disgraceful Tampa Affair in 2001, in which a boat full of refugees floundered in the Indian Ocean until its passengers were rescued by the Norwegian freighter Tampa. The boat was at first refused permission to enter Australian waters, and Liberal Party prime minister John Howard said he believed it was in Australia’s “national interest” to “draw a line” on “illegal arrivals.” The Howard government’s hostility to immigrants—weeks before the Tampa, Howard’s immigration minister falsely implied that the occupants of another refugee vessel had thrown their own children overboard in a bid to force their way ashore—helped it win re-election that year.

Decades later, the immigration issue remains potent enough for it to terrify the Labor Party, who refused to countenance any relaxation of the country’s hideous border policies in the run-up to the 2022 election. The deeply depressing bipartisan support for Australia’s offshore death camps innovative refugee policies, such as those on Manus Island and Nauru, meant only 1 percent of those surveyed for the 2022 Australian Election Study identified refugees as their primary concern.

A casual observer might think that this would work against conservatives—but it’s not like the Coalition ever kept only one culture war tactic up their collective sleeve. They have fought and won elections on immigration (1996), the Iraq War and national security (2004), and carbon pricing (2013). They even managed to win the 2019 election, which they looked destined to lose right up until Election Day, with a good old-fashioned scare campaign on the esoteric issue of franking credits for stock dividends.

There was plenty of fear on the left that they’d pull another ace from their sleeve in 2022, especially as the electorate seemed primed for the divide-and-conquer tactics that had worked so well in the past. In particular, the punishing Covid lockdown policies imposed by state governments (the majority of which were Labor-led) during 2020 and 2021 generated discontent and drove the radicalization of plenty of formerly politically agnostic and . . . let’s say, politically unsophisticated voters.

So why did the Coalition’s golden touch suddenly desert them? For a start, they aren’t as good at playing the culture war game as they used to be. Howard, who was prime minister from 1996 to 2007, was born with a dog whistle in his mouth, and he wielded it with rare expertise—his racism, even in a context as jaw-droppingly awful as the Tampa Affair, always came with a measure of plausible deniability, along with a wink and a nod to people who got the message.

Morrison is no Howard, which is probably the single nicest thing one can say about him. You’ll rarely hear anyone saying anything nice about Morrison, though, and the level of antipathy toward him certainly played a large part in the Coalition’s defeat. As a Westminster democracy, Australia has no president—and while a prime minister doesn’t wield the power of a head of state, they remain a given government’s figurehead, the person representing the government in the eyes of the average voter. This proved a problem for the Coalition, as Australian voters proved disinclined to forgive a leader who jetted off to Hawaii on vacation during the historically disastrous bushfires in 2019, then lied about being on vacation, then got caught out in that lie by the emergence of a beachfront photo of Morrison and his wife with two grinning Australian tourists, and then justified his absence with the immortal line, “I don’t hold a hose, mate.”

This . . . idiosyncratic approach to both crisis and image management was electoral poison. It also leads us to the fact that Australia has had a terrible few years with climate change. If it’s not bushfires, it’s floods—the last couple of years have seen unprecedented flooding all around the country, which again proved a PR disaster for the hapless Morrison—and it turns out that it’s hard to care about who uses what bathroom when your own bathroom is underwater, along with the rest of your house.

In Australia, climate change has gone from being seen as a nebulous future concern to being seen as a clear and present danger to lives and livelihoods. The Morrison government’s refusal to acknowledge this was a factor in its defeat: 10 percent of voters identified global warming as the most important issue to them in the federal election, ranking it equal third with health and Medicare. The election also saw the emergence of the so-called teal (a mix of blue—the Liberal party’s color of choice—and green) independents, a group of candidates who combined economic conservatism with insistence on climate action. These were candidates whose natural political home would otherwise appear to have been the Liberal Party, and they managed to unseat several prominent Liberal MPs.

