One Nation and right-populist protest politics
One Nation and right-populist protest politics
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This is part of Red Flag's guide to Australia’s four major political parties – Labor, Liberal, National and Greens – and One Nation. This article by Ben Reid looks at One Nation.

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The re-emergence of Pauline Hanson’s One Nation as an electoral force in 2016 was a local expression of an international trend of so-called right populism. It reflects the periodic trend in modern capitalism for racial and militaristic politics to become more pronounced than usual. 

However, like other examples of right populism, One Nation’s policies also draw on economic nationalism. The party supports multinational corporations paying their “fair share” of tax, “freezing politicians’ wages” and opposing “foreign ownership of Australian land and assets”. 

On the face of it, these are not likely to be popular policies with big business and most sections of the ruling class, which have been implementing policies aimed at boosting profits through the neoliberal restructuring of the Australian economy. 

Despite some appearances, however, One Nation offers no solutions for working people. It is a type of political party of the far right that emerges in times of crisis or turbulence. Although the base of these organisations comes from outside the ruling class and big business, they don’t fundamentally threaten capitalism. When close to or having achieved power, they work in cooperation with the big corporations. Even when acting as a pole of “protest politics”, One Nation supported most of the federal government’s anti-union and austerity measures.

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While the forms political parties take in capitalist societies can vary considerably, there are usually four common facets: a leadership, policy and ideology, an electoral base and a way of governing. Marxists have long recognised, however, that political parties ultimately rule on behalf of social classes and factions of these classes. 

In the older and more stable capitalist countries, the class character of most mainstream parties of the “centre right” is often quite explicit. Employer and industry associations and people from these ranks in society dominate their leadership and policies. They adopt the posture of being “natural” parties of government. The Liberal-National Coalition performs this role in Australia. 

But these parties face a problem: most members of the population are wage workers or small proprietors with interests that diverge from those of the wealthy elites. While the leadership and actions of such parties in power are thoroughly dominated by tiny wealthy elites, their policies must have wider appeal. As Russian revolutionary leader Leon Trotsky remarked: 

“The economically powerful big bourgeoisie represents an infinitesimal minority of the nation. To enforce its domination, it must ensure a definite mutual relationship with the petty bourgeoisie and, through its mediation, with the working class.”

These leaderships must appeal to the so-called middle classes as an electoral base. One key way they may also win some support is through cultivating nationalism and other prejudices. 

Not surprisingly, the ability of these parties to maintain support wanes at times. In the inter-war years of the Great Depression and its aftermath, disenchantment with the traditional parties of the centre right led to the rise of mass fascist parties and movements. The softer nationalism of the centre right gave way to a darker message. It shifted the blame for political and economic woes to external and internal “enemies of the people” by appealing to racism, militarism, nationalism, anti-Semitism, sexism and homophobia. 

“Outsider” political parties can benefit from exploiting these fears. Most far right parties start with a base among people disenchanted with the traditional centre right. 

While many business leaders may initially oppose aspects of this harder economic nationalism, other sections of the elite will toy with them. Faced with a crisis, most of the ruling class will swing behind the far right.

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While most expressions of contemporary right populism are not yet openly fascist, there are parallels to the 1920s and 1930s. In Italy, Benito Mussolini brought together a coalition of far right nationalist political forces with an explicit goal of opposing the labour movement coming to power. Widespread mass strikes and protests had broken out in the “red years” of 1919 and 1920. 

The fascist Squadristi (black shirts) were formed among the middle classes to stage violent attacks on striking workers and the left. Instead of replacing capitalism with workers’ control, the fascists promoted a “corporatist” state and society. A “new man” and modern and scientific society would emerge out of the partnership of workers with the corporations. The black shirts eventually marched on Rome and occupied many government posts, prompting King Victor Emmanuel III to appoint Mussolini as prime minister in 1922.

The rise of the Nazi party in Germany was similar. By 1918, the German ruling class project of establishing a zone of control in in central Europe through a war of conquest had ended in disaster. Germany entered a protracted political and economic crisis. The ruling class also feared the rise of the country’s powerful labour movement and mass electoral support for the Social Democrats and (to a lesser extent) the Communist Party. 

Some political leaders and business figures had long hoped to establish a nationalist party to rival the Social Democrats. But parties such as the Catholic centrists and right wing National Liberals did not have mass working class support. One of these projects – initiated by Anton Drexler – became the National Socialist German Workers Party (the Nazis). The original goal was to attract urban workers to an anti-Semitic, nationalist and anti-Marxist party with a “socialist” guise. 

The Nazis did win support, but not largely among urban workers. Rather, they were popular with disenchanted war veterans. The economic and political crisis of 1923 resulted in the first burst of support for the Nazis. Now under the leadership of Adolf Hitler, they staged a failed political uprising. 

