Year in Review: Australian Politics in 2016

We have come to end of 2016, a year which has seen the rise of populism around the world and in Australian politics.

Introduction

The standout moment this year has undoubtedly been the election of Donald Trump in the United States followed by the Leave victory from Brexit referendum in the United Kingdom and in Australia, the return of One Nation Senator Pauline Hanson to Parliament after a twenty year absence.

Donald Trump (USA), Pauline Hanson (Australia) and Nigel Farage (Brexit). Picture: The New Daily
Donald Trump (USA), Pauline Hanson (Australia) and Nigel Farage (Brexit). Picture: The New Daily

Despite the differences between Trump, Brexit and Hanson, populism combined with aspects of nationalism and rebellion against the governing elite has challenged the state of politics around the Western world.

Domestically the election of Barnaby Joyce as leader of the National Party is another interesting moment this year. Mr Joyce has often been seen to be riding on both elements of populism and the ability to speak not like a ‘politician’.

Barnarby Joyce is the National Party leader and Deputy Prime Minister of Australia. Picture: 2GB
Barnarby Joyce is the National Party leader and Deputy Prime Minister of Australia. Picture: 2GB

Having mostly succeeded in the balancing act between competing ideals within the right wing of Australian politics.  In calling out Pauline Hanson for her anti-Muslim stance and citing the need for religious freedom, many hope that he will help draw voters back towards the Coalition.

The National Party is set to play a growing role in the government next year as well with the climate change review and the debate around the Addler shotgun.

Another moment that highlighted the government’s inability to present a picture of strong leadership is the public dispute between Attorney General George Brandis and Solicitor General Jack Gleeson.

The government’s reluctance to remove Brandis has proved to be a continuing distraction for Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull.

Attorney General George Brandis. Picture: The Conversation
Attorney General George Brandis. Picture: The Conversation

Winners in Australian Politics for 2016

Pauline Hanson

Despite her issues with One Nation Senator Rod Culleton and the possible splintering of her minor party, Senator Hanson’s return to politics after a two decade absence including a short prison sentence has been remarkable.

Senator Hanson has a secured a remarkable platform and has been able to ironically portray the narrative of a crisis of free speech in Australia despite One Nation occupying three seats in the Parliament.

Entering federal politics again, Senator Hanson has learnt many necessary skills to appeal to populism and maintain her voter base such as through the bypass of mainstream media in lieu of social media.

Pauline Hanson. Picture: SBS
One Nation Senator Pauline Hanson. Picture: SBS

Nick Xenophon

The Nick Xenophon Team’s growth and success at the Federal Election has highlighted the role that minor parties now play in Australian politics.

One of the achievements of the Nick Xenophon Team and Senator Derryn Hinch has been the ability to negotiate with the government to restore the Australian Building and Construction Commission to become similar to the powers of Fair Work Australia.

Nick Xenophon. Picture: 2GB
Senator Nick Xenophon. Picture: 2GB

Pat Dodson

The Indigenous Australian politician’s speech in response to Liberal Democrat Senator David Leyonhjelm’s attempts to introduce a more extreme version of the government’s proposed watering down of Section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act is a standout moment for the country.

Speaking of his own experiences growing up before the 1967 Referendum admitting Indigenous Australians into the Census, Mr Dodson also used historical examples in Australia in which the Indigenous population was treated as non-existent as basis for opposing changes to the Racial Discrimination Act.

Senator Pat Dodson. Picture: ABC
Senator Pat Dodson. Picture: ABC

Julian Leeser

Julian Leeser’s maiden speech to Parliament highlighting the need to improve the mental health situation in Australia following his own father’s suicide has been another moving moment for the country.

Malcolm Turnbull

Despite only winning the Federal Election by one seat, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull has done well in a year where anti-establishment populism spread around the world.

The incumbent Coalition government being deeply rooted in establishment politics survived and bucked the trend that has developed after the Global Financial Crisis in 2008.

The Prime Minister having ousted Tony Abbott just over a year ago has seemingly followed the same path of his predecessor, starting initially with high popularity but over time has lost a majority of support from the public.

Losers in Australian Politics for 2016

The Australian Government and Malcolm Turnbull

With no ability to demonstrate a cohesive plan for nearly anything in Australia, the government has grown increasingly out of touch with the general public.

Stuck on ideological battles such as same-sex marriage instead on focusing on policies that affect ordinary Australians, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and the government has given the appearance of their inability to be relatable.

The Prime Minister also has a difficult challenge on his hands with a one seat majority and controlling his party with a number of members openly criticising his leadership as well as his policies.

Economic strategy has largely been abstract and non-sensical from the Coalition government. Turnbull’s economic policies especially bilateral free trade agreements coupled with defence protectionism has left many wondering what the government’s approach will be next year.

The government is now sitting on a nuanced agenda that lacks sense to the general public and has done an equally poor task of articulating its policies to the public.

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull. Picture: ABC
Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull. Picture: ABC

The Australian Economy

With slow wages growth and the end of the mining construction booms feeding into the rise of populism, the plan for growth in the Australian economy has been sidelined by the government.

Many have been left wondering where and what the plan for economic growth is in Australia with some suggestions that the country has finished the year on a technical recession risking the nation’s credit scores.

The government has failed to provide a plan to stimulate the economy and has retreated to the largely ineffective theory of trickle down economics with company tax cuts in hope that the benefits will eventually flow down to the ordinary Australians.

Sam Dastyari

The popular Senator from New South Wales has had a spectacular fall from grace after the Chinese cash for comment scandal involving the payment of his travel expenses by a foreign company.

Dastyari’s resignation highlights the inability of the Australian political system to undergo reform to cleanse itself of the power that lobbyists hold over politicians.

The government has an opportunity to take advantage of the need for reform in this area as a way to connect to Australians through appealing to anti-establishment feelings popularised by Donald Trump as ‘draining the swamp’.

Labor's Sam Dastyari. Picture: news.com.au
Labor’s Sam Dastyari. Picture: news.com.au

Looking ahead to 2017

The Australian economy and the drivers of growth will have quite significant for the government. The government’s Mid-year Economic and Fiscal Outlook is set to highlight tensions within the budget’s deficit.

Without the government taking effective action to address low wage growth, the rise of populism in Australia will unlikely slow down. Ignoring equity and utility in the economy is no longer an option for governments in managing the economy.

The year ahead will be a test for Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull as well as his cabinet especially Environment Minister Josh Frydenberg as debate on climate change heats up over emissions trading.

What each of the factions and the Coalition government ultimately decides to do on climate change will be an interesting spectacle moving forward. With the climate change debate in Australian politics at present effectively representing a microcosm of the Coalition government, 2017 is set to be an interesting year to come.

Roydon Ng is a freelance journalist, blogger and web designer based from Sydney, Australia.

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