Right wing populist forces are mobilising in New South Wales, forging new alliances and strengthening old ones. In August, hundreds of anti-abortion activists rallied in the largest right wing protest for years in Sydney. Holding aloft crosses and images of Jesus, they cheered as National Party MP Barnaby Joyce denounced a bill to decriminalise abortion as “not a reflection of civilised society”. A hardened minority of conservative MPs have revolted against Liberal premier Gladys Berejiklian’s attempt to push forward with the bill.
Sydney also hosted the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in August. The event was backed by a US-based right wing organisation, the American Conservative Union. Its goal was to bring Trump style politics to Australia by reshaping conservative politics in a more rabidly right wing direction with a populist veneer. No wonder its speaking list included Nigel Farage, architect of Brexit, former PM Tony Abbott, Fox News host Jeanine Pirro and the notorious anti-Islam campaigner Raheem Kassam. This is only the beginning. The organisers of CPAC say it will be a “multi-year, forever-type project”.
Further, in the recent state election, right wing crank and ex-ALP maverick Mark Latham – whose rantings have quickly become the centre of media attention for radio shock jocks and the Daily Telegraph – was elected to parliament.
It’s no coincidence that this is all going down in NSW. The state has become ground zero for attempts to forge a right wing alliance that spreads from the ultra-conservative wings of the Liberals and Nationals to One Nation, the Shooters, Fishers and Farmers Party and beyond. The alliance is bringing together Christian fundamentalists, rural gun nuts, Islamophobes, greyhound racing advocates, climate change deniers, anti-LGBTI campaigners and everyone desiring to spew bigotry. It is backed by media outlets such as the Daily Telegraph, Sky News and the Australian, and right wing think tanks from the prominent Institute for Public Affairs to the shadowy and Islamophobic Q Society.
On one level, this isn’t new. NSW has a long history of right wing politics – from the fascist New Guard movement during the Great Depression to the racist riot on Cronulla beach in 2005. However, the right wingers today are inspired by the success of Trump, Brexit and far right parties across Europe. They are trying to weave together the different conservative issues into a more coherent “populist” right wing agenda.
As Andrew Cooper, organiser of CPAC and co-founder of LibertyWorks, a free market fundamentalist organisation, said in 2017: “Our belief is to motivate people to change their vote, or to get them to ‘get up’ or start something. They’ve got to have some sort of philosophical belief system that provides that motivation”.
It makes sense for these right wing forces to focus on NSW. Sydney is the largest city in Australia. Queensland is already home to several right wing outfits: Bob Katter and son, One Nation and Clive Palmer. In Victoria the right suffered a setback when its hysterical law and order campaign against the state ALP government failed to bring the Liberals to power. In NSW, the political culture is already more conservative. Of the 17 electorates in Australia to return a majority No vote during the marriage equality plebiscite, 12 are in Sydney.
This isn’t some natural thing or, as some say, due to the concentration of migrant groups in western Sydney. Rather it has been created by the political establishment over decades. The right is emboldened in NSW because it has faced little to no resistance from the official opposition.
Despite a revolving door of inept Liberal premiers, the Coalition has comfortably won every state election since 2011. For Sydney is also home to the NSW ALP, a right wing behemoth mired in corruption and slavishly obedient to the establishment and the Murdoch press. Rather than campaigning on a progressive agenda, Labor has again and again promoted vile right wing views. For example, the ALP first raised the call to cut immigration to NSW. And former leader Michael Daley lamented that “our kids are moving out and foreigners are moving in and taking their jobs”.
With the ALP in such a state, the main enemy of the right wing populists has been within the Liberal Party itself – NSW is also the base for the so-called moderate wing of the party. (Despite concerns about going too far down the populist road, the “moderates” nevertheless support the racism and union bashing of their colleagues.) Liberal Party branches have been the site of furious brawls, branch stacking, party rules and regulations changes, and, in the Nationals’ case, an infiltration of fascists into the leadership of its youth wing. For years, the so-called Taliban right of the Liberal Party has waged guerrilla warfare against the moderates. As Swinburne University’s Norman Abjorensen put it in a 2015 Inside Story article:
“With the possible exception of the party’s permanently cleaved branch in South Australia, no other part of the Liberal family is so engaged in seemingly endless civil war as the NSW branch. Because of its size, its machinations inevitably have consequences beyond the state. And it is as obsessively tribal as any political clan.”
The factional warfare seemed to fade into the background following Scott Morrison’s surprise federal election victory. But the basis for it has not gone away, as the divisions over abortion in NSW show. The right wing factional mobilisations are part of an international convergence noted by UK-based writer David Renton. It involves the mainstream right moving in a more openly racist and rabid direction, and the intervention of sections of the far right into mainstream conservatism.
