Commentary | 27 August 2018

Australia’s political shakeup is evidence of the decline of party politics

Originally published in Washington Post.

Originally published in Washington Post.

For those who believe that politics in the Western world has taken a decisive tilt to the right in recent years thanks to President Trump, Brexit and the rise of populist figures in Europe, Australia can now be added as evidence. A moderate prime minister, Malcolm Turnbull, has been toppled by his own party and replaced by a more right-leaning challenger, Scott Morrison.

Americans might remember reading about Turnbull soon after Trump took office, when the two men had a testy phone exchangeabout a deal struck with Trump’s predecessor to accept a few hundred asylum-seekers Australia did not want. In Australia, Turnbull is regarded as a man with moderate political instincts. He had free-market economic ideas, supported marriage equality, pushed to remove the British monarch as Australia’s head of state and staunchly defended Australia’s record as “the most successful multicultural society in the world.”

But Turnbull constantly had to check those instincts in order to appease the right of his party, and in the end it was they who launched the bid to unseat him. They succeeded in toppling Turnbull but not in installing their candidate, the hard-line former home affairs minister Peter Dutton. Morrison is also considered to be more conservative than the man he is replacing, but he was preferred by moderates in the ruling Liberal party.

This is just the latest in a long line of leadership contests in Australian federal politics. Morrison is our fifth prime minister in five years.

If Americans are looking for a familiar comparison to understand the dysfunction in Australian politics, then a useful starting point might be the Republican Party primaries that ended with Trump’s victory as the GOP nominee. The similarity lies in the fact that, in both cases, party loyalists waged a struggle against an outsider trying to take their party in a new direction. Sens. Ted Cruz (Tex.) and Marco Rubio (Fla.), among others, lost that fight to Trump. But in Australia, sections of the Liberal party succeeded in removing Turnbull, a man they always considered to be something of a foreign body.

So in this comparison, the Trump-like figure in Australian politics is the moderate Turnbull. They may be far apart in political beliefs, but they are both wealthy businessmen and party outsiders. In fact, earlier in their lives both men were closely associated with the other major party in their respective countries. Today, they are both seen as leaders who have used their party to rise to high office rather than being dyed-in-the-wool party figures.

Yet despite Turnbull’s loss, he and Trump represent the future direction of Western democratic politics. That’s because what really marks Western politics today is not so much the rise of the right but the decline of established centrist parties. Voters have become more independent and the major parties less powerful. Democratic politics has been hollowed out because parties have ceased to be mass movements representing clearly definable social groups.

Instead, to compensate for their shrinking supporter bases, these parties have become more dependent on wealthy donors or on the state, which in many countries funds election campaigns and offers free airtime on public broadcasters during elections. In their weakened state, the parties are also more vulnerable to being seduced by wealthy celebrity candidates looking for vehicles for their ambition.

The silver lining is that the apparently consistent Western trend toward right-wing populism may have been overstated. Certainly, populist figures in Europe, the United States and Australia have been on the rise in recent years. But whereas the old, established parties once had the power to contain populist sentiment, they don’t any longer. So it may be that populist figures and small, new right-wing parties are merely benefiting from the liberation of this long-suppressed vote rather than tapping into growing wells of populist sentiment.

And it is not as if the right-wing figures and parties that have succeeded recently suddenly have a lock on the voting public, which is increasingly politically unaligned. As the centrist independent French president, Emmanuel Macron, can attest, you don’t need to be right-wing to benefit from the mass movement away from the old parties.

So under new Prime Minister Morrison, Australia may well drift to the right, though it also looks likely that his party will be defeated by the opposition within the year.

Whichever major party wins the next election, we know that if trends in the West hold, it will govern with the ever-shrinking support of the public, and thus with diminished authority. That’s the real worry that Americans and Australians should share when they look at the political dysfunction in their capitals – the parties are hollowed out, and the public has checked out. What will fill the void?