The Australian Right Is Trying To Import Trump-Style Reactionary Populism

Victoria’s lockdown has provoked a self-styled rebellion that postures as defending freedom against the state premier, “Dictator” Dan Andrews. But once you scratch the plebian surface, the “movement” is led by right-wing activists and funded by Liberal Party money.

Victorian premier Daniel Andrews, the target of right-wing attacks, speaks to the media in Melbourne, Australia. (Daniel Pockett / Getty Images)

Nineteen-year-old Edward Bourke, the leader of Victoria Forward (VA), fancies himself an up-and-coming antipodean Steve Bannon, albeit with an affected Etonian sensibility. His suits may not be cut to Savile Row standards — but if there’s one quality he shares with his Tory and Republican heartthrobs, it’s an inflated sense of self-importance.

His organization has taken responsibility for many of Victoria’s anti-lockdown protests which have attracted desultory numbers and occasionally clashed with police. One protest even targeted the family farm where the funeral of Victoria premier Daniel Andrews’s father was held.

Although the protesters project the image of a ragtag army assembled to defend hard-won freedoms, this is no organic grassroots movement. Well-connected think tanks and advocacy organizations funded by the same sources as the Liberal Party have stoked up the protests. And much like the US Tea Party movement, their goal is not simply to replace a center-left government with a center-right one. Rather, they want to push Victorian politics to the hard right.

The Tories Behind the #DictatorDan Hashtag

The most histrionic anti-lockdown campaigning draws support from a mix of new players and the usual suspects. The Institute of Public Affairs (IPA) has predictably led the pack, having long pioneered an aggressive, libertarian brand of hard-right campaigning.

“Dictator Dan . . . is literally trying to build a Covid Gulag here,” declared the IPA’s director of policy, Gideon Rozner, on Sky News. The IPA site strikes a similarly breathless note, hosting articles with titles such as “Danandrewstan and the Death of Melbourne, Explained” and “Coronavirus Totalitarianism.”

Advance Australia (AA), the far-right’s lamentable counterpart to the center-left activist group GetUp!, has also thrown its top hat into the ring, attacking the Labor premier as a power-tripping dictator. In what they surely thought would be a crowd-pleasing populist power move, they described the 60-70 percent of Victorians who support the lockdown as “weaker minds” who are in the grip of Stockholm syndrome.

Bourke’s Victoria Forward is the squawky younger sibling of Advance Australia and the IPA. Having cottoned on to the power of hashtags, its members are largely devoted to producing a steady stream #DictatorDan content via a Facebook page that currently has over twenty-nine thousand likes. Their major hit was the #GiveDanTheBoot event, for which sixty thousand people listed themselves as attending, doubtless thanks to some signal boosting from their fellow travelers on Sky News.

As far as we can tell, only a tiny minority of those who clicked “attending” actually participated. VA’s other highlights include pictures of Dan Andrews in front of burning skyscrapers and demonstrably false news about the popularity of the lockdown.

While Edward Bourke has come some way since his 2018 debut on Vice as a precocious Trump-supporting oddball, his record of kicking goals is patchy at best. In 2017 he founded a media outlet called “The Daily Rile.” The site has now been deleted, but its Facebook page remains, a digital monument to the tragic plight of a teenage Tory. Undeterred by failure, there are now dozens of “businesses” with no real-world presence registered under his Australian business number (ABN).

The Big Money Behind Right Populism

Although rampant typos and verbosity suggest Victoria Forward has allocated zero budget expenditure on copywriters or editors, the site itself is a professional production. Although parental largesse cannot be ruled out, it’s just as likely that Liberal Party patricians are investing in the young Master Bourke.

Perhaps they’re hoping to cultivate the next Tim Smith, the MP for Kew who is leading the parliamentary wing of the #DictatorDan brigade and who threw a tantrum in Parliament the other day, after being challenged for reading from preprepared notes, something that goes against the house’s standing rules.

Sadly, the mystery of VA’s funding will not be solved for some time; even if it qualifies as a third-party campaigner under Victorian Electoral Commission guidelines, the group is too new to have appeared on the VEC’s last annual report.

Advance Australia, however, has been around long enough for the Australian Electoral Commission to force open the books. AA received $2,405,143 in the 2018–19 financial year from many of the same big donors as the Liberal Party. The group also recently received a $1 million donation from a former fund manager and investment banker who also threw $280,000 to the Liberal Party in the lead-up to the 2019 federal election. And Advance Australia hasn’t been tight-fisted with their latest windfall; since August, they’ve spent over $33,000 on Facebook advertisements.

