I’ll say one thing for Australia’s far right conservatives, they don’t miss a beat. With fear and loathing on the streets of America – a nation split down the middle over the president-elect – our own standard bearers for the lunar right are lining up to preach the perils of ignoring the “silent majority”, to thump their chests and say “I told you so”.
Former prime minister Tony Abbott wasted no time last week offering his analysis on the merits of opinion polls and the woes of “disenfranchised voters”, and his views are echoed by the twin beacons of the Coalition’s Christian right, Cory Bernardi and George Christensen. It’s a familiar refrain and it goes like this: the major political parties don’t care about the concerns of the mainstream middle class because the establishment, aided and abetted by “intellectuals” and “some sections of the media” – which is to say anyone but the Murdoch press, presumably – has been captured by the “cultural elite” and its leftist agenda.
There’s nothing new here, although it’s edifying to see how swiftly the ultra-conservatives have scrambled to capitalise on Trump’s victory and sought to make it their own. It’s a pretty slick narrative, too – the conflation of neo-conservatism and voter disenchantment – so you can’t blame our homegrown conservatives for having a crack. Abbott, for starters, has nothing to lose in peddling his essentially self-serving assessment, and Bernardi may well be looking to the tidal wave of evangelical support that lifted Trump to victory and dreaming, perhaps, of a similar Antipodean uprising.
Dream on. Much as Australia’s far-right would like to see the analogy – to think of Trump’s victory as a harbinger of their own – the parallels are largely imagined and almost certainly exaggerated.
While Bernardi and his ilk have been insisting for years that the political machine has ignored mainstream concerns, that it’s pitched to the left in the pursuit of “power and self-interest”, the evidence suggests the contrary. To wit: the rising influence of the Liberal Party’s hard-right faction – which anointed the previous prime minister and is keeping the current one on a pretty tight leash.
And anyway, are our ultra-conservatives really more in touch with voter sentiment? Not on same-sex marriage or climate change, where there is a clear disconnect between majority public opinion and the views of Coalition MPs. Not on access to abortion either, which 87 per cent of the Australian community supports despite Senator Bernardi pronouncing it a “death industry” – a la Donald Trump. The difference, of course, is that Trump was probably parroting the views of mainstream Americans – half of whom think abortion is morally wrong – whereas Bernardi is genuinely an outlier.
As for immigration, Bernardi recently called for the government to halve the migration intake, a move that suggests he’s out of step with the 61 per cent of the community that wants us to maintain, or even increase, our intake.
So perhaps our conservatives don’t speak for the mainstream after all. But it wasn’t ideology, on the whole, that underpinned America’s protest vote and handed Trump the critical edge even among those who didn’t like himpersonally. It was the “disenfranchised”, the forgotten middle classes – as Abbott and Bernardi are at pains to point out – and what they are truly enraged about is the “gaping wealth inequality” that sets America apart.
The United States has the highest level of economic inequality of any major developed nation, where the top 1 per cent hold half the national wealth in mutual funds and stocks, according to the Institute for Policy Studies. GDP per capita may have recovered since the global financial crisis, but median incomes have declined. The rich are getting richer, in other words – and you can guess what’s happening to the rest.
The evisceration of America’s middle class has also led to the lowest level of home ownership in the United States in 50 years. Credit is tight, wages are low, and first-home buyers can’t break into the market.
Comparatively, Australia seems to be doing well. On a ranking of median wealth per adult – a measure that favours lower levels of wealth inequality – Australia “tops the list“. But median incomes have stalled since 2009, and median disposable incomes have fallen slightly.
Another ominous signpost is the composition of Australian household wealth, which is heavily skewed towards property. Our average level of real assets is the second highest in the world – hardly surprising when you consider Australian property prices. And, like the US, Australia is also tracking a downward trendin home ownership, thanks to the real estate boom that came before the GFC and the stagnating wages that came after.
We are now ushering in the first generation of Australians who won’t do better than their parents – who simply can’t afford to acquire the assets that represent their best opportunity to build wealth. And it’s partly down to the favourable tax concessions that have pushed up property prices, according to respected economist Saul Eslake, and effectively transferred wealth from workers to investors. So here, at last, we can find a parallel of sorts, although Bernardi and the rest of the conservatives might prefer we didn’t when you consider that the policy settings that fuelled the rise in property prices are ones the conservatives are reluctant to wind back, despite significant mainstream support for doing so.
In the end, the story of Australia’s populist backlash is not the narrative our conservatives are peddling, but it’s one we ought to ponder nonetheless. Because our community is not as ideologically divided as we thought, nor as fundamentally unequal. Our middle classes have not been “hollowed out” by the same economic forces that have desecrated America’s heartlands. Our ultra conservatives do not, on the whole, represent our collective values. But here’s the kicker: to the extent that a truly disenfranchised middle class is emerging in Australia, our Liberal conservatives, by all indications, may be the last to champion them.
Sarah Gill is a Fairfax Media columnist.