The idea of multiple otherwise largely conservative candidates branding themselves with the color green and demanding climate action might seem outlandish to U.S. readers: it’s hard seeing the majority of the Democratic Party doing such a thing, let alone the GOP. But the political landscape here is nowhere near as polarized as it is in the United States, a fact that goes some way to explaining the failure of MAGA-style conservatism to take root in Australia.

I’d argue that in large part, the reason for this relative lack of polarization comes down to one simple fact: voting in Australia is compulsory. If you don’t vote in a state or federal election, then within three months you’ll get a fine in the mail. To be clear: it’s perfectly OK to lodge what’s technically called an “informal vote” by spoiling your ballot (drawing a dick on the paper is a time-honored method of doing this). But if you don’t lodge a vote at all, you’re on the hook for $20.

Freedom-obsessed Americans would no doubt be ready to take up arms against a requirement to vote, but there are advantages to this system. First, it means that Australia—predictably enough—has relatively high voter turnout. This means that a much larger number of young people vote than in voluntary-voting countries like the United States, where the general pattern is that voter turnout increases with age. In Australia’s recent election the percentage of enrolled voters between twenty and twenty-nine years old (15.3 percent) was slightly higher than the percentage between sixty and sixty-nine (14.9 percent)—and younger voters tend to skew left in comparison to their older counterparts. More generally, there’s no need to get out the vote—a boon for the left, considering that the right generally has an easier time mobilizing voters. And finally, it largely neutralizes the sort of voter suppression tactics so beloved by conservatives in America.

These factors—combined with significantly lower rates of (and less extreme) gerrymandering—mean that compulsory voting has a way of revealing what’s actually important to the electorate. It doesn’t make elections immune to culture warring, but it does reveal whether a given topic actually resonates with the electorate as a whole, or only with a loud, but ultimately small, reactionary minority. In the case of scaremongering around trans people and other MAGA-style nonsense, the answer here—for now, at least—is definitely the latter.

Morrison jetted off to Hawaii during the disastrous bushfires in 2019, then lied about being on vacation, then got caught out in that lie, and then justified his absence with the immortal line, “I don’t hold a hose, mate.”

Of course, this may well also be the case in the United States, but the aspects of U.S. politics that drive polarization—voter suppression, gerrymandering, alienation, and disengagement—also combine to give undue weight to certain voices. In turn, the electoral system gives those voices an unduly large influence. Such a situation certainly isn’t unprecedented down under—readers interested in seeing just how far rampant gerrymandering can take a government in Australia are invited to read up on the history of the deeply unpleasant government led by Sir Joh Bjelke-Petersen, which ruled the state of Queensland with a minority share of the vote between 1968 and 1987—but it’s certainly not the norm.

Because the United States is a “frozen republic” in which constitutional change is almost impossible, it’s unlikely compulsory voting or even preferential voting (in which voters rank their choices) could be implemented in federal elections. But the Australian system suggests that the more directly and faithfully the electorate’s views are translated to the composition of government, the less room there is for demagoguery to gain disproportionate influence. (Not influence—but disproportionate influence.) A small rump of Covid deniers and anti-vaxxers might support Clive Palmer, but the majority of the country thinks he’s an obnoxious, self-serving dickhead. The electorate isn’t always right, but in this case it’s hard to argue with its verdict.

In 1964, writer Donald Horne famously referred to Australia as “a lucky country run mainly by second rate people who share its luck.” (The fact that “the lucky country” has since become a self-satisfied nickname for Australia rather proves Horne’s point.) Australia’s fortune, both metaphorical and material, along with its geographical isolation, has bred both introversion and, in some ways, complacency.

