The growth of multiculturism and the liberalization of the economy through globalization have led to a populist backlash in Australia. Figures such as Paulin Hanson, Bob Katter, and Jacqui Lambie have used a blend of conservatism, xenophobia, and protectionism to give voice to right-wing populism in the country. The populist leaders have been dextrously using social and economic concerns to retain relevance by creating rifts between ordinary people and those opposing them – elites and immigrants. While their position in Parliament remains insignificant, a trickledown effect has led to the elevation of these voices and can be attributed to the formation of far-right groups and gangs with anti-LGBTQ+, anti-Semitic, Islamophobic, and racist sentiments.
Australia is the largest country in Oceania. Its landmass comprises mainland Australia and the Island of Tasmania, along with smaller islets. Originally, the country was inhabited by Aboriginals – Australia’s Indigenous populations – who lived for millennia in relative isolation from the rest of the world. However, in 1606, Dutch explorer Willem Janszoon became the first European, to visit the region. In the 17th century, what would become Australia was called New Holland, despite never being colonized by the Dutch. Later, a 1770’s expedition led by Captain James Cook of Great Britain led to the British colonizing the eastern area of Australia for penal transportation. 26 January 1788 is celebrated as Australia’s National Day. The Gold Rush of the 1850s led to a greater European presence in the region, and on 1 January 1901, the six colonies were united under the federation of the Commonwealth of Australia. In 1907, Australia received the status of dominion, and, to date, it functions as a constitutional monarchy. By the 20th century, the Aboriginal populace had dwindled and migrants from regions other than Europe had accelerated.
Following the British declaration of war on Germany in 1914, the Australian military also joined the fight (Australian War Memorial, 2020). The performance of its troops and navy in WWI helped solidify Australia’s national identity, even as on the home front, the economy struggled – Gross Domestic Product (GDP) declined by 9.5 percent between 1914 and 1920 (Bongiorno, 2018).
Economic and international political tensions led Australia to again join WWII on the side of the Allies. Over one million men and women from Australia served in the war effort. WWII ushered in the modernization of the country’s industry, as it became heavily invested in arms manufacturing. Pharmaceutical production increased dramatically, specifically research and development (R&D) into curing tropical diseases for troops stationed in the regions. A shortage of male citizens led to increased female participation in the labor force.
During both major wars, the Defence Act of 1910 prohibited all non-Europeans from enlisting in the armed forces. Nativism fueled xenophobia during WWI when some 7,000 “enemy aliens” were thrown into camps between 1914-1918 despite being born and raised in Australia. During WWII, a similar hatred and fear of the “other” prevailed, and citizens of Italian, German, and Japanese descent were sent to camps. A deeper racist attitude was apparent: only adult male Germans and Italians were sent to camps, while whole families of Japanese were locked up. Called Nikkei migrants, some 1,000 lived in Australia at the start of WWII; only 141 were allowed to stay after the war ended, as a large number of them were deported to Japan (Beaumont, 2018; Steains and Whiley, 2020).
Australia has a modern economy; today, it ranks as a developed nation, offers its citizens a variety of welfare benefits, and is part of most major international trade bodies. During the mid-twentieth century, Australia opened itself to migrants from all backgrounds and gradually recognized the atrocities committed against Aboriginals. Migrants are an integral part of Australia’s socio-economic sectors: it is projected that by 2050, migration will add some 15.7 percent to the workforce participation rate and 5.9 percent to the GDP per capita (Sherrell, 2015). Like the rest of the Western world, the domestic economy has been liberalized.
Despite a relatively high standard of living, dissatisfaction with leadership – especially amongst the working-class – has triggered bouts of populism. Trade and economic liberalization have led to the globalization of the manufacturing sector, bringing an end to the traditional way in which the industry once operated. Over the past decade, the Consumer Price Index (CPI) shows an increase of 23.4%. To compensate, residents are cutting down spending on consumer goods and diverting their cash flow to paying for utility bills, health care, and other necessities (Hall, 2019).
The increased flow of Asian immigrants from China and East Asia led to overblown fears over the “Asian-isation of Australia.” Post-September 11th, Australian involvement in the “War Against Terror” in Afghanistan and Iraq, and cases of Islamist terrorist attacks on domestic soil, further increased the political clout of populist leaders who capitalized on fears that Judo-Christian values were under threat from Muslims who – some believed – were failing to integrate into the mainstream. Although in 2018, Australia opened its doors to less than 0.4% of the world’s refugees, populist members of the Senate such as Pauline Hanson have demanded refugees “go back to where you came from” (Refugee Council of Australia, 2018). Same-sex marriage in Australia has been legal since 9 December 2017, however, homophobic views and toxic debates have also surfaced in mainstream media (Abbas, 2017).
Antisemitism is also on the rise: there was a 24% increase between 2018 to 2019 (Zlatkis, 2020).
