Post-2016: Trump, Brexit and Hanson do not belong together

A new trope has emerged in the Australian media. ‘Something something, out of touch, post-something post-something, Trump, Brexit, Hanson’.

The most confronting example I’ve seen to date was back in November when the headline editors at the Guardian asked “First Brexit, now Trump: can Australia be spared a similar voter backlash?” Spared? And while Lenore Taylor provided one of the more readable takes in this new genre, she was unable to shake the self-doubt from such a stultifying headline. The Trump-Brexit-Hanson narrative within Australian political journalism, occupying a grey area somewhere amongst opinion, analysis and news, has exploded over the past eight weeks. There are already 24,500 results for “Trump Brexit Hanson” in Google News. Combining these three words as the foundation stone for content has become a crutch spanning the political spectrum and outgrowing any one type of social network. Take your pick:

Warren Mundine (Daily Telegraph)

Trump, Brexit and One Nation’s resurgence deliver two key lessons.

First, politicians who speak directly to voters about what voters care about can prevail, regardless of the media and commentariat.

Second, if centrists are unwilling or afraid to embrace commonsense views, voters will turn to extremists and populists, however offensive.

David Lipson (ABC)

The election of Donald Trump and Britain’s exit from the European Union are the hallmarks of a tectonic shift in Western politics, fuelled by rural and regional revolt. As a consequence, the long-forgotten people in the regions of Australia are now at the forefront of every politician’s mind.

Jennifer Hewitt (AFR)

For all the surprise in Australia about the election of Donald Trump, for example, he says the complete disdain and disgruntlement among swinging voters towards establishment politicians here is not that different to the US or to the sentiment that drove Brexit in the UK.

James Massola (SMH)

In the election of Donald Trump, the triumph of the Brexit campaign and, in Australia, the election of four Pauline Hanson One Nation senators, three Nick Xenophon senators and a phalanx of disparate crossbenchers, voters have sent a clear message: “the system is not working for us, and we are dissatisfied with our elected representatives”.


My festive hot take is here in Australia, we shouldn’t lump Hanson in with Brexit and Trump.

Anyone who is concerned about Pauline Hanson should be aware of where her support comes from and what this may say about the political and social landscape of Australia. The people who voted for Hanson are not chumps or dullards and deserve their say as much as everyone else. Combine this with the journalistic imperative to find a way to explain complicated stories confined by tight word limits and the rationale for why journalists lump together Trump, Brexit and Hanson becomes clear. Everyone knows Trump, most people know Brexit and Hanson is a divisive figure with a long history in Australian politics. We also need to know about how Hanson is shaping the debate and what this may mean for the future.

But before the end of 2016 and as a primer for your Christmas day dinner conversation, I urge anyone thinking Trump, Brexit and Hanson are even somewhat equivalent to reconsider. When your uncle repeats some version of the accepted wisdom derived from the above quotes, you can counter with the following. Grouping them together is dangerous, misplaced and bestows an additional sense of undeserved legitimacy on Hanson. It’s also wrong. Removing this crutch from Australian political analysis in 2017 would be a welcome addition to the media landscape. Early 2017 will mark a test as the legitimacy for Hanson will grow with the inevitable One Nation gains at the Western Australian state election coinciding around the same time with Article 50 for Brexit and Trump becoming President. Luckily for you, there is ample evidence demonstrating why Hanson is a disparate political movement compared to Trump and Brexit.

The first exhibit is straightforward: examine overall support. Over 95 per cent of Australians did not vote for Hanson while about half of all American and British voters selected Trump and Brexit respectively (of course noting Clinton’s victory in the popular vote). Much more should be made of this and even if the Hanson vote increases to one in ten or one in five nationally, which would represent stark political failure by the major parties, there would remain a deep gulf in terms of comparative voting outcomes. Why does Hanson get the benefit of the doubt from less than five per cent of the national vote and a few profile stories of One Nation voters? Compared to Trump and Brexit, she failed miserably.

