There were a number of positives to take from Australia’s recent election: the replacement of a government that was seen as unresponsive to the threat of climate change; women being the driving force of that replacement; the acceleration of a new grassroots political movement that seeks to reshape Australian politics away from the dominance of political parties; and the previous government conceding defeat quickly and respectfully. This final point shouldn’t have to be a positive, but in our present times it is.
Yet elections are always highly complex affairs. Australia may have two dominant political blocs — the Labor Party and the permanent coalition between the Liberal and National parties — but there has always been enough oxygen in the system for other parties to gain support around the edges. The Senate especially, with its unique proportional preferential voting system, has often proved fruitful to additional political parties. The Senate ballot paper is usually a tablecloth of niche and often wild parties as a result.
Looking at votes, rather than seats, can often provide a distinct picture of what ideas have traction in the country. Australia currently has two prominent political parties whose support should be considered a serious social concern — the anti-immigration One Nation Party and the United Australia Party (UAP), the plaything of erratic billionaire Clive Palmer, who uses his wealth to spread misinformation and conspiracy theories.
Together these two parties secured 1.3 million votes in the House of Representatives and 1.1 million votes in the Senate. Although unable to win seats in the lower house, both parties were able to secure a seat each in the Senate. As only half the Senate is up for election every three years, a One Nation senator who was elected in 2019 remains in the chamber, giving the party two seats total.
Supporters of these parties would describe themselves as “conservative.” Yet this is a term that has become highly contested, and it can mean different things to different people. Australian political psychologist Karen Stenner identifies three kinds of conservatism: an inclination to favor stability and preservation of the status quo over change; a preference for free markets and limited government intervention in the economy; and a predisposition toward sameness and obedience.
This third type of conservatism Stenner calls “authoritarianism.” She primarily sees it as a psychological instinct, rather than a political one, and an instinct that exists outside of the traditional left-right spectrum. This psychology can often lay dormant, but can be easily aroused by emotionally confronting shocks, like being overwhelmed by the diversity of multicultural societies, or the pace of economic and social change, or having to adjust one’s routine due to major abnormal events like a pandemic. Parties like One Nation and the UAP rely on exploiting these perceived threats and disruptions through fear-mongering that preys upon people’s anxieties and insecurities.
Yet there is a great complexity in the way these traits exhibit themselves. At present, the obedience authoritarians favor is not understood in terms of following the advice of experts or governments, as people who supported these parties were often actively hostile to public health orders arising from the COVID-19 pandemic. Instead their obedience is to a perception of social norms and hierarchies that should not evolve or be challenged. People with this inclination tend to see modern liberal democratic states as working against these norms and hierarchies.
This can often make these authoritarians less conservative in the traditional sense and more revolutionary – willing to create great disruption and wholesale change in order to reassert a “right order” that they believe they have lost. A reversion to this romanticized order is seen as their idea of “freedom,” not a conventional understanding of liberty, which is often the driver of change. It is, instead, the need to be free from confronting new social realities or major disruptive events. This creates an attraction to political actors who claim they can restore a perceived “right order.”
Australia may have only minor movements that are so inclined, but as witnessed in the United States, there are conditions in Western societies where these feelings can explode and make serious attempts to overthrow the political system. Therefore Australia cannot be complacent about the votes that both One Nation and the UAP attracted, as the country’s internal stability depends on minimizing the support for these radical parties.
This doesn’t mean placating dangerous and often vile worldviews, but it does mean acknowledging that there are a significant number of people — around a third of the public, according to Stenner — who share this authoritarian disposition, and as a result find modern multicultural liberal democratic societies like Australia far too complex to adapt to. Finding ways to help them adjust is a national imperative.