Opinion: Rise of the right in politics, even on the left

Photo by Andrea De Santis on Unsplash
Sunday 10 September 2023

By Mark Kenny

A version of this article was originally published by The Canberra Times.

After Morrison's messiah complex, Boris's Brexit madness, and Trump's tantrum administration, you might assume that the former centre-ground has been regained and resettled.

Despite their epic rejection, however, each failed leader bequeathed a reactionary taint in their national politics.

This unbalancing is not limited to the Anglosphere either. Across the model social democracies of Europe and Scandinavia, the mid-point of political argument has been dragged right by brazen populists previously regarded as fringe dwellers.

Xenophobic movements, some with Fascist antecedents such as Germany's Alternative for Deutschland and Italy's Fratelli D'Italia (the party of current PM Giorgia Meloni) increasingly skew the public consensus to something more inward-looking and less compassionate.

Even centrists feel the burn as the hard-right exercises either upsized influence or direct control in Finland, Sweden, Poland, Hungary, Germany, France, Italy, Spain, Greece, Israel, and more.

This rightward vector can be dramatic or it can be more subtle, as in our own new median point. Note the departure from Labor's adventurous tax and redistributive agenda in 2019 with its daring economic transformation on emissions.

By 2022, after a withering term of Scott Morrison, Labor's promises reflected Anthony Albanese's cooler assessment of an altered electoral reality.

His cautious husbandry of the electorate's easily inflamed fears has been carried forward into office.

The Voice referendum aside - atypical inasmuch as it was personally championed by Albanese - Labor's willingness to lead voters toward progressive change has tended to be either incremental, or absent.

In some cases, it has brought open retreat.

The most striking example is Scott Morrison's AUKUS pact. Its astonishing pivot to nuclear submarines, its unprecedented transfer of Australian defence funds to US and UK shipyards, and its likely integration of Australian naval assets into US strategic posturing, was a major reworking of Australian foreign and strategic policy.

Yet the Morrison government's tilling of the political terrain ahead of the September 2021 announcement - primarily through dire warnings of imminent war over Taiwan - had been so redefining that Labor's response was instant acquiescence.

Peter Dutton was right when he said on Friday that AUKUS would not have originated under a Labor government.

An interesting question then, is whether it would have become a bipartisan policy under a Shorten-led opposition had it been unveiled before the 2019 poll. Presumably not.

In any event, under a post-Morrison Labor government, AUKUS became the new consensus-point of strategic policy embraced by Labor with the zeal of the newly converted.

So zealously in fact that Pat Conroy, the left-faction aligned Minister for Defence Industry, likened opposing it to a form of appeasement.

Labor's refusal to reconfigure or repeal next year's stage three tax cuts for the wealthy is another garish example of the centre-left's new hyper-alertness to being "too progressive".

In the US, the nativism of Trump lives on not just in the GOP but in the Democratic administration of Joe Biden whose mammoth 2022 Inflation Reduction Act nods to the new Trumpian centre.

Ostensibly a climate change response channelling up to a trillion dollars of government spending into the cause, Columbia University scholars, Noah Kaufman, Chris Bataille, Gautam Jain, and Sagatom Saha, say it is also a massive "buy American" plan which discriminates against foreign competitors.

"One year in, these policies, such as the law's electric vehicle subsidies, appear to be succeeding at growing domestic clean energy industries ... but we believe the law also clearly violates international trade rules," they write in The Conversation.

"Some WTO rules are vague, but others are crystal clear, including an unambiguous prohibition of subsidies contingent on the use of domestic products instead of imports. Certain provisions of the Inflation Reduction Act do exactly that."

Trump's win in 2016 was built on the promise of America for Americans and contempt for international norms, so it is no mere coincidence that efforts to prevent his return evince that same populism. Even green policy needs a "Make-America-Great-Again" twist to be politically viable.

Biden's refusal to drop the pursuit of Julian Assange - a political prosecution in which the Obama Administration had shown no interest - should also be seen in this light.

Biden Democrats seem terrified of being seen as weak on national security - even though Assange is not an American citizen, committed no crime on US soil, and committed no crime under Australian law.

Then there's Biden's refusal to extend "temporary protected status" to Venezuelan and Nicaraguan asylum seekers arriving in New York at the rate of 10,000 a month.

This is despite calls from the city's Democratic mayor, Eric Adams to do so.

TPS would allow the refugees to become economically self-sufficient instead of being a drain on the city, but Biden seems to fret that he will look soft on borders - another inhuman ramification from Trump's heartless Mexican wall xenophobia.

In Britain, Boris Johnson's party remains at the controls, but PM Rishi Sunak seems more like a receiver managing insolvency than a viable prime minister.

Yet such has been the shift in Britain's centre-ground consensus that Labour's Sir Keir Starmer, remains pathologically cautious. Consistently leading by 20 percentage points in public opinion polls, Starmer has been urged to become bold, but continues his small-target strategy.

Having taken a keen interest in how Albanese reduced Labor's risk exposure in 2022, Starmer is keeping it conservative. It's the way of the world "right" now, it seems.

Mark Kenny is a professor at the ANU Australian Studies Institute and host of the Democracy Sausage podcast.

Updated:  11 September 2023/Responsible Officer:  Institute Director/Page Contact:  CASS Marketing & Communications