Western Australia will be the first test of One Nation's support since its triumphant return to prominence last year. The Liberal Party appears to have learned nothing, either from the European parallels or from its own experience.
Two big elections coming up: tomorrow in Western Australia, and next Wednesday in the Netherlands. Even though the Dutch were the first Europeans to visit Western Australia, not many people seem to be making a connection. But in both cases, the big story is the fortunes of the far right.
Western Australia’s Liberal-National coalition government is trying to win a third term of office, and on all accounts is in serious difficulty. (Antony Green’s preview gives essential background.) The Labor opposition needs to win ten seats,* requiring a uniform swing of about 10%, but the polls show that target to be well within range. The betting market has Labor an unbackable favorite at six to one on.
In a move clearly born of desperation, the Liberal Party has done a preference deal with One Nation, even throwing overboard its National Party coalition partners in the process. The last time they tried this – in Queensland in 1998 – it was a colossal own goal, and the state’s Liberal Party was reduced to nine seats. (One Nation, however, won eight seats on Liberal or National preferences.)
But as usual, preference decisions that are defended on the basis of pragmatism and realpolitik can actually stem from deeper causes. Parties deal with the partners that they feel ideologically closer to, and the fact that it feels itself kin to One Nation tells us a lot about today’s Liberal Party.
Anyone familiar with European politics would immediately pick One Nation as a typical neo-fascist party. Its similarities with, say, France’s National Front are clear: the same unadulterated racism and xenophobia, the same cult of personality, the same hostility to modernity, the same enthusiastic climb onto the anti-Muslim bandwagon, the same dalliance with the lunatic conspiracy-minded fringe, the same base in the alienated small-town petty bourgeoisie.
And the same themes, of course, have become even more familiar over the last year with the Trump movement in the United States.
But Australia never wants to admit such analogies. We think of ourselves as sui generis; a former fish-and-chip shop owner from Ipswich is a national curiosity, not a copycat Mussolini.
The truth is, however, that Australia is a European society, steeped in European culture, with a European political system. Our parties draw, consciously or not, on European models – it would be remarkable if they did not.
As I have said before, there is no silver bullet for dealing with the far right (or, for that matter, the far left). A number of strategies have worked at different times in different places. Australia’s own John Howard is often cited as an example for having marginalised One Nation, in its first incarnation, by shifting to the right and stealing its policy clothes.
But it should be remembered that Howard’s strategy also involved delegitimising One Nation by denying them preferences: not because he had some principled objection to dealing with him, but because the Queensland experience taught him that it was electoral poison. The fact that Malcolm Turnbull, supposedly the philosophical anti-Howard, has been unable or unwilling to follow suit is a measure of the sort of party that the Liberal Party has become.
So much of the party’s outlook now is neither philosophical nor policy-based, but tribal. It is driven by hostility to “the left”, and it will line up with anyone who shares its hatreds. Hence so many of its young activists have cheered on Donald Trump, and will no doubt spend the next two months cheering on Marine Le Pen.
Even with preferences, it’s unlikely that One Nation will win any lower house seats tomorrow. But it is quite likely to emerge with the balance of power in the Legislative Council – where, no doubt, the Liberal and National parties will happily co-operate with it, just as they have been doing in the Senate since last year’s federal election.
Perhaps this is a strategy of sorts, and it may be that being drawn into the establishment’s web like this will discredit One Nation in the eyes of its ornery voters, leading to a loss of support. There have been some signs of this in Western Australia, although the evidence is equivocal. But while pandering to the extremes sometimes succeeds in drawing their sting, it rarely fails to leave ugly moral traces on the party that tries it.
There are signs of that in the Netherlands too, where the established parties have had to deal with the rise of Geert Wilders and his Party for Freedom – a neo-fascist force of a slightly different stripe. Stay tuned for more on that in part II, to follow.
* Including two (West Swan and Collie-Preston) that it currently holds but have become notionally Liberal due to redistribution.