Trump was able to attract ~40 per cent of the GOP primary vote on a platform containing not much more than anti-migrant rhetoric. This transformed into a broader coalition at the general election. He captured one of two party institutions in the United States with little resistance. Brexit attracted a majority – more than one in every two votes – in a high-turnout U.K. election. In contrast, Hanson attracted 1.8 per cent of the primary vote in the House of Representatives and 4.3 per cent of the primary vote in the Senate. She peaked at 9.2 per cent of the Senate vote in Queensland. The comparative figures are stark yet always overlooked when explaining the link between the three political movements. Trump co-opted a mainstream political institution in the GOP and Brexit was a take it or leave it option. One Nation is neither of these. Instead it is a renegade party akin to UKIP in the United Kingdom but without the opportunity of an up or down referendum of generational importance. As will occur in the future, One Nation was forced to compete in a crowded field of candidates across the country and the overall level of support Hanson attracted can help explain an important yet relatively small story about the political landscape in Australia.

This leads into a second factor behind these political forces, the motivation for support of Trump and Brexit compared to Hanson. Concern about immigration was a primary consideration in the success of Trump and Brexit. Trump’s GOP primary success was catalysed by disparaging remarks about Mexican and Muslim migrants. This was not a factor to explain his early success, it was the factor. GOP stalwarts from Jeb Bush, to Marco Rubio and even Rick Perry in the 2012 cycle, were undone by their support of various migration initiatives to address the 10m+ undocumented migrants in the United States. Trump was ruthless on this and while the reasons for his victory in the Presidential election are more varied than concern about migration – partisanship, a lack of GOP dissent, Hillary Clinton – migration cut the track for future success. Brexit was similar except with an inverse timeline. As the proponents of Brexit hammered away over months on a mishmash of messaging, eventually they figured out nothing had the potency of anti-migrant rhetoric. In the fortnight leading up to the June vote, Nigel Farage and other pro-Brexit campaigners focused almost exclusively on immigration, feeding the beast. Google Trends shows a doubling of search interest in ‘immigration’ in the week of the Brexit vote. This anecdotal evidence is supported by more thorough empirical research linking migration to Trump and Brexit, from people like Matthew Goodwin and Eric Kaufmann. I’m particularly convinced by the link towards more negative attitudes on migration and fast-changing levels of migration, feeding into support for overtly anti-migrant rhetoric. This deep dive at Vox on race and immigration in the context of Brexit and Trump has much more.

Now turn to the Australian context behind these factors of support in the United Kingdom and the United States. A full 28 per cent of Australians were born overseas (a slightly lower proportion of electorates are born overseas). The increase has occurred in conjunction with the 25+ years of economic growth. Clearly there has been large disparities in the growth of the migrant population if you start breaking down Australia into small chunks but overall, the picture is constant growth off an already high proportion of migrants in the population. The United Kingdom and the United States, at 14 per cent and 13 per cent respectively, have about half the proportion of migrants yet they have increased their share at a much faster comparative rate than Australia over the last 15 years as they came off a lower base of migrants. And while you can construct an equation where Hanson’s supporters look at least somewhat comparable to Trump and Brexit supporters, there are proportionally fewer of them in any relative sense. Urban? Education? Inequality? Migrant? In every single Australian comparison of similar cohorts, the political advantage lies more with the ‘establishment’ than the ‘outsider’ compared to the United Kingdom and United States.

A high migrant population does not provide an automatic barrier to political success of anti-migrant parties. But it does make it substantially more difficult, especially for forming government as marginal seats in capital cities counter balance the appeal in outer-suburban and regional electorates. A party of government must consider this at all times as opposed to a party of protest in an Australian electoral system which isn’t winner takes all. Hanson’s re-election attempt in 1998 is the best example of this. Even with the most primary votes, she lost on preferences as the Coalition pushed Labor over the line. It’s also worth considering why specific anti-migrant parties have failed in (modern) Australia. Recent evidence includes the disastrous performance of Reclaim Australia and the Australia First Party at the 2013 election despite significant media attention. Even non-racist anti-migration parties like Sustainable Population Australia have failed to carve out any presence on the national level. Their litter of Senate candidates over multiple election cycles hasn’t generated attention or more than a handful of votes. I’m not arguing we have moved past the ability of anti-migrant parties to establish themselves or the capacity of politicians to implement anti-migrant policies. Instead the size of the challenge should be noted and every profile of a Hanson voter should place their attitude in a broader context. The Scanlon Foundation Social Cohesion survey this year found historically high support for the current level of immigration, even though a large majority of voters have no idea what the actual rate is. These perceptions mean at a national level, Hanson has a much more difficult environment to grow her support into something resembling a permanent electoral fixture, equivalent to Trump and Brexit.

