A small defeat for Trumpism (and neoliberalism) in Australia

by John Quiggin on March 12, 2017

On Saturday, a state election was held in Western Australia, resulting in a big win for the Labor party, after two terms out of office. The election turned in part on declining economic conditions and in part on the incumbent government’s proposal to privatise the electricity industry, an idea that has almost invariably proved electoral poison (it keeps coming up because of the massive financial and career benefits to those who can push it through). But the biggest factor was a deal done between two Trumpist political parties (a guide to our many versions of Trumpism here), the governing Liberal party (selling a combination of Trumpism and neoliberalism in the manner of the US Republicans) and Pauline Hanson’s One Nation. (The Liberals cut out their current coalition partners, the National Party, which had only one representative).

The result has been a disaster for both Trumpist groups. After polling near 10 per cent, One Nation got less than 5 per cent of the vote, and Hanson repeatedly made a fool of herself. The Liberals dropped 16 per cent, the biggest swing in WA history.

The problems don’t stop in WA. The Liberals and One Nation were well on the way to forming a national electoral alliance, with the possibility of a coalition government in states like Queensland. That now seems unlikely. But there are all sorts of obstacles to a clean break. One Nation has a bloc of votes in the national Senate, without which the government can’t pass rightwing legislation (it needs more minor party votes, but if ON votes against, there is no option but to deal with the Labor/Green opposition).

More importantly, as I argued last time around there is hardly any difference, except stylistic, between One Nation and the mainstream right. An all-out attack on ON from the notionally centre-right PM, Malcolm Turnbull, would almost certainly spell the end of his already precarious leadership. So, he is temporising and ducking the issue.

The hopeful indication is that, at least in Australia, support for the different varieties of Trumpism seems to have topped out at around 40 per cent, at least when the choice is posed in explicit terms, and with Trump increasingly acting as a reference. Although the Liberal-National coalition scraped back in at last years election, but they are now lagging badly in opinion polls.

So, a small piece of good news, in a generally depressing world. Let’s hope coming elections in Europe show a similar reaction against Trump and Trumpism.



RJL 03.12.17 at 10:18 am

This has been said before elsewhere – but ON did not run candidates in all seats. So overall ON polled 4.x%, but in the seats where they actually stood candidates, they polled 8.x%. Not as big a drop from the assumed 10%.


Alan 03.12.17 at 8:23 pm

In the legislative council (state senate) PHON did run in all districts and their vote is at 7.48% still much less than the poll prediction. In the 2014 federal senate election in WA the equally Trumpist PUP achieved 12.34%.

This at least kills the repeated claim that the polls understate PHON support because their voters are afraid to give accurate answers to pollsters.


christian_h 03.12.17 at 9:11 pm

I optimistically think this demonstrates ON is in a bind: they don’t have enough support to get very far without preferences (at least not outside Queensland), but making deals with a major party turns off the anti-politics portion of her supporters.


nastywoman 03.12.17 at 9:24 pm

There will be a ‘big’ defeat for the F…faces in Europe – which proves how important the ‘US Backlash Theory’ has become.
(‘US Backlash Theory’: The only way to finally get rid of the F…face von Clownsticks of this world is firstly to erect them)


djw 03.12.17 at 9:53 pm

Where does Western Australia sit on the L–R spectrum relative to the rest of Australia? I would have guessed (from a place of ignorance) they’d be a bit to the right, which would make this even more cause for optimism–is that correct?


Alex SL 03.12.17 at 11:12 pm

The question is what will happen if the floor drops out of the housing market in a year when Labor happens to be in power at the federal level…

But yes, everybody in the world looking at Trump and then reconsidering their vote for his counterpart in their own country is kind of the best case scenario at the moment.


J-D 03.12.17 at 11:29 pm


Where does Western Australia sit on the L–R spectrum relative to the rest of Australia? I would have guessed (from a place of ignorance) they’d be a bit to the right, which would make this even more cause for optimism–is that correct?

That depends on what you mean by ‘the L-R spectrum’; I know how I understand it, but don’t assume that you understand it in the same way. However, I can offer two pieces of information that may be relevant to your question, and if they aren’t I can only say I’m sorry.

First point: in general, at Australian federal elections, the Australian Labor Party does less well in Western Australia than it does nationally and the Coalition parties (Liberals and Nationals) do better. The last time this was clearly not the case was at the Federal election of 1983, which came about a month after a WA State election at which the ALP defeated a Coalition government.

Second point: the most distinctive thing about WA State politics, as compared to that of other Australian States, is the more frequent alternation in government of the ALP and the Coalition and the less frequent occurrence of long periods of government by one side.


Tim Dymond 03.13.17 at 12:00 am

Western Australia has the reputation of being more right of centre compared to the rest of Australia, largely because it is a resources exporting state. It sends very few Labor MPs to the Federal Parliament. However it also has semi-detachment from the rest of Australia (it voted to secede in the 1930s) which means it doesn’t automatically warm to a populist from the Eastern states. Pauline Hanson is from Queensland, but it was somehow assumed she was supposed to be in touch with ‘ordinary Western Australians’ – not the case!


John Quiggin 03.13.17 at 12:21 am

A minor point of interest is that, in the course of the campaign, Hanson said on WA radio that she would support a redirection of national tax revenue from Queensland to WA, then, in Queensland denied having said it. So, now there’s a nice clip with the two quotes played together, ready for the Queensland state election later this year, which should undermine her anti-politician appeal even furhter.


J-D 03.13.17 at 12:44 am

It may also be of interest to note that in Australian Federal elections the Australian Greens perform better in WA than they do nationally.


boconnor 03.13.17 at 1:25 am

Hanson also got significant criticism for her initial anti-vaccination comments (subsequently walked back after the criticism). Also her party is known for its senators that are anti-science and aggressively critical of AGW.

So perhaps there is also cause for optimism that the anti-fact, anti-science viewpoint will be seen as a vote loser.


derrida derider 03.13.17 at 1:26 am

If Trumpism triumphs anywhere in Oz, it will be in Queensland (John’s home state) and Western Australia – both have economies heavily dependent on mining and agriculture, and both have fewer immigrants than the big south eastern states (in Oz as elsewhere xenophobia is in inverse proportion to the actual likelihood of having a foreigner for a neighbour).

So for Australia this result is a stunning repudiation of the populist Right. I expect it will strengthen the “pro-business” socially liberal high immigration wing of the governing centre-right federal coalition (in US terms, think of how a massive Trump defeat would have meant full billionaire control of the GOP). In the short term, his party’s regional catastrophe will therefore strengthen the (currently weak) position of the plutocratic PM within his government and move it a little to the left.


Nahim 03.13.17 at 1:49 am

Privatisation of electricity may be electoral poison, but I wonder about its impact. According to this article (http://theconversation.com/myths-not-facts-muddy-the-electricity-privatisation-debate-38524), the evidence on privatisation of electricity in Australia appears very mixed. It is not clear at all from this that privatisation leads to either higher or lower prices, or that it leads to higher or lower efficiency. Whereas it seems to be a given in this blog post that privatisation of electricity is obviously a bad idea. What am I missing? (Perhaps evidence from other countries that have had a longer experience with electricity privatisation?)


Alan White 03.13.17 at 3:39 am


John, with due respect, Trump has translated such contradictions into even stronger anti-politician credentials with his blind base here in the US.


Collin Street 03.13.17 at 3:58 am

In the legislative council (state senate) PHON did run in all districts and their vote is at 7.48% still much less than the poll prediction. In the 2014 federal senate election in WA the equally Trumpist PUP achieved 12.34%.

Actually: the PUP is significantly to the left of PHON, acct Palmer left the LNP because they were too right-wing for him and pretty much the converse is true of Hanson. Less racism, &c.

I think the important thing to note, though, from the LC results is that:
+ the libs lost forty percent of their primary vote [~20% swing],
+ the proportion of their vote that went to the ALP was about the same as the lower house,
+ the proportion that flowed to PHON was much higher, but still less than what they lost to the ALP.

Put that together with the “PUP does better than hanson” and you get a party that’s panicking about a collapse on the Right when it’s actually their left flank that’s under greater threat: if as I suspect the average lib branch member &c is well-to-the-right of their electorate and unaware of it the whole thing starts to make sense.


John Quiggin 03.13.17 at 4:59 am

@13 You can read some of my views on electricity privatisation here http://www.flinders.edu.au/fms/AITI/Documents/AITIQuiggin_Paper_Grid_Renationalisation.pdf and find much more with Google


Sebastian H 03.13.17 at 5:33 am

It seems encouraging! But I’m a little worried about general hopefukl applicability. It’s my understanding that Australia pretty much did best of any of the major Western countries since the Great Not-to-be-called-depression. If trumpism is related to poor responses to globalization and the big recession, is it possible that Australia isn’t as susceptible because it wasn’t as damaged?


J-D 03.13.17 at 6:18 am

Dutch election on Wednesday.


Alex SL 03.13.17 at 8:28 am


Just as an example, security against outages and what energy mix to use has been a big discussion lately. And then a solution was suggested and the answer was to the effect of “but that will be nearly impossible, because electricity is privatised in South Australia, and you’d never get the power companies to make such a big investment”.

It also seems as if the voters expect the politicians to guarantee electricity even if a company runs it, which looks to me like the worst of both worlds. More generally, I still have to grasp what the advantage is of privatising what amounts to a natural monopoly, which at least the grid is, because the main point of privatisation is usually competition. Well, officially that is, if you believe it.