A new set of crises in the late 1920s meant the Nazis soon emerged as major electoral force. Their largest initial base of support, however, was among the rural population, especially Protestant farmers. As Thomas Childers documented, as the economic crisis accelerated between 1928 and 1932, the Nazis gained a footing in urban areas among the now impoverished middle classes.

These middle classes retained a strong sense of identity and elitism. Public servants and some professions had been granted a “rank-like” status in the prewar Bismarckian state. They reacted to unemployment by blaming the working class and Jews. 

While sections of big business had long supported the Nazis, most “respectable” political and business leaders kept an arm’s length from Hitler’s “rabble”. But as the party grew in popularity and the threats posed by the working class deepened, many came over to the party. 

Hitler’s ideology was not that distinct from expansionist German nationalism, the ambitions of which he saw as being “betrayed” by “international Jewry”. His Mein Kampf and an unpublished “second book” outlined his plans for Germany to become a great military power through annexing territory in the east. 

Once in power, the Nazis quickly abandoned any pretence of “socialism”. After banning trade unions and parties of the left, the regime even repressed sections of its own base. 

A secret rearmament program helped maintain some level of economic growth and employment, despite the strains this imposed on German capitalism. The regime was eventually forced to launch its campaign of military conquest years earlier than planned.

Australia was not immune from the influence of fascism. A network of far right political organisations emerged after 1918. In the aftermath of the war and failed conscription referendum, the Australian Protective League comprised paramilitary squads ready to assist with the maintenance of “law and order”.

Later in the 1930s, the so-called New Guard emerged. Less secretive than its predecessor, the Old Guard, it recruited more openly among the middle classes and attacked meetings of the left. The goal was to bring down Jack Lang’s ALP government in New South Wales. 

In all these cases, the combination of political and economic crisis and threat posed by the labour movement resulted in the emergence of middle class fascist movements. 

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Fascism had largely discredited itself in the war. The Soviet Union had ended up in control of a large part of Europe. Conditions of economic boom meant few major political forces would openly express extreme nationalist sentiments. These factors combined to create a pattern of “stable” political competition between rival centre left and centre right political parties in the more established capitalist countries.

The situation began to change after the early 1970s. The faltering postwar economic boom and backlash against mass protest movements of students and workers created the conditions for the emergence of a new populist right. 

Political parties emerged like the National Front in France and the Italian Social Movement (later National Alliance) and Northern League, and the Austrian Freedom Party. The popularity of these parties waxed and waned with the political and economic climate. Disenchantment with the neoliberal policy consensus between the centre right and left parties gradually created more openings for the so-called populist right.

Unlike prewar fascism, these parties largely did not cloak themselves as often with selective language derived from the left. They did, however, focus on nationalism and national populism, especially in their economic policy rhetoric. They are also mostly committed to a broader ruling class strategy of political and military intervention throughout the world. This includes war and occupation of the Middle East. 

While anti-Semitism is often present, today’s right populists instead more often exploit fear about the impacts of mass immigration, especially from Third World countries. The decades of the “war on terror” resulted in a growing prominence of anti-Muslim and Islamophobic themes. 

Since 2008, the combination of the lingering impacts of the great recession and influx of refugees from conflicts in the Middle East has underpinned a new rise in popularity of the far right. In Britain the most successful right populist party was the United Kingdom Independence Party. 

In Britain and the United States, significant far right influence also exists inside the main parties of the traditional right. The Tea Party movement in the Republican Party gave way to Donald Trump’s takeover in the face of opposition from much of the party’s leadership. 

As with the inter-war period, these currents and parties’ bases are often among regionally based and non-urban populations. The consistent theme is a prevalence of middle class voters who resent the impacts of growing precariousness in employment and economic insecurity. Some sections of the working class – especially where significant racial and ethnic divisions exist – support the right populist parties. 

An increasing divide also exists within the elite and ruling classes. A majority probably supports staying a course of standard neoliberal economic and social policy. They currently promote the idea of defending the “centre” against populist threats. 

In reality, the “mainstream” and the “populists” differ only in degree over how much they promote racial and nationalist themes. Another section – fearing the effects of a renewed economic crisis – see right populism as an effective strategy to contain any rebellion by working people. 

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Australia is, of course, a minor player in world affairs. One Nation – with its chaotic internal political culture and inarticulate leader – is widely seen as a political joke. It is a mistake, however, to dismiss entirely it and other right populist elements in Australian politics. 

While it is true that the One Nation of the late 1990s eventually imploded, it did make lasting impressions on policy. It had some successes as a “protest party”: there was a tightening of some immigration and visa restrictions. The major parties’ refugee policies – boat turn-backs, temporary protection visas, offshore gulags – came from One Nation. 

The revival of One Nation after 2016 was largely unexpected. This was possibly a reflection of the strategy the revived party adopted of targeting regional areas, largely in Queensland. The party’s vote increased from around 1 percent to more than 9 percent in Queensland, yielding two Senate seats. Votes of 4 percent in Western Australia and New South Wales resulted in the election of one senator from each these states (the double dissolution election halved the quota required to gain a Senate seat). 

