The National Party receives about 7 % of the vote nation-wide in general elections. This is less than the Greens. Meanwhile over-all support for the Nationals is trending downwards. As a minority rump within the Coalition they nonetheless wield power that is way out of proportion to their representation in parliament. Coalition politics it seems is in thrall to the populist right.
There is a range of right wing causes that are not popular with voters, nation-wide, but they are forcing Coalition politics into a narrow vortex likely to lead to electoral oblivion. The leading movers and shakers behind these issues are to be found in the National Party under the leadership of the re-elected Barnaby Joyce who is now riding high in the Coalition. Joyce is Joh Bjelke-Petersen reincarnated: he has brought Joh’s ghost to Canberra.
The issues on which the Nationals are presently calling in their chips include: support for the monarchy; hostility to Chinese investment in rural lands; antipathy towards migrants and foreigners; opposition to marriage equality; demands to enshrine “religious freedoms” in law (if not the constitution); large government subsidies for coal mining and agriculture; state ownership of coal-fired power plants; a royal commission into the banks; scepticism about climate change science; and free trade agreements that give preference to agricultural exporters.
At the same time increasing numbers of Nationals are expressing deep distrust – even contempt – for city-based political leaders and for experts and media commentators on contemporary Australian society and politics. This is despite the parsimony of their support across the nation. The manner in which the prime minister was dragooned into a royal commission into the banks is evidence of just how far the Nationals are prepared to go in destabilizing the Coalition just to get their way.
But it is not simply a few rogue populists on the Nationals’ backbench piloting the Party to the forefront of Coalition politics over the past year. There are other factors homing in on Australia’s fragile democracy that are quite cynically using the Nationals as a stalking horse to push their extreme views in Australia’s political arena. The Nationals, in short, are riding the crest of a particularly nasty political wave. Ultimately however, like amateur surfers, they are not in control of the wave.
At the base of the wave is Australia’s weak political culture. Australians are poorly informed about the complexities of their federal system of government, the political platforms of politicians and parties, the machinations of lobbyists, media magnates and leading commentators, the role of the big banks and big business in the economy, and the realities of Australia’s (in)security in its region and globally.
This means that cynically powerful manipulators – in parliament, political parties, the media, and in the wider community – can prey on voters’ fears (real and imagined), incomprehension, ignorance and prejudice to sway public opinion, often in directions that are harmful to the public good and the national interest. As John Menadue has shown, nowhere is this more obvious than in the mainstream media where News Ltd spreads a toxic propaganda cloud over the Australian newscape while slavishly imposing Rupert Murdoch’s ideological obsessions on a gullible public.
Feeding off the resulting bewilderment and frustration of the voting public is a reactionary movement in Australian politics that is presently fractured into three groups.
The first group is for the time being still within the Coalition fold, with Tony Abbott, Kevin Andrews, and Eric Abetz at its core. Apart from their passionate opposition to nearly all progressive opinion and associated reforms, each espouses a deep-seated authoritarian political perspective that would marry political power with their versions of religious orthodoxy.
Abbott and Andrews come from a pre-Vatican II form of Australian Catholicism that has its roots in Falangist ideologies characteristic of Spain and Italy in the first half of the twentieth century. Abetz is a member of the Reformed Christian Churches, a group with similar fundamentalist views to Lyle Shelton’s invidiously titled “Christian Lobby.”
Two MPs whose views place them close to this malevolent core are Matt Canavan and George Christensen. Circling around this core are a gaggle of National MPs from rural electorates who are partly resentful of their lack of influence in government, partly out of step with the majority of voters on a wide range of public issues, and partly intent on drawing a clear boundary between themselves and the mainstream of the Liberal Party in the Coalition.
In the second group are Cory Bernardi and those flirting with his so-called Australian Conservative Movement. The main characteristic of these people is their sense of self-righteousness in the face of overwhelming evidence that public opinion is against them. This was clearly demonstrated by the response to the postal ballot on marriage equality.
In the third group are Pauline Hanson and her hapless One Nation supporters. These are the real victims of the contemporary arrogance of mainstream party politics. They seethe with anger at a whole range of imagined enemies they are convinced (against all the evidence) are being given priority treatment by big government and big business – Indigenous Australians, Asians, Chinese investors, asylum seekers, Muslims, foreigners in general, gays, experts in science and public policy generally, even at times the media. Their commitment to Pauline Hanson is blinkered and sad: they are oblivious to her cynicism when it comes to running her “Party” and reaping its rewards that are partly financial and partly about being a celebrity.
All three groups are regularly aided and abetted – and preyed upon – by Murdoch’s minions at News Ltd. They constitute the tide on which the Nationals’ rump in parliament is able to surf, out-maneuvering their somnolent or pathologically depressed Liberal colleagues to promote a slew of reactionary causes. Unless the Liberal moderates can seize back control from the rogue Nationals they will fall from a very great height at the next election.
Allan Patience is a political scientist in the University of Melbourne.