In nearly every country in the liberal democratic world, the political establishment is facing challenges of an order not seen since the aftermath of World War II.

Liberal opinion in France heaved a sigh of relief over the weekend as the far-right National Front was defeated in regional run-off elections, but the clearly remarkable fact is that it was able to out-poll the mainstream parties in the first round.

Polls in the Netherlands likewise show the anti-immigration party of Geert Wilders to be streaking ahead of the competition, with some putting its support at close to 40% — nearly twice that of its nearest rival among the nation’s fragmented party system.

Meanwhile, in the United States, sensible observers of the presidential race have spent much of this year looking on in horror as all the things that should have killed Donald Trump’s bid for the Republican nomination have only made it stronger.

Australia’s established parties have certainly not gone unchallenged in recent years, as a quick look at the make-up of the Senate makes clear.

However, what’s conspicuous is the absence of an electorally potent nationalist party of the kind that has become an uncomfortable part of the furniture nearly everywhere in Europe.

It’s not that Australia doesn’t have it in its constitution to give rise to anti-immigration politics, as was memorably demonstrated in the late 1990s by Pauline Hanson.

In hindsight though, what seems truly remarkable about Hansonism is that it reached its short-lived peak the better part of two decades ago, and that nothing of substance has since come along to take its place.

The closest approximation at present is the Australian Liberty Alliance, which recently met the exacting requirements for formal party registration with the Australian Electoral Commission.

However, despite scoring valuable publicity by having Geert Wilders attend the party’s launch in October, this outfit has shown no sign so far that it is cutting through, for which two main reasons suggest themselves.

The first is that the party lacks a leadership figure with the star quality necessary to implant itself in the popular imagination.

For a while, such qualities were attributed to Clive Palmer, whose Trump-like mix of wealth and attention-seeking brashness gave him the appearance of being the Australian standard-bearer for a new strain of populist politics. However, Palmer made no effort to trade in the xenophobia that’s been central to the appeal of Trump and the resurgent European far right.

A party that combined the policy stance of one with the publicity flair of the other might well be in business. But, as things stand, the best the Australian Liberty Alliance can probably hope for is to luck out in the Senate preference lottery.

The second difficulty is that anti-immigration sentiment appears to be a lot less pronounced in Australia than in Europe and the United States — at least at present.

A survey conducted earlier this year by the Australian National University found that 42% of Australians were happy with the existing level of immigration, and, of those who weren’t, about as many wanted it increased (26%) as decreased (28%).

This was in striking contrast with a similar survey conducted in 1995, shortly before Hanson arrived on the scene.

At that time, 39% of respondents wanted a cut in the immigration intake, while only 8% wanted it increased. Similar numbers are being recorded today in even the most liberal of European countries, while sentiment is more adverse still in the United Kingdom and the United States — to say nothing of Greece and Italy.

This could well be thought to support a notion popular among more nuanced conservative voices, who maintain that a hard line on boat arrivals is essential to sustaining public support for an inclusive immigration program.

As Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull seeks to reorient the government back towards the centre after the misadventures of Tony Abbott, questions have emerged as to whether his doing so will open a gap in the market on the right.

Without the complication of the European Union that has aided the rise of UKIP in Britain, immigration and asylum seekers are the one area of policy where such a threat would have real potency.

Turnbull’s personal sensibilities in this field could well be as liberal as his foes on the right suppose, but political realities mean there is little chance of him abandoning the hard line his party cultivated under John Howard and Tony Abbott.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey