Political instability only ever feels inevitable in retrospect. After the shock, the increments that led to it seem more obvious. The reality is that there are always signs; there are always people who point them out. But we are hard-wired to believe we are going to be fine. I fear that this is the case for Australia now.
It has struck me as a bit odd that we have mostly withstood anti-establishment agitation, as seen in countries like Brazil, the Philippines and the United Kingdom. It is not like our political class have not earned similar scorn.
This summer, the Centrelink automated debt collection program, which generated incorrect claims at considerable scale and has caused needless distress, coincided with the latest scandal in parliamentary entitlements abuse. No one who is paying attention can miss the chasm between government and the governed.
A couple of things are probably insulating us from seismic shocks. For one, the self-nominated standard bearers for outsider politics are not yet competent, at least structurally. Unless Pauline Hanson gets her act together, then One Nation will continue to be defined by useless rogues and time-wasting debates.
This does not necessarily dilute her appeal in certain parts of the population, but the growing list of dubious former candidates does expose poor internal processes and the nature of that appeal. We can be relieved that that is the case so far. The non-electoral far-right, in addition, is splintered and confined to noxious comment threads, their rallies curbed by highly mobilised anti-fascist and anti-racist movements.
Our robust social protections may also be keeping populism from taking hold. It is not as easy to argue here, as has been the case elsewhere, that government thoroughly sucks — that it doesn't do anything for you. Things like Medicare, HECS, Newstart, child care benefits, raised tax-free threshold on income, age pension are increasingly indispensable in a period where accelerationists are using discontent as fuel.
But what if the optimism bias that kept most of us from anticipating the results of the Brexit referendum and the US election are now also in play in Australia? How long will current welfare architecture and the incompetence of nativists keep at bay the destabilising forces that have laid America so low, that so-called bastion of western democracy?
We should be worried more than ever that ministers still tinker with the services and benefits that people depend on, framing scarcity as a spending problem even as they lead lives of profligacy.
"These developments do not bode well. The feeling that Australia is far more vulnerable than it seems is increasingly difficult to shake."
Helping yourself to parliamentary entitlements may be 'within the rules', but everyone knows who sets the rules. If social expenditure cuts continue to deepen, without commensurate increases in tax collection to resolve revenue, it would generate the sort of anti-government hostility that does not discriminate between parties.
We should also be worried that the Labor Party is once again turning to nationalist rhetoric on jobs. At a recent speech at the National Press Club, Opposition Leader Bill Shorten signalled a crackdown on skilled foreign visas that was reminiscent of former PM Julia Gillard's own foray into the issue. Without an actual plan for creating new jobs, it reads as a play for the populist vote. Neither Labor nor the Liberal Party has ruled out a preference deal with One Nation in the Western Australian state election in March.
These developments do not bode well. The feeling that Australia is far more vulnerable than it seems is increasingly difficult to shake.
Fatima Measham is a Eureka Street consulting editor. She tweets @foomeister and blogs at This is Complicated.
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03 February 2017
"Unless Pauline Hanson gets her act together"... Or even if she does. Her appeal is to that part in us all, that concentrates on the short term benefits to 'me', at the expense of my part in the greater world community, which is vital for all of our long term benefits.
03 February 2017
Thanks Fatima. As I watched what was happening in the US over the 2 years of their election cycle, I had a growing foreboding that much the same sort of reaction is building here in Australia. I think a backlash by many who feel aggrieved (and with some justification) at being abandoned by politicians (Libs, Nats, Labor, and Greens), corporations, and many progressive groups, has been building for quite some time undetected by the mainstream politicians and press, and unless I’m very much mistaken, and I hope I am, I expect the state elections in WA and Qld to provide the first real indication of the depth and extent of this backlash. Simplistic responses, such as those of Turnbull and Shorten, neither address the crux of the issues underlying the backlash, nor fool the aggrieved.
03 February 2017
Are we experiencing another 'Death of God' event except that the 'God' is now the globalised free-market economy ?
03 February 2017
We simply live in a society in decline like so many great empires have done since time began. On the back of progress and the achievement of civilisation, the human being historically embarks on a course of self destruction characterised by all those terrible, godless and unethical practices that now characterise Western civilisation. You are correct , Fatima. Australia will not be spared. The cult of self, characterised politically by nationalism and racism, never considers the plight of others, like Trump and his ilk.
04 February 2017
Trump was elected as the nominee of the wealthiest, biggest political machine in the world, the US Republican Party. It took $Billions for him to be elected. Most of his appointees are of that “elite” he so despises; three are billionaires. Publicly he says he is anti establishment but a billionaire, Yale educated, penthouse living New Yorker who inherited his wealth is hardly anti establishment.
He played on the same despicable behaviour we see here, of the elite living in luxury while bemoaning the poor getting anything like a livable income. He himself lived in grandiose luxury. When all the major media outlets in the US are owned by Billionaires they support the establishment.
In Brexit and the US election millions did not vote. In both cases they thought the losers would win comfortably. In our last election more people voted informally than for One Nation. People conveniently forget that One Nation was started with Liberal Party funding and a staffer from Tony Abbott’s office. The current director of One Nation is an ex Liberal Party staffer. As far as the LNP is concerned One Nation exists to stop people voting Labour.
05 February 2017
It is worth noting that the scandals around exploited workers (7 eleven, Caltex and Lamattina to name a few) are contributing to discontent as hard won workplace standards enshrined in law haven't been protected. Add into that mix the attack on penalty rates while seeking to reduce company tax and you have to wonder if we are headed toward greater erosion of the standing of the vulnerable...