In the 1960s and 1970s, some populist parties – such as Australians Against Further Immigration, the Australian National Socialist Party, and the National Socialist Party of Australia – gained some clout under anti-immigration and far-right slogans. Since the 1980s, anti-Asian immigrant stances have taken root in Australian politics, galvanizing far-right parties. Over the previous two decades, the Labour Party – traditionality left-wing – has been unable to provide sound leadership to address core issues and has tilted toward the center-right. Leaders such as Malcolm Turnbull have voiced populist concerns by addressing the fear of immigrants “taking up all the jobs” by limiting temporary work visas with an aim to “put Australian workers first.” The Scott Morrison-led government has found itself in diplomatic hot water with China (Moore, 2020; Megalogenis, 2018).
Far-right political parties have not yet matured under strong leadership (Karp, 2019). Pauline Hanson’s One Nation (PHON or ONP) is a small party that has only recently gained representation in government. Hanson initially founded the party in 1997, along with two co-founders, David Oldfield and David Ettridge, who opposed the idea of “race-based welfare” and feared the “Asian-isation of Australia.” The party has drawn support from the working-class in mostly rural parts of the country. These are voters who feel increasingly isolated by the policies of globalization and multiculturalism (Murphy, 2016). After some initial success supporting immigration bans and advocating for protectionism, the party lost momentum. However, starting in 2016, it began to gain support: its rhetoric became less anti-Asian and more broadly Islamophobic. Hanson was quoted labeling Muslims as a “security challenge,” further adding, “Anti-social behavior is rampant [in Muslims], fuelled by a hyper-masculine and misogynist culture. Multiple social surveys find that neighbors of Muslim settlements are suffering from collapsing social cohesion and fear of crime” (Murphy 2016).
In the same league as One Nation is the Australian Party, which was formed by Bob Katter in 2011 to oppose deregulation and privation. Its aims include economic protectionism. While on the surface the party’s manifesto embodies frustrations with the current economic situation, the leader Katter has openly voiced anti-Muslim viewpoints, saying, “I don’t want Muslims coming here” (Morsi, 2018).
The populist Jacqui Lambie Network was formed in 2015 and has a solid following in Tasmania. Senator Jacqui Lambie is a former member of Clive Palmer’s party – Palmer himself is another anti-establishment businessman turned populist politician. Lambie has echoed anti-government voices by calling out economic deregulation and China’s growing economic influence. She’s also advocated bringing manufacturing back to the country and used the slogan “Make Australia Great Again!” The party plays on populist narratives, claiming the government is corrupt and urging people to join them by saying, “Our democracy is being bought and sold under our noses. Will you help to fix the system?” Unlike Palmer, who is only anti-establishment, Lambie is vocally anti-immigration, too: she has loudly supported a ban on Muslim immigration and believes “anybody who supports Sharia law should be deported.”
Another populist party, the Conservative National Party, founded by Fraser Anning, was dissolved in 2019. While serving as a senator, Anning blamed Muslim immigration for the Christchurch mosque shootings (Chamas, 2019). Anning lost his party and place in the Senate in the 2019 elections, but other populist parties – including One Nation and the Australian Party – gained populist support on their largely right-wing and anti-immigration agendas.
In the most recent Parliamentary elections, in 2019, in the House of Representatives, a coalition government of center-right parties was formed with 77 seats followed by 68 seats for the Labour Party, and three seats for Independent candidates. The Green Party and the Center Alliance each won one seat. Katter’s Australian Party, running on a clear populist agenda, won only a single spot (Morsi 2018). Overall, the frontrunner populist party, One Nation, earned just 3.08 percent of the popular vote in the House. In the Senate, the Liberal-led collation formed the government with 335 seats, Labour assumed the role of opposition with 26 members, with a crossbench of Greens in the lead with nine seats followed by the Center Alliance with two members and a single Independent Candidate. Populist parties One Nation secured two sweats and Lambie Network won just a single seat. One Nation secured 5.4 percent of the popular vote while Lambie Network was only able to get 0.21 percent of the popular vote in the Senate.
The election results reflect that Australian populist parties are smaller and relatively new.
Unlike Europe and other Western nations, Australia has not yet voted in an ultra-right government, but a recent surge of populist rhetoric in online forums is concerning. Antipodean Resistance (AR) was formed in 2016. AP has been influenced by European neo-Nazis. Openly using Hitler’s swastika, this small yet violent group has a presence in Melbourne and Sydney, two of Australia’s most diverse cities. AP aims to “keep Australia white” and is openly racist toward Aboriginals, Chinese, and African Australians calling them “vile and disgusting.” The Australian Defence League (ADL), which was founded in 2009 by Ralph Cerminara, is an openly militant, white nationalist, a far-right group.
These populist, grassroots organizations are synonymous with their racist and Islamophobic agendas. Their presence, and occasional bouts of violence, are deeply worrying – and support for them might be growing. In New South Wales alone, anti-Muslim sentiments have led to a more than 70 percent increase in religious hate crimes directed at Muslims; religious hate crimes overall were 20 percent higher compared to the previous three years (Truu, 2019). Physical and online acts of violence targeting Muslims are increasing, and Islamophobia is increasingly becoming normalized in Australia (Iner, 2017).
While Australia remains a full democracy, the presence of populist sentiments in the government and political parties poses serious questions regarding the socio-economic future of the country. Anti-establishment populism seems to be taking root in the continent.
By Ihsan Yilmaz
October 6, 2020.
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