In late 2021, as Australian cities witnessed anti-lockdown and anti-vaxxer protests against the country’s longstanding pandemic restrictions and newly implemented vaccine mandates, Donald Trump Jr. tweeted “Don’t Australia my America”. As someone who recently returned to Sydney after covering the Trump presidency for the BBC, I found myself thinking quite the opposite: Don’t make America my Australia. The American variant of democracy contaminates the body politic of my house.
My family left the US in part to escape its politics, so it was shocking to see the Trump banners I was more used to seeing in Mississippi and rural Michigan being waved on the streets of Melbourne. . But the Trump paraphernalia and crowds of Australian protesters that look like mosh pits of die-hard MAGAs have been only a mild form of the disease. There were more malignant manifestations. Some Victoria state lawmakers who backed tough lockdown measures have received death and rape threats. Protests at its assembly building in Melbourne have often turned sour. Protesters urinated at the city’s holiest site, its temple-like Shrine of Remembrance. A gallows even paraded through the streets, on which hung an effigy of Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews, who has become a demonized figure similar to Michigan’s Democratic Governor Gretchen Whitmer. In November, counter-terrorism police arrested and charged a man who allegedly encouraged other protesters to come with guns so they could execute ‘dictator Dan’.
Given its prosperity, multiculturalism and strong civic tradition, Australia should be a model of democracy and a global example. Its “Washminster” form of government, with its blend of parliamentary, executive, state and judicial power, sought to co-opt the best of the British and American systems. Its parliamentarians sit on green and red leather benches, a nod to the Palace of Westminster, in legislative chambers that have adopted the American nomenclature, the House of Representatives and the Senate. It should embody all that is good about democracy; instead, he displays ugly American traits.
This is not just evident in “street Trumpism”. A little-you Trumpism has also found its home in Canberra, the nation’s capital. Although Prime Minister Scott Morrison has a totally different persona to the former US president – a more mundane suburban dad on an Australian soap opera than the Fifth Avenue tycoon on prime-time reality TV – there is nonetheless similarities. During his three-and-a-half years at the helm of the company, this former marketing director has earned a reputation as a serial political liar and peddler of “alternative facts”. In a regime famous for his outspokenness, perhaps we should consider him Australia’s first post-truth prime minister.
His recent diplomatic spat with French President Emmanuel Macron, over the Australian government’s shock decision to cancel a multibillion-dollar submarine contract with Paris, provided an example. Macron, in an unusually personalized attack, slammed Morrison for cheating on him. When asked if he thought the Australian Prime Minister had lied to him, the French leader replied: “I don’t think so; I know.” But while Macron went to great lengths to speak of his respect for the Australian people, Morrison – just as Trump would – equated any attack on him with an attack on the country as a whole, complaining that ” the insults were placed on Australia, not me.” Using a term for cricket’s equivalent of trash talk, Morrison added: “I’m not going to luge in Australia.”
That’s just one example, but it’s really Morrison’s frequency and brazenness of truth that veers towards the Trumpian, and takes Australian politics to a different, darker place. Ahead of the 2019 federal election, Morrison argued that the opposition Labor Party’s environmental policy would “end the weekend” because the zero-emission vehicles he was calling for would be unable to tow trailers and boats. Recently, however, he claimed he had never slandered electric vehicles – “It’s just a Labor lie”, he protested – even though news outlets immediately began running the videotape showing that he had done.
Morrison, who made a political name for himself when he was immigration minister by preventing boats carrying asylum seekers from reaching Australian shores, also came close to ventriloquizing the former president. If border protections were weakened, he claimed in 2019, asylum seekers with criminal records could be allowed entry. “They can be pedophiles; they can be a rapist; they can be a murderer,” he said, using language reminiscent of Trump’s notorious attack on Mexican immigrants during his presidential campaign launch in 2015.
