The fracturing of Australian politics

Published in Business Spectator (Melbourne), 23 September 2010

Having spent most of the last few weeks in South America, largely cut off from Australian news, I missed all the ongoing excitement of forming a new government. On my return, though, it did not take long to get a sense of the public mood that must have accompanied it.

From the cab driver at the airport to friends and colleagues in the office, I was quickly filled in on the details of the horse-trading that had gone on in Canberra while I had been away. Australians are famously scathing about their politicians but the cynicism following the federal election seemed on a different scale altogether. And that was before I even read any of the newspapers.

It is curious how disenchanted Australians are with their politics. Of course, not everything is perfect between Perth and Sydney, Hobart and Darwin, but the sense of dissatisfaction is still remarkable for a nation that just came fourth in Newsweek’s ranking of the ‘best countries in the world’, only beaten by Finland, Switzerland and Sweden.

However, international comparisons also reveal that the palpable sense of a rift between voters and their political representatives is not unique to Australia but a global phenomenon, especially in many developed countries.

Last weekend’s Swedish election result could be interpreted in this way. In a country once mocked as the only single-party democracy in the world, the once dominant Social Democrats have been reduced to a party with less than a third of the vote. Even more astonishingly, the so-called ‘Sweden Democrats’, a grouping with roots in the neo-Nazi movement, managed to gain seats in the Riksdag for the first time, resulting in a hung parliament.

This outcome does not necessarily mean that the usually tolerant Swedes have turned into racists overnight. Instead, dissatisfied with mainstream politics, Swedes have found an outlet valve in voting for populist right-wingers.

Sweden is the most recent country in Europe to experience an upsurge of support for populist parties. The other two countries at the top of Newsweek’s ranking, Finland and Switzerland, have long known similar movements. In Finland, the nationalist Perussuomalaiset party (‘True Finns’) scored almost ten per cent in last year’s European elections while the right-wing populist Swiss People’s Party received 29 percent of the vote in the country’s most recent elections.

Populist parties are now a standard feature in most of Europe, whether in Italy, France or Hungary. With the Tea Party Movement, it looks as if the US is also moving towards a stronger populist element, away from conventional, mainstream parties.

All these groups and parties are visible expressions of a growing distrust of politicians’ ability to tackle a country’s problems. Sometimes they are also a sign that voters even doubt the ability of today’s politicians to understand what they are worried about. It is a double-whammy for today’s generation of politicians: a lack of problem solving ability coupled with a perceived lack of empathy.

Voters instinctively feel that politicians are less able to deliver on their promises, whether it is on the integration of migrants in Malmö or solving road gridlock in Western Sydney. They have heard it all before and experienced too little real change.

It is such broken promises that turn voters against politics. Politicians these days like to make big promises, whether it is setting a population target for the middle of the century or for a global temperature even further down the track. Voters have come to distrust such grand announcements.

It was remarkable in Australia’s recent election that nothing hurt Labor’s election prospects in NSW more than the promise of another rail link.

Leading politicians seldom share the experience of failing schools, lack of housing affordability, or insufficient transport at a personal level. And of course, they do not need to as long as they are able to credibly communicate their ‘I feel your pain’ as Bill Clinton so effectively put it in his 1992 election campaign. Yet voters are becoming less willing to believe such statements and instead discount them as mere spin.

Compared internationally, Australia has been lucky so far. It has been spared the experience of a fragmentation of its political system that is now so widespread elsewhere. And with the brief interlude of Pauline Hanson’s One Nation over a decade ago, it has not had to deal with a sustained populist challenge to its political class.

But listening closely to the public after the election, it is not difficult to imagine that this may change. After an election campaign that was widely criticised as one of the least inspiring in Australian history and another 17 days of political logrolling in order to form a government, cynicism about politics has reached a new high.

If Australia’s politicians want to avoid an attack from the political fringes, they have to be careful. They should not bank on the fact that compulsory, preferential voting will always save them from fringe-party challenges. Nor should they take Australia’s comparatively favourable economic climate, which tends to gloss over political complacency, for granted.

Voters are becoming disillusioned with mainstream political parties unable or unwilling to deal with voters’ real concerns. A quick look at other countries should be a warning where this may lead.

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