Throughout the Western world, traditional politics is being shaken up in ways not seen for several decades. The current US Presidential race is a prime example of this, with Donald Trump taking the presumptive Republican nomination and self-described ‘democratic socialist’ Bernie Sanders contending with Hillary Clinton in the Democratic primaries. Both Trump and Sanders have run on platforms which challenge conventional positions on free trade, immigration and foreign policy interventionism within both the Republican and Democratic parties. In Europe, mainstream political parties and institutions are also being challenged. Populist candidates and parties from both the left and right of the political spectrum are winning more of the vote than they have for decades. This is reflected both in the rise of new political parties, as well as several nations, including the United Kingdom and Greece holding referendums on whether to remain within the European Union or to leave.
Considering this trend, it’s worth examining the possibility of a similar populist movement in Australia, including the likelihood of an anti-establishment candidate becoming the Australian Prime Minister. It is tempting to assume that Australia will soon follow a similar path, with an outsider candidate in the mould of Donald Trump, Bernie Sanders, Jeremy Corbyn or Marine Le Pen becoming a significant political force in Australia. I argue, however, that a significant, organised populist movement is unlikely to arise in Australia in the near future.
One reason why a populist candidate is unlikely to rise in Australian politics, at least in the near future, is Australia’s economic stability relative to the United States and Europe. Australia is fortunate to have experienced a record 25 years of continued economic growth. Unlike the United States and Europe, Australia managed to stave off recession in 2008 at the height of the global financial crisis. Unemployment for the most part has remained relatively low. The recession and subsequent economic instability for a large proportion of people in these parts of the world are a major driver of the ongoing push toward populist movements.
Closely related to this is the issue of immigration. High levels of immigration, especially of unskilled migrants, have been a major catalyst for populist movements in Europe and the United States. Particularly for the working classes, these demographics feel that policies of mass immigration have left them behind economically and isolated them in society. As a result, they have turned to candidates such as Donald Trump, Nigel Farage of the United Kingdom’s UKIP (United Kingdom Independence Party) and Marine Le Pen of France’s Front Nationale. Australia, in contrast to the United States and Europe, has tight immigration rules which are targeted to bring in people with skills which are needed in Australia. This system is one that some political parties in Europe, such as the United Kingdom’s UKIP party, wish to emulate. This, in addition to Australia’s tough policies on asylum seekers arriving by boat, shared by both the Liberal and Labor parties, have helped to alleviate Australians’ worries on these issues in comparison to Americans and Europeans.
It is important to note that Australia is not entirely free of populist and anti-establishment politics. The election of several senators from micro parties, usually based on one or a small number of issues during the 2013 election, as well as the continual rise of the Greens on the political left show are evidence of a growing populist element within Australian politics. However, unlike in Europe or the United States, the overall movement is disorganised and disparate, ultimately leading it to have relatively little influence over the governance of the nation. This is particularly true of Australia’s far-right, in stark contrast to the surging popularity of equivalent parties throughout Europe. A change in conditions, such as a recession could prove to be a catalyst in the future for an equivalent of a Donald Trump to arise in Australia. The overall global economic outlook in the near future is not overly positive and Australia is likely to be affected to some degree. Despite this, I am sceptical, at least in the near future, that a broad populist or anti-establishment movement will take hold in Australia to the extent of the United States or Europe.