As a nation of about twenty-six million people with an entire continent’s worth of resources on which to draw, Australia—and the majority of its people—remains deeply fortunate. But nevertheless, since the late 1970s Australia has followed a trajectory similar to that of the United States: a slow but inexorable shift to the right, with the legacy of the postwar consensus slowly ground to dust by a glacier of conservatism. That glacier hasn’t advanced quite as far here as it has elsewhere: the gap between rich and poor, for example, is certainly widening, and wealth is concentrating in the hands of a small elite. (A startling example of the way Australia has changed is a recent report that examines the way in which the benefits of periods of postwar economic growth have been distributed. The report found that while 96 percent of benefits of growth in the period 1950–1960 went to the lowest 90 percent of income earners, by 2009–2019, that figure had done a startling about-face, with 93 percent of growth going to the top 10 percent of income earners.)

It’s easy to take things for granted until they’re gone. Take a look at Medicare, Australia’s public health insurance system. It certainly isn’t what it was, and private insurers have been able to squirm into the cracks left by underfunding and neglect. But it still works, sort of. If nothing else, it’s not in disarray like the UK’s National Health Service. Consecutive conservative governments have taken this fact as their cue to continue with the slow process of underfunding and undermining—and, eventually, privatizing—the system.

Another example of the slow decay of Australia’s welfare state is tertiary education. Tuition fees for tertiary education were abolished in 1974 and remained absent until 1989; now a university education carries significant costs. These are managed via a deferral system that saddles students with significant debts—this system isn’t as punitive as the U.S. student loan system, but it’s also definitely not a free education.

Freedom-obsessed Americans would no doubt be ready to take up arms against a requirement to vote, but there are advantages to this system: Australia has relatively high voter turnout, including among young voters. 

The fact that things remain relatively workable in Australia means that while there is a sense of alienation and discontent—in particular, regarding issues like climate change—there is less disengagement from politics here, especially among the young. This also means that Reaganesque “government is the problem” rhetoric has never really resonated in Australia, and trust in government remains relatively high, at least in comparison to America. (The fact that Covid mask mandates were largely followed without too much controversy, for instance, had my partner—who is American—shaking her head in amazement: “This would never happen back home.”)

Still, the slow erosion of public institutions and infrastructure, along with bipartisan support for policies that a genuinely leftist party would never countenance, demonstrate that as in the United States, Australia’s shift to the right has been accompanied by a narrowing of the political spectrum. As the Liberal-National Coalition has drifted ever further right, it dragged the Labor party with it, resulting in a two-party system where on many issues, the choice is between center-right and further right. While the Labor Party—as its name suggests—has its roots in organized labor and trade unions, those links were largely severed during the 1980s and early 1990s, when the federal Labor governments led by Bob Hawke and (later) Paul Keating were responsible for many of the Thatcher/Reagan-inspired economic reforms and deregulation carried out in Australia.

It’s here that Australia does diverge from America, though. Australia’s use of preferential voting means that while it is still essentially a two-party system, there has often been room for a third party to win a large enough share of the vote to win one or more seats (usually in the Senate). The prospect of third-party influence has been up for grabs since the Australian Democrats, a centrist party that filled the role during the 1980s and 1990s, self-immolated in the 2000s, and a succession of “cross-bench” MPs have ended up holding the balance of power.

Over the last decade or so, the Greens have emerged as a legitimate third party at both state and federal levels. While there is a gaping hole on the left in U.S. party politics, that void is at least partially occupied in Australia. Even if the Greens won’t form a government, their presence in both houses of Parliament means they can wield real power and exert genuine influence over policy. This means that Australia stands at something of a crossroads. A return to conservative power in 2025 would almost certainly mean more inaction on climate change, a widening gap between rich and poor, and the ongoing erosion of public institutions.

A friend who just visited Australia from the United States described it as “Better America,” an observation that’s pretty accurate, but also contingent. For forty years, both countries have been following the same downward-sloping road to late capitalist hell; the United States has just descended further. A look across the Pacific can show Americans that high voter turnout and a relatively direct mapping of votes onto representation could go a long way toward slowing its descent. And looking in the opposite direction should demonstrate to Australians where that road leads.