Peter Dutton may not be popular with the public, but that does not mean the issues he champions are not resonating. (ABC News: Matthew Abbott)
For a few days this week, Australians seriously reckoned with the idea of Peter Dutton as prime minister.
Just three more party room votes and he would have been in the Lodge.
Opinion polls show he may not be popular with the public, but that does not mean the issues he champions are not resonating.
He built his campaign around what he and others have identified as a change in Australian politics; it is a shift that aligns with the ideological battles that have so profoundly reshaped global politics.
Internationally, people are reclaiming the idea of national identity; there is a blowback against globalisation; a rejection of political elites and politics-as-usual; immigration, free trade, energy policy have become defining issues.
Politics is becoming increasingly polarised and fractured.
It is disrupting democracies, redefining ideological boundaries; trade barriers have gone back up, borders have been strengthened.
Populism has brought back extremism
Populism and the politics of identity have given cover to ugly strains of extremism and xenophobia the world thought it had banished forever.
Freedom House, the organisation that measures the growth of political freedom, says democracy is in retreat.
Its report, Freedom in the World 2015 — Discarding Democracy: the Return of the Iron Fist, found a resurgence of strongman autocratic leaders, an erosion of civil liberties and rule of law.
Freedom House concluded democracy was “under greater threat than at any point in the last 25 years”.
Since then, two more events have shaken global politics: Brexit and the Trump presidency.
British journalist and political observer David Goodhart has written that the two events have marked, “not so much the arrival of the populist era but its coming of age”.
Mr Goodhart does not see populism as the enemy of democracy, but in many ways its essence.
Those left behind are now being heard after too long being ignored by the so-called left progressives, and their belief in open borders and free trade.
Hillary Clinton called them “the deplorables”; this is the deplorables’ revenge.
Goodhart says we are seeing a “core values divide”.
As Goodhart puts it: “We are in a border war between nationalists, mainly on the right, and multicultural globalists mainly on the left.”
This border war has reignited old ideological battles. In his new book, Conservatism: An Invitation to the Great Tradition, philosopher Roger Scruton writes:
“Issues that were for years undiscussable have appeared at the top of the agenda, and demographic and strategic changes have redrawn the map of the world.
“We should not be surprised if people previously unimaginable as the holders of high office suddenly emerge at the top.”
Mr Scruton is a conservative and argues conservatives need to be clearer about their beliefs and political goals.
The civil war goes on
This is the environment Peter Dutton and his supporters have sought to capitalise on.
Questions of climate change, energy policy, immigration, freedom of speech and religion have been weaponised in an ideological battle to win back the soul of the Liberal Party, to reclaim it for its conservative base.
Mr Dutton was seen as a leader who could drag back the disaffected Liberal voters who have defected to Pauline Hanson’s One Nation.
Outgoing prime minister Malcolm Turnbull called this an insurgency.
Scott Morrison’s triumph though only reveals the extent of this Liberal Party civil war: we know where the battle lines are drawn and where the troops are positioned.
Australia is a shining light
Can Australia withstand the tide of political history that has swamped much of Europe and the United States?
Overall, our democracy is strong: the Economist Intelligence Unit’s Global Democracy Index has placed Australia in the top 10 for the past decade.
We are one of the shining lights in a pall of gloom. Compulsory voting is a critical factor in our favour; it inoculates us against some of the voter apathy or extremism of other countries.
Despite recent concerns about integration and immigration levels, we don’t have the deep concentrated ethnic divides of the United States or Europe.
We escaped the worst of the global financial crisis and we are far from the conflict hotspots of the world. Our social safety net offers support to our most vulnerable and disadvantaged.
But, there are worrying signs. The public is increasingly fed up with politicians, especially the two major parties. At the 2016 federal election, up to a third of voters rejected the ALP or the Liberal-National coalition.
Opinion polls indicate nothing has changed. Australians know the power of their vote and are prepared to brutally wield it. At state and federal levels there is increased volatility rewarding more minor parties and independents. Voters have shown themselves especially keen on shaking up the Senate.
Perhaps more worrying are signs of a widening gap between rich and poor.
According to the International Monetary Fund, we are among the nations with the fastest growing rates of income inequality.
Last year, the OECD economic survey of Australia found “inclusiveness has been eroded”. The earnings of the top households grew by more than 40 per cent between 2004 and 2014: the lowest by 25 per cent.
Around the world, this has proved fertile ground for political extremism, and the worst of populism.
We are also becoming more distrustful and angry. The Edelman research and PR group’s 2017 Trust Barometer showed Australia was among those countries losing faith in institutions.
Peter Dutton’s leadership ambitions have been thwarted, but the issues that have fired his campaign remain.
Australians are not easily given to extremism, pollsters constantly remind us we are a nation of centrists.
But we are not immune to the winds of politics blowing through our world.
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