Mining mogul battles anti-Muslim party for Australia fringe vote

In the crucial Australian state of Queensland, Arthur Plate says he’ll turn his back on mainstream politics when he steps into the ballot box later this month. Instead, the retired miner will pick between a pair of right-wing populists.

The major parties have lost touch and are just out to “line their own pockets,” said the 76-year-old, taking refuge from the searing 100-degree Fahrenheit heat in Clermont, a small mining and farming community.

It’s a refrain heard frequently in the district — one of a handful of closely-held constituencies across the northeastern state that Prime Minister Scott Morrison must retain to stop the left-leaning Labor party from ousting his center-right Liberal-National coalition.

The growing tide of support for populist, single-issue parties in Australia has already reshaped the political landscape, dragging both Labor and the coalition further to the right over the past two decades. Voters like Plate could prove decisive in determining the outcome of the May 18 election, and affect the next government’s ability to pass laws, ranging from proposed tax cuts to curbing greenhouse-gas emissions.

“Right-wing populists have taken advantage of major parties’ failure to come up with policies that appeal to white voters on low incomes who aspire to the middle-class but feel they’ve missed out due to negative impacts from globalization and multiculturalism,” said Jo Coghlan, a lecturer at the University of New England and co-author of The Rise of Right-Populism.

Queensland has long been a solid base for Morrison’s coalition, which currently has 21 of the socially conservative state’s 30 seats. But eight of those are held by a margin of less than 4 percent, making them key targets for Labor. The main opposition party is leading in opinion polls and favorite to win office.

But it’s not just a two-way fight between the coalition and Labor. The state is also home to the strongest populist forces in Australian politics — the anti-Muslim immigration party One Nation led by Pauline Hanson, and mining magnate Clive Palmer’s United Australia Party.

If Palmer does win an upper house seat, he’s unlikely to form a voting bloc with One Nation

Hanson and Palmer are both tapping into disaffection among voters who feel left behind despite almost 28 years of uninterrupted economic growth. While recent scandals have seen support for One Nation slip, a Newspoll released on Monday showed support for Palmer’s party more than doubled in the past month to 5 percent.

Adding to the Morrison’s problems is that regional voters are becoming increasingly disenchanted with his junior coalition partner, the Nationals. The rural-based party has been damaged by infighting and disquiet over its support for coal-mining interests on agricultural land.

While Hanson and Palmer are unlikely to win lower house seats, the pair may take spots in the Senate and together with other fringe groups hold the balance of power in the upper house — giving them crucial influence over the legislative agenda.

Populists and single-issue parties have frequently wielded such power in the Senate, with One Nation and other minor parties in August banding together to kill off planned company tax cuts. In February, four independents helped pass a bill against the government’s wishes enabling better medical care for asylum seekers kept offshore.

Hanson, a former fish-and-chip shop owner, rose to prominence in the 1990s with her outspoken attacks on Asian immigration. While she served less than three years in the lower house before her party collapsed, she left an indelible mark on politics as she shaped the immigration debate and dragged both Labor and the coalition to the right.

That’s created bi-partisan support for the nation’s controversial system of transferring asylum seekers arriving by boat to Pacific island camps, with no right to be settled in Australia — a policy opposed by the United Nations and human-rights groups.

The 64-year-old returned to parliament, this time in the Senate, in 2016 and campaigns against Muslim immigration, multiculturalism and free trade. She has another three years before she has to re-contest her seat.

Her party’s brand in this election has been tarnished by revelations One Nation officials last year sought cash donations from the National Rifle Association in the U.S. in exchange for a pledge to help water down Australia’s gun-restriction laws.

Despite winning four upper house seats in 2016, One Nation is now down to two Senate seats due to defections. The party has often under-performed at the ballot box and polls show support may be bleeding away to Palmer’s United Australia Party.

Palmer, 65, is self-funding a $30 million advertising blitz for his party. Hundreds of yellow “Make Australia Great” billboards have popped up across the country, while advertisements have flooded television screens. His thinly articulated manifesto includes cutting taxes and warning that the Chinese government plans a “clandestine takeover of our country.”

“Right-wing populists have taken advantage of major parties’ failure to come up with policies that appeal to white voters on low incomes who aspire to the middle-class but feel they’ve missed out due to negative impacts from globalization and multiculturalism”

Like Hanson, his first foray into politics imploded. He served just one term in the lower house from 2013 to 2016, and two of his three senators in the then Palmer United Party defected. He’s also now embroiled in legal action brought by the government over the collapse of his Queensland Nickel project that left hundreds of workers unpaid.

Nevertheless, Palmer is gaining enough traction for Morrison to take him seriously. The billionaire announced a deal this week that will see the coalition and United Australia back each other’s candidates on how-to-vote cards. That could prove decisive if Morrison continues to close the gap with Labor. The deal may also help catapult Palmer into the Senate.

Australia’s upper house was branded the home of “unrepresentative swill” in 1992 by then-Prime Minister Paul Keating. The most notorious recent example of a fringe populist winning a Senate seat is Fraser Anning, an independent who defected from One Nation. He’s riled mainstream lawmakers by claiming he wants a “final solution” to Australia’s “immigration problem” and blaming New Zealand’s mosque massacre on the nation’s intake of “Muslim fanatics.” Polls show he’s unlikely to retain his Senate seat this month.

If Palmer does win an upper house seat, he’s unlikely to form a voting bloc with One Nation. He and Hanson have often criticized each others’ policies and personalities.

Compared with the populist sentiment that swept Donald Trump to power in the U.S. or delivered the Brexit referendum in the U.K., the power of fringe parties remains muted in Australia by a lack of organizational skill and competence, according to University of New England’s Coghlan.

But their influence remains pervasive.

“The faces in right-wing populism may come and go,” she said. “But the changes they’ve made to Australia’s social agenda seems permanent.”

 (By Jason Scott)