Alan 03.13.17 at 10:54 am

I think of PUP as Trumpist in the sense that despite officially taking some progressive positions (although these rarely showed in its voting record) PUP argued that all political problems are easy and that Palmer’s business expertise could address these easy problems. The sad record of the business magnate as political failure from Hoover to Greiner to Berlusconi to Palmer to Trump seems to have escaped their notice.

Trump’s claimed positions during the campaign were sometimes to the left of Hillary Clinton’s, particularly on jobs. The reality in government is proving starkly different.


Val 03.13.17 at 11:04 am

Sebastian H @ 17
I don’t think that could be the whole answer, because Australia elected Tony Abbott quite soon after the Great Depression that we avoided. Perhaps it is more like vaccination – a small burst of one RWNJ makes a country develop an immunity to them.

In fact though the reason Abbott was elected was more to do with the chaos of the Rudd-Gillard-Rudd years, I think. People didn’t mind what Labor stood for, they just couldn’t stand all the fighting. However there still could be something in the vaccination or inoculation theory, because when people realised what Abbott stood for, especially after his first brutal budget, many turned against him.

That said, it does seem to me as an Australian that Americans have been somewhat brainwashed by the ideology of free enterprise capitalism. It really does seem that many working and middle class people in America don’t see where their own interests lie, so that their capacity to elect someone who is clearly going to rip them off, is much greater than in most similar countries. So it seems, sadly.


Z 03.13.17 at 11:12 am

Let’s hope coming elections in Europe show a similar reaction against Trump and Trumpism.

In France, a confrontation between Marine Le Pen, running on an anti-Islam, anti-immigrant, anti-EU, anti-élite nationalist platform of the standard Bannon variety, and Emmanuel Macron, running on a pro-business, pro-financial sector, pro-austerity, pro-élite, explicitly centrist platform seems more likely by the day; with the candidates emanating from the main traditional rightwing and leftwing parties which have structured French political life for the last 40 years both facing elimination in the first round. A victory of the Bannon camp seems exceedingly unlikely, with Marine Le Pen rarely if ever crossing the 40% wall in opinion polls.

Still, it is hard to predict how traditional rightwing voters will react if their candidate is eliminated in the first round (for the first time in the history of the current Republic) and even harder to predict the result of the General Election which immediately follows the Presidential ones and that the newly elected president needs to win in order to be more than an honorific figure. Neither Macron nor Le Pen have a natural national structure to rely on for these elections. The soft neoliberal camp alone commands at most 30% of votes, so if Macron prevails, the nature of the eventual majority will depend heavily on which side rallies him and under which conditions. If, defying all odds, Le Pen prevails, then all bets are off. An odd combination of a soft neoliberal president governing with the weak approval of a hard neoliberal Assembly seems not unlikely to me. Considering that Trumpism doubled its electoral support in the last 15 years, I personally find this prospect worrying: not only would it put France firmly in the austerity camp at the European level, it would also promote reactionary nationalism as the only politically viable alternative.


Layman 03.13.17 at 12:25 pm

“…in US terms, think of how a massive Trump defeat would have meant full billionaire control of the GOP…”

The GOP is now pursuing a full billionaire legislative agenda. They would have pursued that agenda no matter who won. They more or less always pursue that agenda. The GOP uses populism, sexism, racism, nationalism to galvanize voters, but it is always in pursuit of an agenda amenable to billionaires, because billionaires already exercise full control over the GOP.


faustusnotes 03.13.17 at 2:11 pm

It appears that this election has shown that preferencing One Nation is a very bad idea for the liberal party.

I therefore expect Malcolm Turnbull to announce a preference deal soon.


efcdons 03.13.17 at 2:19 pm

It is still unreal to me how Pauline Hanson has been able to come back to national prominence. I live in the US now but I remember as a politically engaged young teenager participating in anti-One Nation marches in Melbourne in the late 90s. Then she got tossed out of Parliament and everyone was all “hahah, back to the fish and chips shop you go!” How did she make a comeback? Is her shtick still hating [racial epithet for Aborigines] and Asian people? Looking at wikipedia it seems like she has thrown anti-Islam talking points into the mix. I suppose there will always be room in Australia for a more explicitly racist politics than what is offered by the Liberals and the NP.


derrida derider 03.13.17 at 9:03 pm

“The GOP uses populism, sexism, racism, nationalism to galvanize voters, but it is always in pursuit of an agenda amenable to billionaires …” – Layman@33

Well yes, but a repudiation of Trump would have ended that strategy for the moment (which is more or less what I see now happening in Oz). They’d have turned to “libertarianism” or something, like the younger Silicon Valley billionaires. A socially liberal, antimilitarist (more tax cuts! yea!) if even more plutocratic GOP would be a lot better than the one you’ve got.


John Quiggin 03.14.17 at 6:46 am

Faustus @24 FTW! Of course, that would require Turnbull to make a decision, instead of dithering


christian_h 03.14.17 at 7:12 am

Turnbull will leave preference deals, like governing, up to someone else. He truly is the Pontius Pilate of politics.

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