With the (admittedly very large) exception of Brazil, it hasn’t been a good few months electorally for the authoritarian right wing, or the political tendency that we now neatly encapsulate as “Trumpist”. And the story was the same on Saturday in Victoria.
The state’s Labor government, running against an opposition that had tacked rightward with a race-baiting campaign on crime and immigration, was re-elected with a swing of about five per cent in its favor – much more than the polls had predicted – and a gain of at least seven seats from the Liberals.
Let’s be clear; the Victorian Liberal Party is not a fascist party or anything like one. But it has spent the last four years – and, off and on, the last thirty – chipping away at some of the vital buttresses that support democracy.
It shouldn’t be controversial to say that Donald Trump is not a popular figure in Australia. But since the beginning of last year, a powerful current within the Liberal Party has been bent on emulating him. Malcolm Turnbull failed to stand up to them, a failure that ultimately cost him his job.
Even in Victoria, by most measures the most progressive state, the Trumpists have gained ground. Liberal state president Michael Kroger has protected the religious fundamentalists who have been taking over party branches, and earlier this year he lobbied openly for hard-right authoritarian Peter Dutton for the federal leadership.
State leader Matthew Guy, with the party fracturing under him and no real power base of his own, has accepted the Trumpist turn. It’s no coincidence that he campaigned on Saturday on the Brexit-like slogan “Get back in control.”
Back in the 1990s, Liberal politicians often ran unsuccessfully on “law and order” policies that they had imported wholesale from the United States, without realising that in that country they drew on a racial context that Australia lacked. Guy’s Liberals learned from that mistake, and grafted onto their crime policy an explicit racial subtext about “African gangs”.
It still didn’t work. Middle class voters didn’t buy racial scaremongering, or the other fundamentalist-inspired policies that Guy promoted.
It worked particularly badly in the Liberal heartland, the affluent inner-eastern suburbs of Melbourne. The most well-established Liberal seats swung savagely to Labor: 6.9% in Brighton, 8.6% in Hawthorn, 10.4% in Malvern, 6.4% in Sandringham.* Even many Liberals who would once have been regarded as right-wing are appalled by the party’s current condition.
Here’s how John Quiggin put it yesterday:
It’s only one election, but it’s one of a number, notably including the recent US midterms, where the supposed irresistible force of rightwing identity politics has proved to be not so irresistible after all. It’s too early to start cheering, but it now looks possible that, in a few years time, the whole rightwing upsurge will prove to have been the final spasm of the losing side in the culture wars. The question then will be how to build a better world from the mess we will inherit.
The Liberal Party is now poised to tear itself apart in recriminations. Former premier Jeff Kennett was among the first on Saturday night to call for Kroger’s resignation – somewhat ironically, since (despite occasional attempts to reinvent himself as a liberal) Kennett in his day was the original proto-Trump.
A lesson of history that we forget at our peril is that one of the absolutely critical defences against fascism is a strong centre-right party anchored in the mainstream and committed, at least broadly speaking, to the values of liberal democracy. The Victorian Liberals need urgent reform if they are to play that role.
* These numbers are all provisional, since counting is still continuing; I’ll do a follow-up post this week when final figures can be analysed.