BRISBANE: Australia may have a reputation for easy-going liberalism, especially after an emphatic vote to legalise gay marriage, but analysts say the nation is vulnerable to the allure of right-wing populism.
With the cost of living surging and high unemployment in regions suffering from the end of a mining boom, disillusionment with mainstream parties is permeating politics, opening the door to groups once considered marginal.
In a trend that echoes the rise of right-wing forces elsewhere in the world, Australia’s divisive One Nation Party has capitalised on voter frustrations, finding a niche appetite for its anti-immigration stance and socially conservative message.
Led by flame-haired former fish and chip shop owner Pauline Hanson, the party won four upper house Senate seats in 2016 and has since rattled mainstream parties in regional elections.
In November, One Nation won almost 14 per cent of a vote in the state of Queensland, which saw nearly a third of voters flee the two major parties.
“Just as we see in most western democracies, there is a section of the population that feels left behind by globalisation,” Duncan McDonnell, a senior politics lecturer at Griffith University, told AFP.
“[They feel] that mainstream politics does not speak for them, but it speaks for metropolitan elites and not for those people who are more attached to traditional values.”
It is an analysis echoed by Hanson’s support base.
“A lot of people are just dissatisfied with the poor performance of the major parties,” Aaron Kerle, a 39-year-old mechanic and One Nation supporter told AFP.
Hanson, who has called for a ban on Muslim immigration, says she is connecting with “grassroots people” ignored by the political establishment.
But she denies racism or advocating a total ban on immigration.
“What I have stood for over the years is the Australian culture, the Australian way of life,” Hanson told AFP.
“The older generation are worried about their future generations, the next lot coming through, their kids and their grandkids, so what we’re standing for is look, let’s clean up our own backyard, look after our own.”
McDonnell said the burgeoning support for fringe parties reflected a loss of faith in a political mainstream seen as out of touch, with other minor players such as the Nick Xenophon Team and Jacki Lambie Network, and the recently created Australian Conservatives, also making inroads.
“There is clearly a market there... for anti-immigrant, protectionist, traditional values, anti-mainstream party politics,” he said.
Australia’s conservative ruling Liberal-National coalition ushered in a bill legalising same-sex unions that passed parliament to cheers and applause on Thursday — reflecting strong support for marriage equality in a nationwide postal vote held in recent months.
However, some campaigners criticised the lengthy poll process as divisive and unnecessary, and accused the government of pandering to hardliners in agreeing to hold it.
Canberra has also faced flak from rights groups over its tough immigration policy that sees asylum-seekers sent to remote detention camps.
In April, the government unveiled plans to put “Australian values” at the heart of tougher requirements to gain citizenship, days after scrapping a visa programme for temporary foreign workers to reduce unemployment among citizens.
Echoing US President Donald Trump, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull said the new regime would be “manifestly, rigorously, resolutely conducted in the national interest to put Australians and Australian jobs first”.
It is a message designed to resonate with voters facing ever higher living costs and city house prices, and those on the sharp end of the mining downturn.
In Western Australia — a state particularly struggling with the transition from the mining-investment boom — One Nation won seats in the state Senate earlier this year.
Hanson’s party first emerged in the 1990s when she earned notoriety by warning the country was in danger of being “swamped by Asians”.
After a decade in the political wilderness she has returned in recent years with a new target — Muslims.
But while One Nation has ridden onto the political scene on the back of voter disenchantment, observers say the party is too disorganised to gain a significant foothold on a national level.
It has also been plagued by controversy — from multiple defections to accusations of misuse of donations.
For McDonnell, Hanson’s anti-establishment rhetoric is much like that of French far-right MP Marine Le Pen, and he believes she has lifted her anti-Islamic message from the “playbook” of Dutch far-right politician Geert Wilders.
But unlike those European figures, every time Hanson has tasted success “the party organisation essentially imploded around her”.
“I think we can see that actually she remains very, very effective at appealing to voters, but she still hasn’t learned how to run a party,” McDonnell said, adding that a slicker operator could go much further.
“If you had someone come after her, who was a little more acceptable to mainstream party voters and they felt they could stomach voting for her, you might see a right-wing party come after Hanson doing even better than One Nation has.”