As Lenore Taylor wrote in her article referenced at the top of this blogpost, Australia is different in a number of other ways as well. Inequality is more muted. Electoral participation is mandatory. Growth did not flatline after the GFC and unemployment never spiked. Hanson is probably here to stay for quite sometime but this does not mean she is equivalent to generational electoral events elsewhere or a new trend where migrants are unwelcome in Australia. I’m extremely wary of One Nation’s future electoral success at the State level as well as her ability to shape the political agenda and other political actors. Her platform in the Senate must not be ignored or normalised. But before we frame political stories in 2017 through the lens of Trump, Brexit and Hanson, reconsider the basics here in Australia and stop lumping them all together.

8 thoughts on “Post-2016: Trump, Brexit and Hanson do not belong together

  1. The Australian parallel to Trump and Brexit is not Hanson, it’s Tony Abbott. Abbott sowed discontent with ‘political correctness’ and namby-pamby policy programs which the media couldn’t understand and preferred to write about polls anyway. They did, however, give him lots of free air time and didn’t demand he justify his poses positions. Abbott won more than half the vote in 2013. Because he went unchallenged so often over so much, journalists convinced themselves Abbott was a force of nature who would achieve a lot as PM.

    The downfall of Abbott, where he made a lot of headlines but achieved very little, gives hope to opponents of Trump and Brexit. The fact that the media, played by Trump and the Brexiteers, can’t face up to their role in talking up a government that was never up to the job, and have all put Hanson in the role properly belonging to Abbott, shows an intellectual poverty among Australia’s political journalists that precludes their ability to explain complex, fast-moving political machinations and outcomes.

    1. Hi Andrew – thanks for your comment, much appreciated. I’ve read your blog irregularly and know your position on the press gallery. Perhaps it was my experience working in the APS and at Parliament House making me part of the bubble but I don’t envy the position journalists are in, particularly those in the press gallery. The pressure to produce content which both explains the news and generates clicks/subscriptions is intense and unrelenting. You either comply or jump off the ship. That said, I agree explaining complexity is often at the core of these conversations and it needs to be taken more seriously in a context of making profit in new media. Journalists shouldn’t be the focus on these conversations but editors and ownership. Unfortunately in Australia I don’t see much evidence of this, with a near-exclusive focus on the short and medium term, often driven by journalists themselves (at least the public facing component of the conversation). That’s one reason I see for someone like myself to keep a blog about a niche topic like Australian migration policy/politics as hopefully I can provide a perspective that doesn’t get the opportunity to be produced elsewhere.

      I don’t think there is much hope for supporters of the EU in Britain. Even without achieving anything, PM May and her Cabinet do not look capable of steering through this without making an almighty hash of it. Corbyn’s inability to articulate a clear immigration policy through the lens of the EU is also damning. Trump is a different matter and the mid-term elections in 2018 will drive political behaviour sooner in the political cycle than ever before. It’ll be fascinating to see what type of opposition emerges and who it centres around in the meantime.

  2. “Over 95 per cent of Australians did not vote for Hanson while about half of all American and British voters selected Trump and Brexit”
    Henry, this is not correct: Only 26% of eligible voters voted for Trump and 37% for Brexit. While compulsory voting in Oz had 91% voter turnout in the last election making One Nation’s 5% firm.

    1. Hi Owen – thanks for your comment. I did think about that which is why I said ‘half of all American and British voters’ instead of ‘half of all American and British people’. But democracy only counts the people who show up so I think what I wrote is a valid representation of what occurred in both the U.S. and the U.K. Cheers, Henry

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