Of course, none of this comes as a revelation. Despite the claims of the IPA, Advance Australia and Victoria Forward to bipartisan status, the extensive personal and political connections of their members to the Liberal Party are public knowledge. The most cursory glance reveals an ideological circle-jerk of self-congratulatory billionaires, conservative politicians, and right-wing public intellectuals.

For example, a Sky News interview with Edward Bourke was presented by Peta Credlin, Tony Abbott’s former chief of staff. Sky News is owned by Rupert Murdoch, and Murdoch’s brother-in-law, stockbroker John Calvert-Jones, was a founding member of the Liberal Party’s cash cow, the Cormack Foundation. Calvert-Jones has also served on the board of the IPA.

The IPA’s digital communications manager is James Bolt. His dad, Andrew Bolt, recently brought the IPA’s Gideon Rozner and AA’s Elizabeth Storer together for a chat about Daniel Andrew’s COVID gulag on Murdoch’s Sky News.

To the Right of the Liberals

In line with their international counterparts, Australia’s far-right advocacy groups have condemned Victoria’s lockdown measures in the most sweeping and dramatic terms. Untroubled by the epidemiological or economic arguments for lockdown, and with no interest in articulating grounded criticisms of the Victorian government’s strategy, their message from the get-go was: open up, now!

For all the wunderkind at the helm, VA doesn’t have an alternative strategy. The “health policy” section of the group’s website only offers vague suggestions that Victoria “create new, more expansive plans, and create a dedicated body of a-political experts to regularly review and update them.”

The IPA and Advance Australia don’t offer much more. Two authors with no expertise in epidemiology compiled the IPA’s only detailed coronavirus report. Only three of the report’s fifty pages were devoted to their proposed alternative plan, which was backed by almost no public health evidence. It is light years away from the circumspection and humility with which most epidemiologists approach their own field.

Despite flourishing in the same ecosystem of corporate funding and personal connections, groups like the IPA, Victoria Forward, and Advance Australia aren’t Liberal Party loyalists. They are more accurately thought of as a vanguard force, pushing further to the right than most Liberals dare.

By pushing beyond acceptable opinion to the right, they drag the center with them. This allows garden-variety conservatives in the Liberal party to sell themselves to the public as moderate figures, while advocating for policies that once only flourished on the fringes of the libertarian right.

The IPA’s executive director has made no secret of the fact that his organization pushes the boundaries of political debate in order to make room for politicians to follow. Dominic Kelly’s Political Troglodytes and Economic Lunatics: The Hard Right in Australia shows that this is exactly how Liberal PM John Howard marketed his far-reaching industrial relations reforms as “governing from the center.”

There is division within the Liberal Party about how viciously to attack Andrews’s COVID-19 response. But thanks to the work of these far-right advocacy groups, center-right MPs get to have it both ways, playing respectability politics while the IPA and Advance Australia throw red meat to their base, with rants about Gulag Victoria, the communist dictator Dan Andrews, and the threat posed by multiculturalism (read: nonwhite people) to public health.

Goodbye to the Gilded Youth

In another, perhaps more genteel time, Liberal MPs would have been tripping over blue ribbons in their haste to distance themselves from groups like Victoria Forward. Now, operatives like Bourke roam more widely in the rhetorical territory the IPA has opened up since the mid-noughties, when it started recruiting a cohort of truculent, media-savvy libertarian youths. Leaving behind the cultural sensibilities of the Toorak old money that funded it, the IPA pioneered a new style so nasty that it has lost them major corporate donors.

Although the danger is real, the calculated effort to lever the lockdown for a wider political agenda hasn’t paid off for these groups. Frustration with Victoria’s lockdown might be growing, but Australia has never been a natural home for American-style libertarianism.

Previous far-right scare campaigns, like the confected “African gang crime wave,” have failed to gain traction. Meanwhile, universal, public institutions like Medicare are more popular than ever. And if public opinion has turned against anything, it’s privatization, casual work, and the outsourcing of public services.

Indeed, Edward Bourke might just end up a victim of the merciless political environment he has helped to create. And for all their confected anguish about how teaching schoolchildren about climate science amounts to “child abuse,” the more senior members of the IPA crowd — Andrew Bolt, Chris Kenny, Adam Creighton, etc. — will probably be happy to let this wet-eared teenager end up as collateral damage in their war against Dan Andrews.