Orange MP Philip Donato
A butterfly flaps its wings, and across an ocean, a tsunami begins … the old quote from those days when chaos theory was the coming thing (“fractals, man!”) seems very apposite now that chaos is actually here. Random events tie together, and you have to look for the subtle effects. Take the Trump triumph, for example. In America the pinnacle of power is occupied by an orange man … and in Australia, a political revolution begins in the seat of Orange.
From offshore, it’s amazing to me that the result of the Orange byelection is not being pored over more, for its implications. As a new post-liberal nationalism takes over the world, its first appearance in Australia has been little remarked upon. Out of nowhere, the National Party vote has been hollowed out in its heartland, by the latest variation of the Shooters Party, a local appearance of the process by which Trump took over the Republicans, the Tory Right won over the modernisers, and the Front National appears poised to win in France next year. Surely, the only reaction to this event should be that, ‘it has begun’? Why has this not occurred?
The answer I suspect lies in the particular character of Australian politics and the Australian right. Our country is near-unique in combining European social democracy (however attenuated), with a settler/new-world social structure. Thus we have avoided both Anglo-American Thatcherite politics, and the recrudescence of European social democracy to its nationalist, communalist roots. It’s often said that we’ve had a quarter century of continuous growth, but it runs deeper than that — allowing for the sharp 1990-91 recession, we’ve had nearly 35 years since there was a period of sustained reversal, the stagnation of the mid-late 1970s. In the 1970s, the labour movement and progressivism were welded together in a manner that was consolidated by the fact that the neoliberalising of our economy was done by a “social market” style Labor government. No great imbalance of power between the two major classes of our time — educated knowledge workers and everyone else — occurred.
Consequently, the hard right has had very little purchase, and, crucially, has attracted very little political talent. More than anywhere else in the world, the Australian hard right has been a freak show of ego, narcissism and delusion, the most recent display being the real-time collapse of Pauline Hanson’s One Nation – which makes it One Nation’s third or fourth real-time collapse in its 20-year history, by my reckoning. The same is true of the hard-right groups, the UPF and others, arisen out of a combination of Facebook and “squaddism”. Noxious and potentially violent, they are nevertheless led by the reliable hard-right type, the young-Anglo-male-narcissist, the type who discovers in himself a talent for stating a case, inspiring people and some organisational skills — and rapidly becomes a deranged egomaniac, falling out with everyone else around him.
For years we have relied on that feature of the hard right — their lack of access to any means of self-scrutiny or strategic reflection — to ensure that they would defeat themselves. But that, I think, is over. It’s been over elsewhere for a while, with the emergence of hard-right (so-called “alt-right”, a not unuseful term) figures such as the late Andrew Breitbart, Steve Bannon, Geert Wilders and others, and of nativist/nationalist right figures such as Nigel Farage. Now I suspect it’s over here, and the Shooters party is the most likely vessel for its success.
The Shooters — they seem to change their name repeatedly; I’m keeping it simple — represent what has now become a stable hard-right tradition in Australian politics. Born via various strands of student and fringe-right politics in New South Wales in the ’90s, midwifed by the voting system of the NSW upper house, and the notorious “tablecloth ballot” election of 1999, the Shooters draw on the distinctive character of rural NSW (and parts of south-west Queensland) for a geographical base.
These regions have the only non-metropolitan population centre of gravity in the country; their rural form was always quasi-European in that smaller farms supported a network of regional cities, a continuous community, for more than a century. For decades, culminating in a movement in the 1920s, New England had a separatist statehood movement; and the area both sides of the NSW-Queensland border has played host to the “League of Rights” movement and its advocacy of “social credit” economics, a 20th-century movement, which advocated seeing all citizens — but especially small property owners — as stakeholders in the social “corporation”, and thus due an annual dividend.
[Rundle: Pauline Hanson and the rise and fall (simultaneously) of the racist crazies]
That distinctiveness has had some paradoxical effects. The now two-decades long resistance to the expansion of gas production across farmland, and the more recent expansion of open-cut mining, took the miners — who are mostly ex-National party grandees — by surprise. They saw protest as a left-wing thing; they have been shocked at the alliances that have formed, and the success of them. But they have always believed that, in the end, the country would vote Nat, because it always has (the protesters agreed with them; those locals campaigning against the Shenhua and Whitehaven mines in the Liverpool plains, and CSG in the Pilliga tear their hair out as their neighbours complain that mining is destroying their way of life — and then troop to the polling booth to vote the next generation of Nationals/CSG entrepreneurs into power again).
The Orange vote is where that has all come apart. You only have to crack the National Party wall once, to deprive it of its most important asset, a sense of inevitability. For many in the country, the routine National Party vote wasn’t simply a political act – it was part of a social collectivity, based in a society less fully transformed by the market than urban areas have been. Without that mystique, the Nats could suffer a series of losses very quickly.
With that may come something akin to the nativist right now arising abroad: stable, focused, and capable of appealing to One Nation voters, once One Nation has suffered its next total collapse. It’s something to get ready for, for its politics will not be the neoliberalism-with-a-few-rural-bribes of the current Nats — it will be a statist post-liberal Keynesianism, advocating mass regional infrastructure and social investment for the revival of regional areas that have suffered successive relative decline over decades, perceived cultural sidelining, and bitterly resent it. After it has taken a bite out of the Nats, it will go after Labor.
For the latter, this will be a threat. For the left, it could be an opportunity. In these areas, the Greens vote remains where it always has, at around 6% (save in anomalous areas like the northern NSW coast, where it rises in a cloud of aromatic smoke); but Greens figures such as Jeremy Buckingham are held in the highest regard, for their tireless battle for the community. It is foolish to imagine this will ever convert into a Greens vote; the ensemble of Greens politics simply cannot stretch to accommodate. Instead, what is required is a wide-spectrum “Rural Alliance” movement, emphasising regional social-democratic values in investment, education and services, opposition to the mining juggernaut, forms of conservation and environmental politics that synthesise with rural politics, and a neutral or conscience position on a wide range of social issues.
[Rundle: the end of two-party politics]
I’m not advocating such an alliance as a “covert” operation, but as an open one, that builds an electoral model on the success of the Lock the Gate movement at a social level (though remaining separate from it, organisationally). Such a movement could rapidly become a force at the state and federal level; eventually it could create a geographic power base, running from Indi on the NSW-Victoria border, up into south Queensland — and such contiguity and “placefulness” would amplify its power and effectiveness.
Even by commanding a slice of the vote, it would change the politics of the region immediately; and with four of five parties in the hunt, it would only need a primary vote in the 20s to prevail.
The Orange wave is going to change a lot of things; one of those will be the way in which political goals and grouplets are put together. The Australian alt-right is getting its act together, and the current circus in the Senate is disguising that. The delayed rise of the movement in Australia is a bit of luck, allowing progressive forces to learn from what is already well-advanced elsewhere. If such groups don’t respond with imagination and creativity, then a lot of their activity will just be useless flapping about.