Moving to Australia as a progressive in 2016: authoritarianism

This article is part of a short series on one person’s perspective on what people might want to know before considering immigrating to Australia as a person with progressive politics, in 2016.

Someone I discussed this series with said that what they were really looking for was an answer to the question (extremely paraphrased) “which country would let me in, would be physically safe, and has the least chance of being governed by fascists?”

If I could answer it I’d be a much better person in the world, more likely to leave it in a better place than I found it. I’m sorry.

Something I’ve been thinking on, from John Quiggin, Australian Research Council Federation Fellow, University of Queensland, in There’s a lot of ruin in a country:

The political reality, however, is that the initiative is with the other side, not only in the US, but in the UK, Australia and much of Europe. The collapse of neoliberalism as a dominant ideology (though not yet as a policy reality), has so far favored the tribalist right rather than the still disorganised left. The tribalists now have the chance to prove that their policies can work, or be perceived to work. If Trump can create and sustain an illusion of restored national greatness, as Putin has done (so far) in Russia, it won’t matter much what the Democrats do. The same will be true in Britain if Brexit can be made to work, or at least be seen to work.

At the same time I don’t want to fall into a false equivalence; I personally am glad to be a resident of Australia right now rather than of the US, and if I was, as I’ve considered becoming several times, an immigrant worker in the US, I would be at least evaluating and if possible maintaining my ability to move back at short notice. But…

I feel like there’s two questions: how likely is Australia to maintain its current social democracy? and is there any just political system robust against authoritarianism for the next 50–100 years?

I can grab at a few things in the fog on the first question only. So here we are, I’ll give you what I have on authoritarianism and Australian social democracy in all its imperfect and awful reality. It is crumbs. My faith in Australia’s ability to keep its authoritarianism from getting worse in the face of global trends is not high (but I cannot easily think of any other country I think is definitely better placed, I think we all must beware). I hope I can give people with better instincts than me some starting points for their research.

One thing I wasn’t able to assign to a bin here was the way human rights law works in Australia. Here’s how the government itself puts it:

In Australia, human rights are protected in different ways. Unlike most similar liberal democracies, Australia has no Bill of Rights to protect human rights in a single document.

Rather rights may be found in the Constitution, common law and legislation – Acts passed by the Commonwealth Parliament or State or Territory Parliaments.

I’m genuinely unclear which is likely to survive longer: one document, or a bundle of legal traditions.

Likewise, income inequality is markedly lower than in the US or the UK, but is above the OECD average and is getting worse. Here’s a report by the Australian Council of Social Service in 2015.

Positive signs

There isn’t an Australian Federal election due until, at the earliest, August 2018, absent special circumstances (which admittedly aren’t that hard to create, even without anything extra-constitutional going on), and perhaps not until early 2019. This isn’t at all entirely good news — I’m thinking about continued abuse of asylum seekers for example — but the direction and harm caused by the Republican Trump presidency in the US and the Conservative May government in the UK will be clearer by then, and there may be time for increasingly organised ideological opposition to play a role here and for facts on the ground in the US and UK to be incorporated into the campaigns and policies.

Australia is very able, both constitutionally, and in practice, to change Prime Ministers. This has been something of a joke nationally and internationally recently, but does suggest we’re not immediately ideally set up for a charismatic authoritarian strong man to get established free of any pending election or partyroom overthrow.

Australia does not have anything like as strong a union movement as it did in the 20th century, but it is strong enough that it still has significant party-political power in the Australian Labor Party (one of the two majors), and also made a major contribution to an ALP electoral victory comparitively recently.

Australia is a low population country that has never been a singular world leader economically, politically, culturally. We are not a humbled superpower. We have not been defeated in a recent war, suffered a recent economic reversal of fortunes, or had significant loss of territory recently. We were in an empire, its privileged and beloved and spoiled children, but we didn’t run the empire.

We were fairly recently presented with a policy package that represented a significant dismantling of our public infrastructure in health and education, and it was deeply unpopular and could not be implemented by the government. Significant parts of our public spending enjoy widespread support.

Negative signs

We demonise and abuse outsiders, presently asylum seekers and Muslims among others. Our politicians have actively created outgroups and nurtured xenophobic sentiments for political gain. It worked. So they’ll do it again, and probably better.

Individual politicians with structural power, either powerful partyroom members of the (conservative) Federal government or people holding some of the balance of the power in the Federal Senate, were pleased with Donald Trump’s policy platform and were either openly pleased he was elected or signalled their alignment with voters who embraced his platform.. Have some names: Tony Abbott (who was Prime Minister 2013–2015, and who is widely understood to be planning to be so again), Cory Bernardi, Pauline Hanson. Here’s one article for you. (If you’d like to learn more about the electoral popularity of various political parties in one place, I think the 2016 Federal Senate votes would be the first place I’d look.)

There are plenty of people left out of Australia’s economic success and who don’t see themselves portrayed in our national picture of what is good about Australia. And per the last entry, I think we’re at serious risk of the first economic downturn in a generation, and everyone holding more tightly to anything that promises they can keep what they have, or get back what they lost.

Rupert Murdoch was born in Australia and lived here until he was in his forties (he’s now a US citizen and forfeited Australian citizenship), News Corp was founded here and the Australian arm is one of our largest media companies. We do not have a direct equivalent of Fox News, but Murdoch is actively interested in Australian politics and involved to the point of being a kingmaker, both because of his outlets’ editorialising, and through direct regular contact with senior Australian politicians.

Australian Prime Ministerial changes have largely been brought about by party anxiety about medium-term polling of said Prime Minister (particularly in the case where they are also personally disliked by their party colleagues, which has apparently been true of several recent PMs). The kind of charismatic authoritarian strong men we worry about would be popular with the public pretty much by definition and if he (or perhaps she or they, but less likely) had decent partyroom skills, I don’t see any particular reason why he’d necessarily join the rotating line of recent PMs.

Speaking of which, my impression is that polling still seems to work in Australia in a way that wasn’t true of this US presidential election or of the last UK parliamentary election or the Brexit referendum. It may stop working someday soon, perhaps leaving people misled about the popularity of an authoritarian politician or a damaging change to the constitution in the same way as happened in the US and UK. (Australia is one of comparitively few countries where voting is compulsory, whether this makes our polling more robust I don’t know.)

Less immediate negative signs

I separated these into a separate section because they’re much more dependent on unknowable global changes in the coming years and decades.

Australia is a large country with substantial natural resources, including coal, sunshine, and uranium. I have no great sense of our immediate desirability as a conquest target, but some reasons are there.

This may seem a bit out there given the stability of this setup over a couple of lifetimes, but we’re talking world-historical here. So: Australia is a constitutional monarchy. Our head of state is Elizabeth II, the Queen of Australia, the same woman you may know better as the Queen of England. (Or Canada. Or New Zealand. Or 12 other countries.) This arrangement enjoys majority support from the Australian people, and even if it didn’t, amending the Australian constitution is more difficult than winning a majority vote. Elizabeth II is fairly discreet about her political opinions, but she is also 90 years old and I expect to see two or three more monarchs in her line in my lifetime. Her son and heir seems likely to be a more politically active King at least of the United Kingdom. Clearly a constitutional monarchy is not necessarily terrible — it’s keeping me up at night the least of everything here — but it’s authoritarian by definition.


Such as it is: I want to acknowledge again that to many people who live here or are trying to come here, Australia is plenty authoritarian and punitive. I deeply feel my lack of ability to forecast and warn here. I hope I’ve given a starting point to folks who don’t have a lot of Australia-specific political context to do their risk assessment.