Australia's bulwark against the far right

21 June 2017

Australia's history of never having been a great world power works against the rise of populism and the far right, writes Dr David Smith in the New York Times. 

Pauline Hanson

Pauline Hanson has limited political options beyond her ability to hold the media’s attention. Image: Wikimedia Commons/jfish92

Is Australia ripe for a populist, nationalist political movement that could overthrow the established parties?

After the right-wing One Nation Party’s slump in the Western Australian elections in March, it seems less likely than ever. Australia’s electoral system allows little room for minor parties and virtually none for outsider candidates. Pauline Hanson, the leader of One Nation, has limited political options beyond her ability to hold the media’s attention.

But there is another missing ingredient that will elude any would-be Australian Donald Trump or Marine Le Pen: Australian history and culture works against the far right.

The idea of lost national glory

The way Australians imagine our nation is very different from how American or French citizens imagine theirs. We have never been a great power, or seen ourselves as the center of the world. Nor do we know the painful sense of having lost that power, or fearing we will lose it.

Without the loss of an empire or of international status, Australia has fewer wounds for the far right to exploit.
Dr David Smith

In countries that have been great powers, ideas of lost national glory are emotional resources for the nationalists, populists and conspiracy theorists of the right. They provide a sense of betrayal: We were once great, but our own leaders sold us out. They provoke feelings of humiliation: We were once the envy of the world, but now others exploit and laugh at us. And they create fears of vulnerability: We have known what it is to be strong, and now our weakness puts us in danger.

While the United States is still the world’s superpower, it does not have the same economic and military dominance it once enjoyed. Americans have experienced national humiliations in Vietnam and Iraq. Middle-class wealth and security is not what it used to be. Many voters found President Trump refreshingly honest when he claimed, “America doesn’t win anymore.”

Mr. Trump links the economic struggles of Americans with their country’s loss of standing. He says America is being exploited by its own allies and trading partners, aided and abetted by a corrupt political class. He blames immigrants for the country’s problems. America, in Mr. Trump’s telling, is always the victim.

France lost an empire in the 1950s and 1960s. It lost Vietnam before the Americans lost it. The Algerian civil war, fought much closer to home, cut even deeper. Both Jean-Marie Le Pen and his daughter Marine have used the loss of Algeria to promote nostalgic resentment. When French right-wingers complain of being “colonized” by immigrants, the humiliation is doubled by the knowledge that these immigrants are people they once colonized.

Without the loss of an empire or of international status, Australia has fewer wounds for the far right to exploit. We are not constantly asking ourselves how we have fallen so far. We don’t blame our politicians for the loss of a glorious past.

Historical amnesia

It is difficult, for example, for far-right politicians here to claim that a return to the restrictive immigration policies of the past would usher in a new golden age.

There is certainly a market for anti-immigration politics in Australia, one that Ms. Hanson targets. A large minority of Australians nostalgically long for a country where English was the only language spoken, and where non-Christian religions were invisible. But as the writer David Marr pointed out in a recent essay about Ms. Hanson’s supporters, the past Australia they long for is one that was poorer and more modest for most people.

John Howard, who described himself as the most conservative prime minister in Australian history, said in his 1996 election campaign that he wanted the country to be “relaxed and comfortable” about three things: its past, its present and its future. That is about as ambitious as populist nationalism gets in Australia — to be relaxed and comfortable.

Mr. Howard felt the left had made Australians feel too guilty about our history of exclusionary immigration policies and indigenous dispossession. But he didn’t want to return Australia to the past; he wanted us to stop talking about the less comfortable parts of it.

Sometimes it seems we have little use for the past at all. The sociologist Catriona Elder describes a legend of “golden youth” at the heart of Australian identity. The words of our national anthem, “we are young and free,” seem to erase 200 years of European settlement and at least 50,000 years of Aboriginal culture, the oldest on earth.

The one piece of history we constantly return to, the Anzac landing at Gallipoli in 1915, is also a story of youth; a budding nation proving itself in battle and losing its innocence, at the cost of thousands of young men.

Historical amnesia is no great thing, especially when it comes to our failure to acknowledge the violent dispossession of Australia’s indigenous peoples. This, not the loss of a glorious past, is our great national wound. But our indifference to our past also protects us. It gives us little appetite for far-right politicians who want to take us back there.

Dr David Smith is academic director of the United States Studies Centre and a Senior Lecturer in the School of Social and Political Sciences at the University of Sydney.

This article originally appeared on The New York Times.

Annika Dean

Assistant Media and PR Adviser (Humanities and Social Sciences)

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