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Amid the sound and fury of northern hemisphere populists, you may think Australia has been spared the turmoil sweeping democracies. But perhaps it's not an outlier if you focus on the decline of the mainstream

Amid the sound and fury of northern hemisphere populists, you may think Australia has been spared the turmoil sweeping democracies. But perhaps it's not an outlier if you focus on the decline of the mainstream

As Australia prepares for federal elections on May 18, it probably looks to outsiders like an oasis of stability and sanity among Western democracies that have gone haywire. There are no widespread populist revolts, no “yellow vests” or agitators calling for a Brexit-style retreat from the Asia-Pacific.

Though Australia does have far-right fringe parties, they have not had anything like the electoral success of their European counterparts. In fact, among countries with more than ten million people, Australia has one of the highest migration rates of any major economy, yet there is hardly any public backlash.

If one accepts that a spike in populism is the defining characteristic of contemporary Western politics, Australia appears to have dodged a bullet. But if we set aside populism, we see that Australia is not an exception after all. The key development across Western democracies in recent years, Australia included, is not that something new has emerged, but that something old has declined.

Back in 2013, Irish political scientist Peter Mair warned that Europe’s postwar party system was unraveling, owing to the decline of traditional center-right and center-left parties. Modern democracy cannot function without political parties, yet, according to Mair, “The age of party democracy has passed.” Though most mainstream parties remain intact, they have shed members and become increasingly “disconnected from the wider society.”

Most of the major mainstream parties began as movements to represent the interests of trade unions, business, or particular religious denominations. But, over time, they have turned away from the public and transformed themselves into highly professionalized operations funded by corporate money and the state. Other than at election time, they have little need for their traditional supporters.

As long as the establishment parties governed reasonably well, this didn’t really matter, and voters had little reason to engage in politics. But then came the 2008 financial crisis and the subsequent euro crisis, followed by an immigration crisis in 2015 and Brexit the following year. Suddenly, the slow-burn of party decline became a wildfire. New far-right parties have won parliamentary seats in Germany and Spain for the first time in decades; Italy is governed by a populist coalition, and France by President Emmanuel Macron’s self-made La République En Marche !

These gains have come at the expense of mainstream parties. In Germany’s 2017 election, the Social Democrats (SPD) won 20% of the vote, the party’s worst showing since World War II. In the Dutch elections that year, the venerable Labour Party lost 29 of its 38 parliamentary seats. In the election that brought Macron to office, the candidates of the major parties – the Socialists and the Republicans – did not even make the run-off. In the United Kingdom this month, Tory candidates in local elections won the national equivalent of just 28% of the vote; and Labour, too, went backwards.

Europe’s populist parties have clearly benefited from the decline of the mainstream. But they are merely the inheritors of Europe’s broken politics, not its cause. As the American writer Martin Gurri puts it, “‘Populist’ is a term favored by the elites for politicians who have migrated into, and occupied, the vast space between the public and themselves.”

As for Australia, the two establishment parties, Labor and the Liberals, are suffering the same decline as their European counterparts. While they still have an advantage under the country’s preferential voting system, which guarantees them a strong presence in the lower house of parliament, where governments are formed, Australians are increasingly turning toward smaller parties and independent politicians. In the 2016 election, nearly one-quarter of voters chose a non-major party first.

Australia has already gone through two periods of minority government since 2010. Soon enough, its politics may come to resemble that of many European countries, where no major party can ever form a government on its own. True, unlike Europe, Australia has not suffered an economic crisis that would trigger a rapid major-party slide. Indeed, it hasn’t had a recession in 28 years. And, despite a tortured national debate over the country’s inhumane methods of deterring asylum seekers, it has had no immigration crisis either.

But that could change, at which point Australia might experience its own populist surge. Or the major parties themselves could be the source of volatility. When political parties are in decline, they become less stable and more vulnerable to demands from their fringes. Just ask former British Prime Minister David Cameron, who agreed to hold the Brexit referendum only because he needed to placate Euroskeptics in the Conservative Party.

Similar dynamics are discernible in Australia, where Labor and the Liberals have both undergone years of vicious internal brawling. If Labor wins this election, as seems likely, Australia will have its seventh change of prime minister since 2007, hence the country’s appellation as the “coup capital of the world.” That level of instability suggests that Australia’s major parties are not coping well with their abandonment by the public. What looks like an oasis of stability among Western democracies may turn out to be a mirage.

