election candidate

The Grattan Institute’s latest report, on minor party support in Australia, is another contribution to probably the biggest political debate across Western democracies currently: what’s behind the drift to populism and, in a number of countries, the decline of support for the political establishment?

It explores the growth in minor party support over recent elections, culminating in the 2016 federal election when minor party support reached over 22% in the House of Representatives and over a quarter in the Senate — the highest levels ever recorded (they might have added that 2016 also heralded a slump in turnout, despite compulsory voting). All at a time when trust in politicians and politics is at a low ebb across Australia and much of the West. 

The report is particularly focused on regional Australia, where minor party support is growing more rapidly. Its conclusions are that economic conditions alone don’t explain the rise, although they partially do in relation to unemployment. Instead, the report emphasises the lack of trust in government, a belief that politics needs fundamental reform and a sense of loss of control. This desire to “take back control” is helping drive support for minor parties. And that desire is one rooted in nostalgia:

Some minor party voters are particularly nostalgic for a time when people like them seemed to have had more control over their lives and the country’s direction. They wish to protect the cultural symbols and narratives that are associated with ‘traditional Australia’.

Immigration is, for such voters, a key issue — despite little contact with immigrants, and despite living in regional centres generally untroubled by housing supply and congestion issues linked to immigration in the capitals, they oppose immigration, which for them “may be linked to a fear that immigrants could undermine traditionally ‘Australian’ values or norms”.

Much of the media coverage of the report emphasises a split between the “trust” and “economy” issues, noting that it’s the former and not the latter that is driving the shift away from major parties. But the report is at pains not to reject a role for economic conditions, merely to note that it’s not the only, and may not be the primary, cause. The distinction also glides over the extent to which issues like lack of trust and the kind of disempowerment that fuels a perceived need to “take back control”, themselves arise from economic policies.

True, passing issues like expenses or donations scandals are corrosive of trust in politicians — especially when there seems to be little interest on the part of any side to fix the rules. But lack of trust and the urge to “take back control” — often manifested as “take back control of borders” — are linked. They’re both perceptions that the political system isn’t working in the interests of voters but rather for special interests.

And on economic policy, voters have reason to think the system is not working in their interests. Economic orthodoxy of recent decades has elevated the interests of corporations to primacy in policymaking at the expense of workers. Policymaking in Canberra is overrun with lobbyists waving modelling commissioned to deliver outcomes their clients or employers want. Governments are reluctant to implement policies that might upset “the markets”.

Immigration is really only the lightning rod for this sentiment, the highest and most visible point of the structure. Voters — many of whom are migrants themselves — object to economically open borders, borders that allow foreign workers to compete with Australians either by coming here and taking jobs (and competing for houses, and using infrastructure), or taking jobs remotely via outsourcing and the offshoring of local manufacturing.

That these jobs have been more than replaced by services jobs doesn’t matter. Service jobs, as the report points out, tend to cluster in cities, and tend to attract younger and more educated people, rather than “older male voters who work outside the services sector and are nostalgic for a period of greater job opportunities”.

Many of the drivers of disillusionment are beyond the control of governments. The new protectionism we’ve embraced in the last couple of years won’t bring back more than a couple of thousand manufacturing jobs. But the report rightly urges measures that might restore trust in the political process itself — donations reform, lobbying reform, fixing expense rules. That might encourage voters to start feeling they can have greater trust in the leaders who at the moment are perceived as working for everyone but voters.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey