Australia’s Conservatives Are Cynically Courting the Far Right — and It’s Starting to Backfire

Just as John Howard pitched to the right to attract One Nation voters, Australia’s Scott Morrison is cravenly trying to win over far-right voters today. The danger is that the tactic will backfire, fracturing the Coalition and encouraging a far-right movement.

Scott Morrison in Perth, Australia after a speech to the Western Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry on March 16, 2022. (Matt Jelonek / Getty Images)

Throughout the pandemic, the Liberal and National Parties stepped up their appeals to political forces associated with the Australian and US far right. It’s a cynical strategy with numerous precedents in the history of the Australian center-right, which has long competed with the far-right for electoral space.

However, this orientation was about more than simply chasing votes. It also revealed a shift taking place within the Coalition parties themselves. Attempting to relate to the far right has, over time, pulled the Liberal and National Parties further to the right. And at the same time, these efforts have helped to normalize far-right politics and build its appeal among parts of the center-right’s constituency.

Dog Whistling to Trumpian Anti-Vaxxers

In late 2021, the anti-lockdown and anti-vaccination movement was growing in size and militancy. Increasingly, these protests often featured openly violent rhetoric toward Australian Labor Party (ALP) state premiers. Far from condemning the anti-vaccine, anti-lockdown movement, even when issuing mild criticisms, Prime Minister Scott Morrison was at pains to express his sympathy with the protesters. For example when protesters a carried mock gallows with a picture of Victorian premier Daniel Andrews, rather than condemn the protest, Morrison was careful to note that “of course, there are many people who are feeling frustrated.”

In January and February this year, right-wing protesters in Canberra attempted to set fire to the front doors of the old parliament house and hijack the fifty-year celebration of the Aboriginal Tent Embassy. In response, Morrison stated that “Australia is a free country and they have a right to protest.” Unsurprisingly, federal parliamentarians soon found themselves on the receiving end of similar abuse. Despite this, some Liberal and National MPs from state and federal parliaments not only promoted these protests, but spoke at them.

This kind of positioning is entirely consistent with the Coalition’s efforts to covertly court hard-right movements. Since 2016, this has meant appealing to Australian supporters of Donald Trump. However, the strategy stretches back at least to John Howard’s government, which sought to corral the political base mobilized by Pauline Hanson and One Nation in the 1990s.

John Howard’s One Nation

The Liberals’ lurch to the far right is a development set in train during the Howard era. The Liberal Party had historically sought to appeal to a “broad church” of voters ranging from “small-l-liberal” to hard-right, and primarily unified around both fiscal conservatism and hostility to the ALP.

This began to shift during the 1996 federal election campaign, when then Liberal candidate Pauline Hanson entered the scene as a popular figure distinguished for her openly racist positions. Consequently, the Liberals withdrew formal support for her candidacy. Despite this, Hanson went on to win the seat of Oxley, in Brisbane’s outer suburbs.

Hanson’s first speech to parliament included a slew of racist tropes about Indigenous peoples and Asians, and condemned immigration and multiculturalism. Assisted by substantial media coverage, Hanson shot to national prominence and soon launched her own party, One Nation. Enticed by the prospect of electoral success, sections of the hard right flocked to Hanson’s banner, including Australians Against Further Immigration, the Australian League of Rights, and the Australia First Party. Having built a viable electoral force, within a few years, Hanson purged key supporters of these parties, consolidating her grip over One Nation.

From there, the wins started to pile up, and in 1998, One Nation secured eleven seats in the Queensland state election, gaining 22.68 percent of the vote. In 2001, the party received 9.98 percent of the vote in the Western Australian state elections, winning three upper house seats and the balance of power. In many cases, however, these results proved short-lived as One Nation MPs often broke with the party shortly after being elected.

Although media coverage usually focused on One Nation’s racism, the party held considerable appeal to many, especially in rural areas which had been left behind by neoliberalism. Given the ALP and Liberals were both responsible for key neoliberal reforms, including waves of privatization, austerity, and deregulation, One Nation’s right-wing economic populism resonated with many.

To neutralize this right-wing competitor and sure up the Coalition’s voting base, John Howard aligned a number of Liberal Party policies, most notably on immigration, with those of One Nation. At the time, Hanson complained with some justification that the Liberals were stealing her party’s policies.

In the 1998 federal election, Hanson lost her seat as One Nation’s vote dropped to 5 percent. It would be wrong to fully attribute this decline to Howard’s rightward shift: a redivision of Hanson’s electorate effectively split Oxley in half, while One Nation suffered as other major parties directed preferences away from it. It is beyond doubt, however, that thousands of One Nation voters found a new, welcoming home in the Coalition parties. During the 2000s, One Nation’s vote in the senate declined from six hundred thousand votes in 2001 to fifty-two thousand votes in 2007.

Shifting to the Right

When center-right parties absorb the voting base of far-right parties, it can, in the short term, deny far-right parties a place in parliament. However, this comes at a price. As has been seen in many countries, tacking right on immigration and social issues, mainstream conservative parties have normalized the far right.