Sam Roggeveen is Director of the International Security Program at the Lowy Institute in Sydney.  Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2019, and published here with permission.

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Yep, I am in Australia and suffering from election dysfunction, I am unable to arouse by any political parties in this election.

I think it's happening here as well, when things are going well the big parties slowly end up with less and less competent politicians in parliament as they focus on the outwards appearance of the party with the goal of keeping their seats.

They just focus on slowly pushing their own ideology (as long as the focus groups don't react too badly to it), saying the right thing and covering up problems that show up rather than do anything hard. You only need 10 percent or less of your party to have a clue to achieve this. This allows you to stack the rest of party with personalities and people to appeal to as wider range of demographics as possible. Of course when a crisis strikes they find their policy and ideology inadequate and out of touch with the working a middle class and the need to be booted out. (This comment is just my opinion)

All change, no change here in NZ....Ruling classes (Still learning....from teachers of yore)... all know how to tax you and spend unwisely, paying themselves first of course....into the was ever thus.

(They could have all run for Fonterror...instead)....or many other Institutions, of complete stupidity, trading wise....they certainly ain't.

I could discuss this until the end of days...but why bovver.....A billion is neither here, nor there...just a lot of zeros and them. As long as they get into power, then they will power ahead......spend, spend, spend. Debt, debt, debt. All on tick.......what is a leech or two....amongst Parties......when you can never tell the difference.


I would suggest that we are no different. Labour made a lot of promises before the last election but their performance since has has done little to distinguish them from the previous National government. They try to distinguish themselves with a lot of hot air and by playing around with a social agenda, but do absolutely nothing to address the very obvious fundamental iniquities that continue to increase homelessness and the wealth divide. If I had to vote for a party today, there are none that I would want to. I suspect that I am not alone. In the USA the Democrats took their grass roots support base for granted and went down a line outlined in this article. Their traditional supporters eventually gave up on them and in desperation chose Trump. God help them! Carrying on down the road that we are headed will give rise to this sort of frustration and our voters may well do something equally desperate.

Morgan tried. He tried to base a party on policy, not personality. The TOP party need to hang in there, possibly if they dropped the home issue off the agenda (for now) they would would make more traction. But they are not yet a real public presence.
If they held the balance and not Winnie, we may have seen some effective change, not just Shane Jones throwing cash around will nilly.

Profoundly unpopular economic policies, no money, no engaging leader to generate publicity. TOP is circling the drain.

..everything you said is why we make no progress. You want popular.i.e it's all about me me me ( for you...pse 'keep my house portfolio pumped and #### anything else'). You want a populist leader i.e a someone who looks and sounds good... and feeds your me me me.
Try some rational analysis of policy...that's the philosophy behind TOP...not populism which you subscribe to

When I say unpopular policies, I mean unpopular policies among the NZ public. One of the virtues of democracy is that the populous isn't subjected to policies that they don't want. I support proportional representation not majority rules, but TOP stands no chance even with MMP. And I don't care about engaging or charismatic leadership over policy, but it certainly helps get votes, and always will. TOP has neither sound policy nor engaging leadership.

Rational policy analysis? TOP believe that recreational boats (and all other major assets) earn their owners imaginary "income" that should be taxed year after year forever, until the value of tax paid exceeds the value of the boat. This, despite the fact that income tax was paid on the money used to purchase the boat, GST was paid on the boat, and the boat is generating no money for it's owner. This is void of logic, and whatever tenuous argument can be made to support it would make Marx proud. CGT was unpopular, but it pales in comparison to this mind-blowingly unpalatable idea by TOP. And even though CGT was unpopular, at least there was a rational argument behind it.

There must be another way to find qualified politicians and parties than elections, to lead a nation forward.

Current election systems in nearly all 'democracies' are failed for that purpose. This has been demonstrated across the globe.

It's not the elections, but the parties that are the problem. All MPs should be independent. No Party line to tow - just acting is the best interests of their constituents.

Follow the mother land and appoint a president/premier for life. He (most likely to be a he) will take care of us.

I take it by Mother land you're referring to China. No thanks we (NZ) and Australia do NOT want a Dictator/ Emperor for a Prime Minister to govern for life! We all know what that will lead too; Remember power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely!
Great men are almost always bad men, even when they exercise influence and not authority: still more when you superadd the tendency or the certainty of corruption by authority. That's why we need keep the ability to vote they out when need be!

