We live in anti-political times

For many, the victory of the Liberal Party on the weekend was crushing. Enthusiasm for an ALP victory was widespread in labour, union and progressive political circles, and clearly this was misplaced. Of course, the final result should not have come as a complete shock given the national polls indicated a relatively close election (even if they were ‘wrong’), individual seat polls indicated it might not be a Labor victory, and Shorten remained unpopular with the electorate – including labour voters – right up until election night. Of course, despite relatively better approval ratings, it would be hard to sustain the argument that Morrison was wildly popular in the electorate and the Liberals are beloved.

In reflecting on the campaign and result, I want to make some initial observations of whether there are continuing expressions of anti-politics in Australia. It is important to reflect on whether my original thesis of anti-politics holds up, and if it does how it might need to be refined in light of the past weekend.

The key takeaway from the federal election is not that it was a resounding victory for the Liberals, or that Labor lost simply because they did not communicate their platform well enough – to credit either as true is to believe the hype of the politicians of both sides.


What is anti-politics?

Politics in advanced capitalist countries is in crisis, and Australia is no exception. Anti-politics is a term referring to the increasing detachment from, and hostility to, political parties and their political system. People are angry at established parties, which once attracted the support of the overwhelming majority of voters.

Peter Mair’s book Ruling the Void argues that the age of party democracy is over, and although the structures of traditional parties remain they are ‘so disconnected from the wider society […] that they no longer seem capable of sustaining democracy in its present form’. His book details, through a forensic analysis of electoral data, an unmistakable trend in popular disengagement from politics – which is connected to a ‘generalised anti-political mood’. Although his work is based on the European Union, he argues the trends are more broadly applicable. When we consider the collapse in union membership and industrial activity in many counties, anti-politics is part of a more generalised break-up of mass politics – those based on mass membership political parties and trade unions, a form of politics dominant for most of the twentieth century.

It useful to think about anti-politics as having two key expressions in advanced capitalist countries. As Tad Tietze and I have previously argued:

First there is the prevailing popular mood of detachment from and hostility to politicians and politics, including radical politics, which expresses itself in short-lived bursts of protest, electoral volatility and political crisis, but tends to dissipate if not given direction.

Secondly, there are political projects that trade on an appeal to this mood for their own political ends, and because of their limited nature usually end up being seen as ‘just like the others’, or collapsing into moralistic opposition to the status quo.

Anti-politics is not a left or right phenomenon, but a hatred of the previously dominant political parties and a process whereby parties and projects attempt to capitalise on that. It is not a phenomenon that is only outside the established political parties, but one that also occurs within them.

On the right internationally, politicians like Trump and events like the Brexit vote are expressions of anti-political sentiment and attempts to capture that for political ends. On the left, we can see it present in the 15M movement in Spain (and their slogan ‘they do not represent us’) and, before that, the explosion of popularity for Comedian Russell Brand and his (rhetorical) calls for revolution. There are also parties like Italy’s Five Star Movement, that are harder to categorise in a left-right schema. Populist parties, that appeal to the idea of ‘ordinary citizens’ rather than more established ideologies, are also becoming more prevalent.

In Australia, both One Nation and Clive Palmer tap into the anti-political sentiment, as do the Greens (although their ability to do this was weakened by its relationship to the Gillard Government). It is also useful to think of Kevin Rudd’s significant popularity in light of anti-political sentiment, given he positioned himself as outside the normal power structures of the Labor Party and ‘play[ed] to public bitterness at the self-interested Canberra elite’.

Australia is not the US having a Trump moment, nor the UK in a Brexit one. What is occurring, though, is both part of the anti-political phenomenon in advanced capitalist countries and unique to these shores – one shaped by labourism and the nation’s roots in colonisation.