The striking aspect of the vote was its geographical concentration. It was largest in rural and regional areas. These two “heartlands” were traditionally bulwarks of support for the Liberal and National parties. Contrary to popular opinion, most of these areas were not experiencing significant economic stress. 

Unemployment was often lower than average. Average age and home and other asset ownership was higher than in urban areas such as Brisbane. The closer voters were to large urban and multicultural cities, the less they were (generally) likely to vote for One Nation.

The party’s subsequent electoral performance was mixed, receiving 8.2 percent of the vote in the upper house in the 2017 Western Australian elections and winning three seats. Its 13.9 percent vote in the 2017 Queensland state election (where there is no upper house) yielded only one regional seat (Mirani, south of Mackay). 

As in the late 1990s, its federal parliamentary caucus collapsed into division. Hanson’s Queensland running mate Malcolm Roberts was disqualified. Following in the steps of NSW senator Brian Burston, Roberts’ replacement Fraser Anning resigned. 

As Rebecca Barrigos argues in Marxist Left Review, Hanson’s concentration of support in Queensland appears related to the state’s distinctive history and relatively decentralised population. Queensland has long been noted as a state with a peculiarly conservative political culture, being dominated for decades by premier Joh Bjelke-Petersen and the National Party.

Given this predicament, there were probably three factors that helped One Nation to re-emerge. First, there are similarities between the experiences that these populations have had with the mainstream political parties and that of other countries. The Liberal and National parties (and the ALP) spearheaded the neoliberal restructuring of Australia’s economy in the 1970s and 1980s. 

Second, and in the longer run, one consequence was the long “rural crisis” between the 1970s and 1990s. Employment, investment and the number of firms operating in agriculture declined across the period. The vote for the rural base of the conservative coalition, the National Party, consistently declined at the same time. 

While the economic and social status of the bush notionally improved after 2000 or so, the boom brought its own problems. The spread of mining and resource extractive industries upended communities and created new conflicts on the land. 

Third, both the Liberal and National parties (already merged into one party in Queensland) experienced a set of crises after being elected to federal government in 2013. The popularity of both parties collapsed under the leadership of Tony Abbott and Joe Hockey. While the former’s replacement by Malcolm Turnbull allowed the government narrowly to win a second term, discontent was high among the most conservative sections of the electorate. 

Hanson capitalised on this discontent in the election and its aftermath. She has taken on and promoted an economic nationalist message and xenophobia, and aspects of the so-called alt-right agenda such as men’s rights, law and order and opposition to “political correctness”. 

The chaos of the party notwithstanding, its popularity was clearly a factor in emboldening the most right wing elements in the federal Coalition caucus around Peter Dutton to eventually challenge Turnbull’s leadership in 2018. They hope to win back some of the One Nation vote by pandering even more to xenophobia. 

As in the 1990s, One Nation has played a protest role in electoral politics, helping to legitimise the rightward direction of the mainstream political parties, especially the Liberals and Nationals. While these parties currently have only limited use for extreme xenophobia and militarism, looming international conflicts and the threat of a second major slump in the world economy could change this. 

In addition, while One Nation receives the most attention in debate and the media, it is not the only right populist party that is active. Senator Fraser Anning’s maiden speech was even more racist than others by One Nation politicians, calling for a “final solution” to Muslim immigration into Australia.

He had defected to and was strongly defended by Bob Katter, leader of Katter’s Australian Party, of which Anning was briefly a member after leaving One Nation. Katter had previously been softer in his use of racism. He appears to be moving to even more explicitly racist positions on Islam and immigration. 

Then there are less high-profile outfits such as the Australian Liberty Alliance and the Shooters, Fishers and Farmers. The latter already has elected members in upper houses in Western Australia, New South Wales and Victoria. Its policies are very similar to One Nation’s on immigration but mostly focus on rural discontent with expansion of conservation areas and Australia’s strict gun control laws.

Most of the right populist parties do not (now, at least) have the extreme ambitions of inter-war fascism. There are similarities, though. Where the ruling classes have had to accept some forms of democratic legitimacy and voting over who notionally controls the state, they invariably create political parties that can compete with the mass parties of the left favoured by most workers. 

The parties of the centre right promote themselves as “natural” parties of government. Their ties to the ruling class mean they invariably take policy measures that alienate a part of their base. The softer nationalism that these parties promote gives way to more extreme forms of xenophobia, militarism and racism. 

In the inter-war years, the ruling classes eventually embraced far right parties in the face of threats from militant labour movements. Today’s right populist parties are more protest parties that combine xenophobia with economic nationalism. 

One Nation and its rivals have carved out a space playing this role in Australia. The question of whether the threat this poses dissipates depends partly on whether any significant section of the ruling class adopts these parties’ policies and positions. 

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