May I suggest you to get your sarcasm detector to be checked by a qualified scoffer?

Sometimes it's hard to know how serious people are about such statements. Anyway here's an interesting documentary for you. :)
BBC The Inquiry: How Do Dictators Survive So Long?

And yet democracies are still where people flood to rather than brutal dictatorships. Who would of thought?

Including xingmowang, no less.

First find a group of bright intelligent people with experience of the real world.
Then ask them if they would like to be politicians.
If they say 'yes' reject them.

Politicians blew it. The put-upon majority would really like to just ignore politics and get on with their lives, but they have clicked on to the fact that government of the people, by the people, for the people is a myth. They thought the governments had their backs, that it would act in ways that had broad support from the community, but instead they found that governments pander to those who shout the loudest and social media has amplified the voice of the extremists. If the populists weren't so lumpen, the collapse of the traditional parties would almost be desirable. Sadly though, when the establishment doesn't listen, you end up with demagogues.

I think that people are starting to realise that the governments are ineffective because while they have challenging manifestos when in opposition. Things like reducing immigration, introducing capital gains tax etc would be an example here. The minute they actually get elected they are hamstrung and handcuffed by the economic / monetary system. The real power sits with those that control the money creation. More debt, more GDP, more tax, needs more debt to provide more GDP to provide more tax - the political parties feed off it and the taste of that cup is generous and addictive. Anyone with half a brain cell can see that the media, news, advertising are all reliant on debt being promoted. I have been amazed how the banks control the advertising in NZ, the pay day loans, the cheap credit deals and interest only for every consumer product advertised. While the housing hype of the block, love it or list it Vancouver, location location location, house flippers USA. The difference between North and Southern Hemispheres is that questions have been asked by the populous for a little while longer and the media is far more diverse.

A good article and I agree, Australians are slowly waking up to the scam.

Absolutely, our underlying system is broken. With out fixing that our politicians are just taking turns at playing whack’a’mole. Trying to explain to the general public as to how the system is broken though is another problem altogether, it’s hard to change what you don’t understand.

One of the issues Brexit has exposed is the realisation that MP's are careerists in that they are putting their careers ahead of their constituents wishes. They speak but say nothing so as not to rock the boat, always with an eye on a cabinet position or some cosy supra-national or NGO post parliament. Some move into senior roles with multi-nationals. A careerist MP will be less motivated to speak-up and challenge the party leadership.

Party central has taken over worldwide. We doubled down on the daft idea with MMP, where half the politicians have no need of a local electorate. This means they do not need to engage with the government inflicted traumas that a local MP is routinely confronted with.

I think it's more the toll that Globalization that has taken on the Western World with the recent rise of populism. With Politicians looking the other way when corrupt money pours in from overseas, sending the cost of living sky high for younger generations that feel locked out, and wondering how did this happen?!
You need to look at this from the ground level and what has significantly has happened in the last few years to their economy to know that voters are likely to will swing towards someone less corruptible.

"... voters are likely to will swing towards someone less corruptible."
Who that would be?...

Jacinda for Aust PM... Please
(yeah, someone will say you can have her)

Have to admit she has remained strong and true to her policies for the most part. Pity the Aussies can't see to recognize that voting in less corruptible politicians would be good for them in the long run. According to this BBC article, the Australian political system is too toxic for them to survive in. BBC - Why politics is toxic for Australia’s women.

A politician willing to publicly show their tax returns would make a good start. I think that should be a standard for all Political players.

What is wrong with populism anyway. Seems to me a populist platform it just recognises what folk want, and who vote accordingly. I quite like this quote. “‘Populist’ is a term favored by the elites for politicians who have migrated into, and occupied, the vast space between the public and themselves.”

Indeed, I've noticed that nationalism or anti-neoliberalism also seems to attract that derogatory populist label

One final observation...after all is said and done.... Name a perfect Country, run by perfect people, perfect for all and sundry, with an eye to the future, in no debt, not out of balance and safe and secure for our children's sake for ever and ever avoiding, Climate Change and development beyond the norm required for man and beast, with renewable energy to boot. with might I add, no crime wave, drugs, prisons and perfect social and religious norms, for everyone. Please do not all answer at once... But I am willing to know, or learn. Where oh where!!! Utopia is?.

Downward mobility fuels populism. Relevant article from Zerohedge