The results of this election show continuing, profound dissatisfaction with the major parties. As the count currently stands, the combined vote for the ALP and the Coalition sits at 75.3%, continuing the trend down over a number of decades – and down slightly on the result of 76.8% in 2016 (see the graph below). At the 2019 election, 24.7% of voters gave their first preference to minor parties and independents – the largest percentage ever. This means a quarter of the electorate is voting outside the major parties in the lower house, but the ALP and Coalition will collectively take over 95% of seats because of the compulsory preferential voting system.



There is a real tension here, when there is an ongoing desire to reject the politics of the two major parties and voters in practice can’t. It is not a question of calling for a change to the political system but understanding that increasingly larger numbers of voters are rejecting Labor and the Coalition, and most of them fail to see that rejection have a meaningful impact on who their representatives are. The only exception to this in the weekend’s result was the election of Zali Steggall in Warringah (and the ousting of Tony Abbott), and potentially for a small number of voters (in some states) depending on how the Senate shapes up.


Fracturing electoral base of the Coalition and Labor

The surge in support for One Nation (ON) is troubling and striking, with the party attracting a significant vote in a number of locations. There has been an enormous focus on Queensland, where the state wide support for ON currently sits at 8.7% in the lower house and 9.9% in the Senate. However, I was stunned by the result in Hunter in NSW – an electorate covering an area including Cessnock, Singleton and some urban areas on the western shore of Lake Macquarie. In Hunter, an electorate a two-hour drive from the Sydney GPO, One Nation attracted 21.9% of the vote. This is clearly not as simple as a ‘Queensland problem’.

While we should be deeply concerned by the growing vote for ON, and the proliferation of racist micro-parties and candidates, it would be erroneous to understand this as some sort of straightforward shift to the right in the Australian electorate. At first this might seem counterintuitive, as a large number of people did vote for minor parties and candidates that appealed directly to racism in their platforms and campaigns. However, we have clear evidence that the Australian electorate is generally becoming more progressive over time. As Geoff Robinson points out in his analysis in The Conversation, over the last decade, surveys (such as the Australian Election Study) have found that Australians are ‘more supportive of income redistribution, gay and lesbian rights and climate change action’.

The efforts of the far-right and racist parties and candidates are one symptom of the fracturing of the right, which is playing out both in terms of the Coalition’s voter base and its internal dynamics. One only needs to watch Sky News to see how much internal division there still is in the party’s higher echelons, despite being victorious on Saturday night. The morning after the election on the Outsiders program, Rowan Dean, the show’s host and editor of Spectator Australia, was cheering the re-election of the Morrison Government as well as the defeat of the ‘bedwetters’ – meaning Malcolm Turnbull and his supporters. The truth is, because of both internal disharmony and external problems with their voter base splitting off to One Nation, Palmer, and others, Morrison is in a weak position and he does not command the place Howard did within the party or electorate. While many were talking up Armageddon in the wake of the count – suggesting everyone should move to New Zealand or the Queensland should be excised – to exaggerate the ability of Morrison to deliver a broad, mandated, reform agenda, makes clarity on the weaknesses of the new government and Morrison’s leadership difficult.

On the other side of the major party divide, Labor is clearly in ongoing trouble. Since Keating’s defeat in 1996, the ALP has won only one election decisively – in 2007, with Kevin Rudd as leader. Gillard formed a minority government in 2010, winning 50.1% of the national vote, and governed only with the support of four crossbench members (three independents and one Green). With the exception of the recent Victorian election, the ALP has experienced results – both federally and in the states – similar to the lows it experienced in the Great Depression of the 1930s as it was driving through austerity measures.

In the days to come, many will continue to speculate on Labour’s failings and offer opinions on what could have made a difference. It is likely commentators (and the ALP itself) will draw the worst conclusions from this result – that they need to offer and say less next time, when the opposite is true.

There was no big target in this election, but piecemeal policy making and attempts to play both sides (most notably on the climate crisis and Adani). Numerous commentators, as well as ordinary Labor voters and members, say that Shorten lost because the ALP did not communicate their policies well enough. It is the height of hubris to have voters continually reject your party and policies and respond by saying that it is that people just don’t understand and imply they are stupid. And yet, this is not an uncommon message from progressive commentators either.

