Wizard of Oz
Australia wins the gold medal of the longest economic expansion in the modern era. Elsewhere, this windfall might occasion unwise flights of Socialist fancy. Not down under. Recently, Australians re-elected conservative Prime Minister Scott Morrison. The green elites were aghast. The Pentecostal Christian and unabashed supporter of Big Coal declared his stunning victory the triumph of “the quiet Australians.”
Not so long ago, it was widely believed that in many parts of the world for long periods, you needed good peripheral vision to see Australia on a map. When the country did get attention, as often as not it was either for some natural disaster (floods, bushfires, shark attacks) or in the form of glowing praise in the travel, sports or food and wine sections of newspapers.
These days, Australia has attracted more serious global attention, because we have become a role model. A sample of media headlines makes the point: “The wonder down under” (BBC); “No other nation looks like Australia” (New York Times); “Australia’s economy builds on a winning streak” (Wall Street Journal); “How the land Down Under ended up on top of the world” (The Toronto Star); “Wizard of Oz has shown us road we should be following” (Irish Independent); “Europe must copy Australia and stop the refugee boats” (U.K. Daily Telegraph); and so on.
Australians don’t see themselves as the centre of international attention: we are, after all, an island continent of only 25 million people at the end of the world geographically. Still, Australia is the envy of the developed world, and the reasons go beyond our charms as a holiday destination. Market reforms and fiscal discipline (1983-2007), a commodities boom (2005-12) and our rapidly expanding relationship with our largest trade partner China have contributed to 28 years of unbroken economic growth. Australia has surpassed the Netherlands for the gold medal of the longest economic expansion in the modern era. And income inequality is nowhere as widespread as it is in Britain and the US. At the same time, our tough and orderly border protection policy boosts broad public support for a large-scale and non-discriminatory immigration agenda.
As a result, Australia has not been profoundly affected by the kind of nativist or populist insurgencies that threaten political establishments in America and much of Europe. Nor have we witnessed the backlash against globalisation that is evident in both left- and right-leaning political parties elsewhere.
True, there are anxieties about the state of the nation. From 2010 to 2018, Australia experienced so many prime ministerships -- six in fact -- that the Sydney outpost of Madame Tussauds has stopped trying to model them: our national leaders had been toppled before the wax museum had time to finish their statues! At the G20 summit in Buenos Aires last December, German chancellor Angela Merkel was given a “cheat sheet” with the most recent prime minister Scott Morrison’s photograph to differentiate the new leader from his predecessors.
The public’s respect for our institutions – from the Church to the banking sector – has declined dramatically in the wake of revelations of sexual abuse and financial scandal. All these concerns are understandable, yet Australia has experienced far less populist agitation than most western nations.
Perhaps all this helps explain the outcome of Australia’s national election on May 18, which saw the re-election of the six-year-old centre-right Liberal-National coalition government. A few months earlier, in August 2018, the 51-year-old Morrison had become the third Liberal party leader and prime minister in three years. A baseball-cap wearing sports fan and former tourism executive from Sydney’s southern beaches, he had been widely written off. He was in office, not in power. As a Pentecostal Christian and supporter of Big Coal, he was the wrong man for his times, according to the media conventional wisdom. After years of Coalition government disunity, the polls, pundits and betting markets had predicted a Labor victory.
It’s true that Morrison’s pathway to election success was about as narrow as Donald Trump’s path in 2016. However, he was helped by his opponents’ lurch to the left. In the 1980s, the Labor Party had deregulated the Australian economy, which helped lead to higher living standards across all income groups. Thirty years later, Labor had adopted a more interventionist economic agenda, pledging high taxes on property investors, self-funded retirees and high-earning wealth creators. Morrison highlighted the risks of a big taxing-big spending agenda. The result was that Middle Australia repudiated Labor’s class warfare.
Labor’s activist climate agenda also turned off many swing voters across the nation, especially in the energy-intensive state of Queensland. Australia is a coal-producing powerhouse where carbon taxes or cap-and-trade emissions schemes lack broad public support. Morrison, famous for posing in parliament holding a lump of coal, reminded the electorate that no renewable energy source is as efficient as carbon and that China’s annual emissions rise is greater than Australia’s total emissions each year.
The New York Times declared that the Coalition victory was “propelled by a populist wave” that resembled “the forces that has upended politics in the United States, Britain and beyond.” The leading American left-liberal leader Maureen Dowd has even compared Morrison to Trump.
That’s a poor reading of politics down under. True, the Australian election, like the Brexit referendum and the Trump victory, overturned media orthodoxies. In 2016, British and US pollsters had to deal with the “shy voter” factor: people feared admitting they’d vote for the socially unacceptable Trump and euro-sceptics. By depicting them as backward and deplorable, much of the left-leaning establishment intimidated the shy Trump or Brexit voters into going underground, making it impossible to detect their strength before polling days.
The same dynamic was at work on May 18, where “quiet Australians,” as Morrison dubbed them, railed against the elite consensus of identity politics, wealth redistribution and costly climate mitigation policies. That said, Australia’s election result shared little else with the populist explosion evident around the western world.
Morrison is no nativist: he’s a mainstream centre-right politician who believes in immigration, markets, free trade and a socially inclusive society. Although he’s a devout Christian, Morrison rarely wears his religious faith on his sleeves. As a former treasurer (2015-18) – what Australians call finance minister – he legislated tax cuts for small and medium-sized companies and he helped balance the budget for the first time in a decade.
As a former immigration minister (2013-15), Morrison worked aggressively to “stop the boats” reaching our large island continent of 25 people, a policy that denied refugees arriving by sea the right to apply for settlement in Australia. That policy remains harsh: some of the measures include turning back boats, mandatory detention, refugee camps in neighbouring islands. But tough border protection has restored confidence to Australia’s successful immigration policy, taking the winds out of the sails of populists and nativists.
Across Europe, fear and anger at immigration carry nationalist themes from the fringes to the centre. In Australia, nativist parties are confined to the margins. Half of the nation is either born overseas or has a parent born overseas. A third of the migrant intake is Asian and 20 per cent is either from Africa or the Middle East.
Under Morrison, Australia is likely to remain immune to the populist explosions elsewhere. Still, Australia faces some daunting challenges, such as sluggish economic growth, stagnant wages and the threat of “creative destruction” involved in the transition to a digital economy. As a result, Morrison needs to prepare the foreseeable turbulence of years to come.
Tom Switzer is executive editor of the Centre for Independent Studies, a presenter at the Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s Radio National and a columnist with the Sydney Morning Herald.