Clive Palmer. Photo: Kelly Barnes/AAP

Clive Palmer. Photo: Kelly Barnes/AAP

Populism and the Australian election: what could fringe voters deliver to our parliament?

13 May 2019

BY PAUL KENNY

With populists in control of the world’s most populous democracies, not least the United States, a question on the mind of many is what effect populism might have on this month’s Australian federal elections.

The first thing to note is that is all but certain that a populist will not lead the new government. Both the Liberal-National Coalition and especially the Labor Party continue to have a mass base of support that is filtered through influential labour unions, farmers associations, and other organisations. There will be no French-style collapse of the political establishment in Australia in 2019.

At the same time, aspiring populists have been unable to take over one of the major parties from within, as Donald Trump did to the Republican Party in the United States. Both Scott Morrison and Bill Shorten are party operatives, not populists. The Coalition and the Labor Party remain sturdy organisations, in which powerful factions– not charismatic front men – rule the roost.

However, this doesn’t necessarily mean that populism won’t have any impact on the federal election. My colleagues and I recently conducted a representative survey of Australians, in which we asked respondents a series of questions known to reveal whether they hold “populist attitudes”.

Populist attitudes correlate strongly with a preference for personalist parties, namely Pauline Hanson’s One Nation Party, Clive Palmer’s United Australia Party (UAP), Bob Katter’s Australian Party, and Derryn Hinch’s Justice Party. Populist attitudes are strongest for supporters of the UAP, followed by supporters of One Nation. Populist attitudes are lowest for supporters of the Coalition.

Although only a small number of prospective voters actually express a first preference for populist parties (just 3.6%), with a difference in support for the Coalition and Labour of just 2% on a two-party preferred basis – (or less than 1% on a primary vote basis in our survey), voters holding populist attitudes could hold a pivotal position when they go to the hustings.

One possibility is that populist parties – all of which sit to the right of the Australian political spectrum – will pick up enough seats in the House to put their leaders in the position of king makers. Scott Morrison would keep the throne, albeit at a price dictated by Pauline Hanson, Clive Palmer, and Bob Katter. Another possibility, with each of these leaders encouraging supporters to preference the Coalition over Labor, is that transfers could give the Morrison-led Coalition enough seats to retain control of government on its own. Either way, populist voters could tip the balance.

Who then are these potentially critical populist voters? Are they the bigoted “deplorables” dismissed by Hilary Clinton in the American context in 2016? We find little evidence for this. Whether or not a respondent is Australian born has no discernible effect on populist attitudes. There is also no difference in populist attitudes between those residing in regional or urban Australia. Critically – given the common association between populism and nativism observed elsewhere –those holding populist attitudes are no more likely to identify immigration or over-population as the most pressing issues facing Australia.

The evidence for a socioeconomic rather than cultural basis for populist attitudes is somewhat stronger. Those holding more populist attitudes have lower levels of education and are from more socioeconomically deprived areas. There may be some truth to the idea that the populist upsurge is being driven by the “left-behind”. However, it is also worth noting that populist voters are no more likely to identify economic issues – whether jobs, housing affordability, or inequality – as being the most important problems facing the country.

It could be that those with lower levels of educational attainment from poorer parts of Australia experience more of a general sense of disenfranchisement and dissatisfaction with the political status quo. This interpretation is given further weight by the positive relationships between populist attitudes and individuals’ self-characterisation as more extroverted and open to new experiences. That is, populist voters are more willing to take a gamble on something new.

The great irony is that these same populist voters – in spite of their strong individual preferences for change – could end up keeping the Coalition in power.

Paul Kenny is the head of the department of political and social change at The Australian National University

Photo: Kelly Barnes/AAP

This article originally appeared in The Guardian

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