In reality the ALP has a profound problem: many in their traditional voting base are angry and disillusioned and show no signs of returning to the fold on the basis of the ‘correct’ rhetoric. Labor’s traditional base in the unions has been decimated since the start of the Accord and the neoliberal turn of Hawke and Keating, hollowing the party out of both members and its social weight. A national internal ALP inquiry after the 1996 Keating defeat found that the party had lost credibility because it implemented policies such as privatisation. A majority of the submissions to the inquiry centred on economic issues, and the report found that they ‘can best be encapsulated as being a collective criticism of Labor’s support’ for neoliberalism. This lesson has not been learned. Old labour rhetoric now falls hollow, when the ALP in power under Rudd and Gillard refused to break from this path.

If there was one real surprise for me in this election, it was that the Greens vote held up so well. The Greens currently sit on 11.24%, whereas in 2016 it was 8.7% and 8.6% in 2013. While this is some distance from the heights of 13.1% in Ruddslide, it is an extremely strong showing. Although one has to wonder whether the surge in the Greens vote is a sign of how hated Labor is. It is still early days in digesting the results, the meaning of the Greens vote, and how to understand the interface of anti-politics and racism in Australian politics, are topics requiring attention in coming months.

A lot is being said by voters in this election, but one wonders whether many politicians and pundits are really listening. While a few seem to recognise there is a general disaffection in the electorate, there is still enormous focus from progressives and the centre on how the electorate is failing politicians and the ALP picked the wrong man. The truth is, there is good evidence that both these takes on the election are somewhere between simplistic and downright wrong.


Read more perspectives on the 2019 Federal Election 

Elizabeth Humphrys

Dr Elizabeth Humphrys is a political economist in Social and Political Sciences at UTS, and the UTS Student Ombud. Her research examines work and workers in the context of economic crisis and change, including neoliberalism, climate change and workplace disasters. Elizabeth is an Associate of the Centre for Future Work at The Australia Institute. Her first book is How Labour Built Neoliberalism (Haymarket 2019).

More by Elizabeth Humphrys ›

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  1. This terrific,and by far the most insightful and clearheaded take I’ve read yet on the election, and the issues contributing to it.
    Thanks Elizabeth.

  2. The insistence that Labor picked the wrong candidate only reiterates that politics for many is too much a cult of personality (or perhaps more accurately, celebrity)

    For what it’s worth, I’m not surprised Tanya Plibersek doesn’t want the job as Opposition Leader. She’s been a mighty soldier for the Labor Party for a long time and got nothing to show for it now. Reckon she’s contemplating life in another field and I wouldn’t begrudge her or blame her.

  3. Rebecca Huntley talking to Richard Fidler yesterday was fairly insightful on this. She doesn’t use the anti politics term but she dod talk about how people are politically engaged but in a different way to the insiders framework. This is based around those kitchen table discussions she did for many years. The podcast is worth a listen

  4. I still find the term anti-politics misleading especially when the mood captured by the term is used for political ends. I accept the notion reflects the disassociation from established political parties, and the tension you refer to is not likely to resolve itself but I do think what we are witnessing is a less institutionalised political landscape that still clings to the facade of party politics while catering more to populist sentiment. The danger is obvious, that popular sentiment can be influenced by lies and deceptions perpetrated by power actors who are not accountable.

    1. Thanks for your comment David. You are not the only one to have some discomfort with the term, but the main alternative (in the academic literature at least) is depoliticisation and I don’t like that one becuase it implies voters are not saying something political — which they are.

  5. One of my decisions after the let down and despair of the election result was to learn more about the shift that is happening in global politics and how that is playing out in Australia. This article has provided me with a really good starting point for that and some ideas about where to go next. Thank you!

  6. Very insightful. And it’s good to see a commentator admitting to being surprised. Re Greens vote. It doubled in SA due to the demise of Xenophon. It would be interesting to see if the overall increase was due to climate change or a combibation of local/regional factors.

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