The process emerged in the Liberal and National parties because, aside from One Nation in specific areas, attempts to build new parties of the right in Australia have flopped. For now, the far right seems focused on growing in the shadow of the Liberal Party, as evidenced by senator Cory Bernardi’s recent attempts to rejoin its South Australian branch.
There are debates about what exactly is the social base for this right wing populism in New South Wales. The right claims to represent a “silent majority” whose voices are stifled by the politically correct establishment. However, like many right wing populist movements around the world, the social base turns out to be thinner than expected. Overwhelmingly, it is an AstroTurf movement, a phantom grassroots “insurgency” backed by such “outsiders” as Tony Abbott, the editors of the Daily Telegraph, corporate think tanks and the upper echelons of the clergy.
Take the two main issues the right has mobilised around recently: “religious freedom” and abortion. On both issues, the right is isolated from majority opinion. Almost three-quarters of voters in NSW support removing abortion from the criminal code. An Essential poll found that only 38 percent of Australians agree that stronger laws are needed to protect those who express their faith in public, and 64 percent agreed that “people should not be allowed to argue religious freedoms to abuse others”.
Some right wing commentators have argued that the Liberals are now the party of the working class, while the ALP are stuck representing the inner city, middle class ghetto. Liberal MP Andrew Hastie has been a prominent supporter of this view, telling Sky News, “When you find CEOs thinking the same thoughts as the progressive left, and forgetting about the people they employ ... you know the old order is breaking down”.
Others raise the possibility of the hard right building a base among religiously conservative migrant groups in Western Sydney. While it is laughable to think that most working class migrants will support a party so dedicated to racism, there might be opportunities for the right to link up with a minority of middle class religious activists from migrant backgrounds. After all, the spread of the populist right hasn’t been confined to the Western world. The rise of Narendra Modi in India shows that the politics of division and fake anti-establishment sentiment can gain a hearing elsewhere. During the marriage equality plebiscite, it was noticeable that most of the anti-equality rallies in Sydney were dominated by migrants from evangelical Christian backgrounds.
Yet the racism essential to the right limits the breadth of such mobilisations. For instance, during the abortion debate in NSW, Liberal MP Tanya Davies suggested that those from “Indian, Chinese and south-east Asian migrant communities” abort female foetuses because of a “son preference”. In the working class more generally, the core voting base for the major parties is still much the same as it was in the last century, as Tom Bramble has argued in the Marxist Left Review:
“Far from turning traditional voting allegiances upside down, the election by and large confirmed them: the predominantly working class western and northern suburbs of Melbourne and the southern and western suburbs of Sydney mostly stayed solidly [Labor]. By contrast, the Liberals remain the preferred choice for the residents of the affluent suburbs of Melbourne and Sydney, with the exception of Warringah, taken by Zali Steggall, a Liberal in all but name.”
It is likely, then, that the base of the hard right will remain whiter, older, middle class and mostly male. Even among this demographic, the hard right doesn’t dominate. The situation is different from that in the US and the UK, where hard right forces have been able to create a sizeable, albeit minority, radicalised right wing base. This shouldn’t lead to a sense of indifference. The base that supports Trump or No Deal Brexit didn’t come out of nowhere, nor was it simply a spontaneous outburst of the enraged middle classes, as it is sometimes presented. It was created by a concerted and determined political intervention from right wing forces. The basis for Trumpism was laid by the Tea Party transformation of the Republican Party under Obama, and in the UK by the hard right Tory insiders under pressure from Nigel Farage’s UK Independence Party. These forces created an audience for their ideas, a process facilitated by the weakness of any principled opposition. As a contributor to the website rs21.org.uk described the hard right Tory strategy in the UK:
“The method of the populist right is usually not to try for strong support from the majority of the populace, but rather to lock in the support of a racialised and gendered bloc which is larger, more organised and more energised than any single oppositional social bloc can succeed in being.”
While anti-abortion and religious freedom campaigns might not have much popular support, they harden a section of the right wing base to crusade on issues that have more of a popular resonance, such as immigration and Islamophobia. And despite not having much popular support, the hard right holds important positions in the political machine of the Liberal and National parties, which gives it undue influence – a situation reinforced by the declining membership of the main political parties, which gives greater weight to relatively small numbers of cohered activists.
The left in NSW will have to confront this growing storm of right wing populism. This will not be easy. The ALP, enmeshed in its own conservative machinations, won’t put up an alternative. However, the basis for resistance exists. Thousands have rallied to support abortion rights, LGBTI activists are organising actions against the religious exemptions bill and the climate strikes and Extinction Rebellion have injected a new sense of urgency into the Sydney left.
The social base for the conservative right is weaker than it might appear in the Murdoch press. If we are going to create a serious alternative to the right wingers, we will have to build a radical left committed to street mobilisations and anti-establishment politics.