Indeed, Howard’s shift to the Right was not simply a response to One Nation’s rapid rise. The Liberal Party — particularly its parliamentary caucus — had been wanting to move that way for some time. This was partly internally driven, in particular by individual Liberal Party figures trained by right-wing, neoliberal think tanks such as the Institute of Public Affairs and HR Nicholls Society.

At the same time, right-wing Christian churches and lobby groups have actively sought influence in the Liberal and National Parties, by offering up campaign donations and running supporters in preselection contests. Although Australia has become more irreligious than ever, a disproportionate number of Coalition MPs claim a Christian foundation for their political views, a pattern that is reflected to a lesser extent in the ALP.

As a consequence of this shift in the composition of the Coalition’s parliamentary caucus, the Liberal and National Parties’ view of their own constituency has also shifted. In 2018, when the Liberal Party ousted Malcolm Turnbull in favor of Morrison, party leaders justified their decision on the basis that it would facilitate policy change and mobilize the party’s base.

A Double-Edged Sword

In light of this history, there is little new about the Coalition’s attempt to coral and appeal to anti-vaccination and anti-lockdown forces. Thanks to the Liberal and National Parties’ shift to the Right, the reality is that today, many Coalition MPs feel at home among a violent and rhetorically insurgent far right. Indeed, the Coalition’s positioning during the pandemic encouraged this, even if it was pragmatically motivated by a desire to pressure ALP state governments to drop the public health measures they saw as an impediment to profit-making. Perhaps worst of all, in addition to normalizing far-right politics, this strategy risks encouraging the growth of an actual fascist movement.

Yet the Coalition’s tried and true strategy may be beginning to backfire. By appealing to a hard-right minority, the Coalition is alienating other, more moderate and respectable parts of their traditional constituency, at least temporarily.

There is also a precedent for this in the Howard years. In 2007, Howard became the first prime minister in Australian history to lose his own seat, Bennelong. Although the union-led Your Rights at Work campaign was the main factor behind Labor’s victory, a major cause for Howard’s loss was the defection of a portion of the Liberals’ more socially progressive support base defected to Labor, over the issue of Australia’s notoriously cruel refugee policy.

A similar trend is now playing out in several Coalition seats across the country, where independent candidates who would normally stand for the Liberal or National Parties are contesting, often with strong prospects. The most notable of these is former ABC journalist Zoe Daniel, who is challenging Tim Wilson in Goldstein. Other independents are former MPs contesting historically safe Coalition seats.

Most previous challenges like this have been unsuccessful. However, in the last two elections, the seat of Indi — centered around Wodonga in northern Victoria — has returned an independent instead of a Liberal. The Sydney north shore seats of Wentworth and Warringah have also both returned independent candidates: Warringah in the 2019 federal election, and Wentworth in a subsequent by-election.

In 2022, the Liberals face serious challenges in at least thirty usually safe seats. This is in part resourced by Climate 200, a campaign fund established by Simon Holmes à Court, the eldest son of Australia’s first billionaire, to support independent candidates committed to greater action on climate change. Many independents are also criticizing Morrison’s handling of the parliamentary sexual abuse scandal and adding their support behind calls for an integrity commission with jurisdiction over the Commonwealth parliament.

At the same time, growing numbers of Coalition MPs are willing to break ranks in parliament. When the Morrison government attempted to pass its Religious Discrimination Bill, five coalition MPs voted against it.

Independent Liberals and Anti-Vaxxers

It should be stressed that these independent challengers are often cut from very similar political cloth to their Liberal Party rivals. What’s more, the Coalition is unlikely to lose more than a few seats in these particular contests in May. Nonetheless, the independents’ contest should be welcomed as a potential breakdown in the Liberal and National Parties’ historic social bloc.

As the Coalition confronts the increasingly likely possibility that it will lose the May election, the Right is increasingly desperate to delegitimize the emerging centrist independents. Liberal Party federal director Andrew Hirst recently warned supporters that these “faux independents” might help deliver a Labor government. Earlier this year, Liberal MP Tim Wilson urged supporters to turn in their neighbors for displaying campaign signs supporting Zoe Daniel prior to the election being called. As a result, some have received fines.

At the same time, the Liberals and Nationals are attempting to secure their right flank against competitors, primarily the United Australia Party (UAP). Previously, the UAP, as well as its precursors, helped the Coalition by directing preferences toward them. Now, having positioned itself as the voice of the anti-vaccination movement, the UAP is promising to direct its preferences against all sitting members of parliament.

Thanks to campaign financing from mining magnate Clive Palmer that dwarfs the amount spent by other parties, this may result in real damage to the Coalition. Consequently, members of the Liberal and National Party right factions have sought to position themselves as key opponents of vaccination, lockdowns, and public health orders in general. The most notable figures in this effort are Liberal senator Gerard Rennick, Liberal National Party (LNP) MP George Christensen, and LNP senator Matt Canavan.

Of course, the Left has cause to celebrate if the Coalition fractures. However, the danger is that this time, the far right won’t be absorbed by the Coalition. Instead, in the aftermath of a Morrison defeat, the far right may well be strengthened by defectors and encouraged by the newfound legitimacy they bring.