The Morrison government’s legislative agenda also borrowed from the GOP field playbook, pushing issues of culture warfare and promoting dubious notions of voter fraud. The Australian government’s proposed Religious Discrimination Bill aimed to both bolster support from faith-based conservatives and corner the opposition on a divisive cultural issue that has brought LGBTQ rights to the fore. Citing the threat of cancel culture, Morrison said he wanted to protect religious people who make “statements of belief” that could be construed as discriminatory. (The bill was shelved after a backbench revolt by moderate conservatives.)
In another Republican-style play, the government planned to enact a potentially restrictive new voter ID card law, which Indigenous leaders say would have penalized First Nations people. This, despite the fact that the Australian Electoral Commission – a non-partisan body – says the problem of voter fraud is “extremely minimal”. Amid complaints from opposition politicians about America’s “Jim Crow segregationist legislation,” a framing that once again demonstrated America’s trans-Pacific influence on political discourse, this unnecessary reform was never neither enacted.
As the ruling party trails in the polls ahead of this month’s general election, Morrison has also sought to create a sense of polarization where bipartisanship prevails. Little separates Morrison’s Liberal Party from the Labor Party, for example, when it comes to the growing threat from China. Yet the prime minister claimed Labor leader Anthony Albanese was soft on Xi Jinping, and even called Labor deputy leader Richard Marles a “Manchurian candidate” – an insult to Trumpian excess. (Morrison also criticized his rival’s sudden weight loss, saying, “You can’t present yourself to the Australian people as something you’re not.” As in American politics, everything is politicized, whether it’s the response to China or the size of the leader of the opposition.)
Moderate conservatives have openly expressed their concerns about the drift to the right. Liberal MP Dave Sharma, who is facing a bitter re-election fight in his coastal Sydney constituency, recently warned that if centrist Tories like him were toppled, the Liberal Party would be at risk of further Americanization. As Sharma, a former diplomat who saw Washington politics up close during a visit to the Australian Embassy, warned: “You will end up, I think, with a less progressive and less moderate Liberal Party because those people will all be gone, and it looks more like the Republican Party in the United States. Do people really want that?
The country already has a modern GOP clone, the United Australia Party, which was founded by mining magnate Clive Palmer. Billboards featured this tycoon holding both thumbs, Trump style. Its slogans are “Put Australia First” and “Make Australia Great”, to which Palmer often adds the word again. Although the party remains something of a fringe group, it is well funded and pulls traditional conservative politics further to the right. by Morrison”I-feel-your-frustration The response to the Melbourne protests was widely seen as a wake-up call for UAP supporters, who swarmed anti-lockdown and anti-vaxxer protests.
Of course, Donald Trump is not solely responsible for the deterioration of democracy in Australia. Indeed, the decline of Australian politics predates the rise of Trump. Despite its “miraculous economy from below”, the country has been in political recession for more than a decade. With its dizzying turnover of prime ministers – six from 2007 to 2015, with Morrison the first to complete a full term since John Howard – Canberra has become what I have called the “coup capital of the democratic world” (well that the plots were carried out in Australia’s equivalent of caucus rooms rather than by an insurgent mob). And just as Australian coal polluted the global environment, the country exported more than its share of political toxicity: Rupert Murdoch, Australia’s most powerful son, became one of Australia’s most prolific and profitable purveyors. right-wing populism. .
This latest election campaign, with its daily regimen of dreary photo opportunities featuring party leaders in high-visibility fluorescent jackets, has felt more recognizable in Australia. But there have always been American overtones. The Australian Electoral Commission has expressed concern that fringe candidates are spreading baseless insinuations of voter fraud and ballot tampering on social media. A Liberal Party candidate, Katherine Deves, who last year compared her campaign to ban transgender athletes from competing in women’s sports to standing up against the Holocaust, was also a frequent front-page distraction. Morrison distanced himself from his past comments, but resisted calls to “cancel” him, as he put it.
The next vote will determine how far Overton’s window, that indicator of political permissibility, has moved. Will voters re-elect Morrison and thus tacitly endorse his post-truth? It’s not that the Trump effect has made Australian politics more brutal. On the contrary, it has helped to make everyday democracy here more mendacious, cynical, angry partisan, culturally charged and overly politicized.