Donald Trump’s “America first” inaugural speech found strange echoes in Australia this week.
After the newly sworn-in president had pissed on his government’s chips by killing off the Trans-Pacific Partnership, Scott Morrison promised to pursue an “Australia first” economic policy.
It was difficult to tell how his prescriptions differed from the longstanding orthodoxies held by both major parties in recent decades – the treasurer mentioned more trade deals, more access to Asian markets, and even floated a TPP without the US.
The listener was left to conclude that the phrase “Australia first” was not about any substantive change in policy. Dominic Kelly, who is working on a PhD on the Australian right’s intellectual infrastructure of thinktanks and advocacy groups, succinctly offers one interpretation of this: “Given that Morrison is a total believer in free markets, it’s opportunism.”
But its opportunism of a particular kind. Given the moment in which we find ourselves, his parroting of Trump seemed like an attempt to demonstrate the treasurer’s attunement to the succession of populist uproars that have consumed Australia’s oldest allies.
The phrase not only conjures up the name of Graeme Campbell’s late 90s quasi-Hansonist political party (and other, even more unsavoury antecedents. It also encapsulates a certain narrow and xenophobic political mood, nurtured by talkback radio and News Corp tabloids, or wherever dissatisfaction has curdled into bigoted hostility.
While Morrison was a hardline immigration minister, he was able to surf the waves of Australia firstism. But in the mouth of an orthodox, overwhelmed treasurer in a floundering government, it sounds more like a superstitious incantation to keep the populist plague at bay.
More immediately, it seemed like an attempt to fend off the only plausible local vectors of a Trumpian insurgency, One Nation, with some empty, dog-whistling lip service to nativism and economic isolationism.
It’s not clear that this fear of One Nation and its voters is moored in reality. Also, Australia’s national political institutions and culture militate against a Brexit- or Trump-style catastrophe. But the continuity of these two foreign events with the slight return of Hansonism has become a part of pundit-class common sense and a piece of leverage for the Liberal hard right. Where those groups go, senior Liberal politicians and their retinues are all too likely to follow.
As Henry Sherrell puts it in an excellent essay, though: “Grouping them together is dangerous, misplaced and bestows an additional sense of undeserved legitimacy on Hanson. It’s also wrong.”
Everything from compulsory voting, to Pauline Hanson’s persistently low national support, to the reliable political implosion of every successive version of One Nation since the 1990s makes it more likely than not that Hansonism will remain relatively marginal in its national electoral position. (The states – especially Queensland – are another matter.)
Hanson will only have real national power to the extent that the major parties give it to her. Her ideas will only be transformative to the extent that the larger parties accede to them.
Which is just one reason why it’s so unfortunate that Bill Shorten reached for “Australia first” in the days after Trump’s election. Back in November he was using it to brand a policy of putting tighter restrictions on skilled migration. This sounded authentic enough as a concession to rightwing populism that Hanson moved to claim credit for Labor adopting it.
The clear danger is that the rhetoric of “Australia first” further entrenches the idea that anything not immediately recognisable as Australian is construed as a competitor, or a threat. It hardly seems possible that we could go further down the path that led to Australia’s cruel, irrational, and bipartisan asylum seeker policies but things can always get worse. And the worst of it is that we can get there through carelessness, ignorance or cowardice as quickly as we can by design.
As Kelly puts it: “My instinct would be to say that it’s just picking up on the populist wave and not thinking too hard about history. In general I don’t think politicians think about history too much.”
In what seems like a moment of rightwing populist ascendancy, using their language is the path of least resistance.
“They’re steering clear of confronting Hansonism and talking about economics in a populist way.”
The difficulty is that all this shadow boxing may be what leads us into darkness.
Jason Wilson is an Australian-born writer living in Portland, Oregon.