By Rich Bowden
Picture credit: Sky News
This week’s return of an independent for the NSW state seat of Wagga Wagga has turned heads. Not just because this is the first time in 61 years a Liberal isn’t representing the seat, but also due to the size of the swing (nearly 30 percent) against the Coalition government. Broadly speaking, it is more evidence of the strength of voter disillusionment, bordering on resentment, with the major parties, their inane power plays and their inadequate policies.
The rule of thumb for voter preference used to be around 40/40 of the national primary vote for the major parties, with the other 20 percent made up of various independents, Greens and outlying parties. No longer. Strategists now have major parties heading towards the mid-thirties with the gain going to the “other” independents or micro parties’ column. This has dealt the traditional political power structure a major blow.
The poor result at the by-election for the Queensland federal seat of Longman was another indication of this drift. The swing against the Liberal candidate of nearly 10 percent was one of the reasons Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull was removed from office according to political experts. However what was less noticed was the big swing towards the far right One Nation party of 6.5 percent, a gain made all the more remarkable because the leader of ONP, Pauline Hanson, neglected to campaign in the seat.
Many reasons have been put forward for this distinct shift away from the traditional parties. And while it is difficult to nail down, it is clear voters have had enough with the major parties with a leak of votes to the left and right of the political spectrum. Just one of the reasons for this shift to third parties is voter dissatisfaction with the quality of the politicians on offer and their lack of policy response to key issues.
While creating the opportunity for often needed third party voices, it also leaves a clear gap for populist independents such as Pauline Hanson and Bob Katter to promote their often blatantly racist and dog whistle agendas. However, the main problem for micro parties has always been to attract adequate publicity.
An example occurred earlier this year. Bob Katter, head of the self-styled Katter’s Australian Party (KAP), recently defended “one thousand percent” an inflammatory maiden speech by KAP’s Fraser Anning in the Senate, a shocking speech which advocated a return to the racist White Australia policy.
Picture credit: Triple M
When challenged by reporters at a press conference about his own ancestry (Katter’s grandfather was Lebanese) and whether his grandfather would have been allowed into the country under such a policy, he appeared to round on the reporter, calling the question “offensive”. Most bizarrely, Katter supported the use of Anning’s inflammatory, Nazi-era term “final solution” with reference to Australia’s immigration “problem” with Muslims.
Even the ultra right wing Pauline Hanson, normally the benchmark for off the wall racist claims, rejected the speech, calling it “from Goebbels handbook”. However, the truth may be that Hanson was jealous of the explosive publicity the speech got throughout the Australian media. Indeed Anning was originally a member of her party.
And here may lie one of the real reasons for the shift towards extremism. Populist parties find the only way they can get precious publicity is by delivering increasingly controversial speeches expounding radical points of view. This is then picked up by the mainstream press and social media, desperate for a “good story”. This then receives currency in the population, many of whom may have been unaware of the micro parties and their policy positions. This publicity results in a higher profile, with this usually resulting in more votes.
A vicious cycle indeed. However it begs the question: Are the micro parties espousing policies more radical than their own beliefs in order to attract publicity? Certainly the sight of the avuncular Bob Katter defending Nazi-era terms was a shock.
Another example is environmental policy. Extremist elements are more than happy to deny science on climate change, calling global warming a “myth” and those that try to enact pro-climate policies misguided or worse. No credible evidence is ever brought to back these arguments, but in the world of populist politics, none is needed. Again it may be possible that some of these elements may personally believe in climate change and recognise the need for coherent action. To say so publicly though, would be political suicide.
The result of this attention-seeking has been nothing less than a change in the body politic of the country.
The Liberal party is a broad church, former prime minister — and party eminence grise — John Howard used to say. It was under his watch that the party drifted to the right, partly in response to the leaking of votes to the far right parties such as Pauline Hanson’s One Nation. Younger voters have never known the Liberal party as a traditional liberal party. They recognise it as a right wing conservative party, seeking to move even further to the right, as witnessed by the recent failed Dutton coup. Such has been the change in recent decades that infamous Liberal leader and prime minister, the late Malcolm Fraser — who was never considered a moderate in his day — quit the party in protest, saying it no longer stood for traditional “liberal” values.
Picture credit: Australian Broadcasting Corporation
In shifting to the right, the Liberal party has allowed many policies of the extreme right to become acceptable in society. Policies such as a draconian attitude towards legitimate refugees, shunting them off to concentration camps on Nauru. Echoes of the White Australia policy endure in the politically successful, if morally bankrupt, “turn back the boats” policy. Also the shocking inaction on policies to help mitigate against climate change, culminating in the recent elevation of anti-wind campaigner Angus Taylor to the job of Energy Minister. The list goes on...
However the further to the right the main parties go, the more the disconnect is felt in the Australian electorate. Witness the recent Wagga Wagga by-election. Which brings us neatly back to Dr Joe McGirr.
It appears Dr McGirr is well liked and, as a medical specialist, has made his views on climate change well known.
“Most of the community would accept that we need to get our power sources sustainable, and we need to bring the whole community with us on that,” he says in support of renewable energy.
“I think really it’s the lack of certainty in direction that is frustrating. Business is pretty good at sorting this stuff out when they know what the rules of the game are, and the frustrating thing is that they aren’t being given certainty.
“And look, in the medical literature, I don’t want to sound like an academic, but in the medical literature no one is arguing about whether climate change is real. What they’re trying to work out is how we’re going to die from it.”
McGirr may turn out to be one of those rare breeds in the NSW Parliament, an independent with a conscience. Certainly his warnings on the dangers of ignoring climate science are a positive start, though he has resisted being pigeon holed as either a liberal (small “l”) or a conservative.
While the jury’s still out on the recently elected represented member for Wagga Wagga, and will be for a while, perhaps the election of an apparently reasonable moderate independent shows the drift away from the major parties may be a good result for Australia?
Rich Bowden is a freelance writer, podcaster, family man, coffee drinker and news junkie. He spends most of his time looking puzzled and saying stuff like “you’re never too old to learn” to anyone who will listen. Likes a laugh. Otherwise harmless. Podcasts at Climactic, The Real Food Chain and Permaculture Plus.