No.13 Summer 2017

Understanding Hansonism

One notable outcome of the mostly uneventful 2016 federal election was the re-emergence of the One Nation Party (ONP) as a considerable force in Australian politics. Winning two Senate seats in Queensland and two from other states in Australia, the ONP looks set to remain a presence for at least the next six years of party leader Pauline Hanson’s term.

After having a raft of anti-trade union legislation rejected by the Senate in 2016, Liberal Party prime minister Malcolm Turnbull gambled and called a double-dissolution election for both houses of the federal parliament. Apart from narrowly winning another term in office, the main outcome was the election of a rash of mostly right wing populist crossbenchers in the Senate and – most prominently – four senators from the ONP.

The resurgence of the ONP also occurred in the context of a considerable escalation of attacks on Muslims and other ethno-religious minorities. The cumulative impact of the long-running “war on terror” and attacks on the rights of asylum seekers resulted in a rise of Islamophobic and racist sentiments. Faced with the task of implementing unpopular spending cuts, Abbott and then Turnbull subtly escalated these attacks as a way of distracting attention from the impact of their policies.

While unexpected, the re-emergence of the ONP is not surprising. A number of overlapping factors coincided to promote the shift in support to the ONP amongst politically conservative voters, especially in Queensland’s outback areas. Although there has been much speculation about the ONP’s base of and reasons for support, there has been little recent comprehensive historical or empirical analysis.

Therefore, this article addresses these shortcomings in three ways. First, it grounds the analysis within an overview of international experiences of the rise of fascist and right wing populist political organisations. It places more emphasis on the role of rural and regional populations. Concerned more with the loss of their small land holdings, the outlook of these social classes was often hostile to the labour movement and perceived threats posed by “others” to their relatively privileged position.

Second, the historical implications of these processes are considered for Australia. Developments within international and Australian capitalism had contradictory impacts on the agricultural and farming sectors. Both a long-term decline in agriculture and the more recent rise of neoliberal policy has led to the demographic and proportional economic decline of the agricultural sector and undermined the viability of many rural communities. The main rural-based political party – the National Party of Australia (Country Party until 1982) –correspondingly entered a protracted decline.

Third, the article examines the main areas where the ONP scored higher votes in the 2016 poll. An analysis is presented using geographical information systems. Focusing on Queensland, it suggests the main voting base of the ONP was in rural and regional areas with declining populations that have become increasingly frustrated with the National Party.

Rural reaction, fascism and populism

The emergence of the ONP and other political parties of the far right understandably provokes comparisons to debates around classical fascism. Trotsky’s writings, especially concerning Germany and the rise of the Nazi regime, are prominent.[2] These have their limits, however, when applied to today’s conditions.

There were shortcomings in Trotsky’s arguments related to his isolation and practical focus on the most immediate issues facing the urban-based labour movement. He correctly emphasised the hegemony of the urban petty bourgeoisie in the interwar fascist movement. While his comments were certainly true of the leadership and orientation of both the German and Italian fascists, his analysis however paid too little attention to the critical role played by the rural-based petty-bourgeoisie and its struggle against capitalist competition.

The downturn in the struggle after 1920 created the bases for various forms of political reaction throughout Europe. Germany and Italy, moreover, were still undergoing processes of agrarian transformation. Many remnant elements of pre-capitalist agriculture had yet to be destroyed and substantial small and large land holding-based social classes still existed. The outlook of the former tended to be opposed to big capital and its perceived tolerance of the labour movement.[3] These two forces were regarded as the main sources of the “costs-squeeze” inevitably dooming them to bankruptcy and expropriation. In other cases, some semi-indentured landless workers retained loyalty to their large estate-owning bosses.

Indeed, the fascist movement in Italy found its initial mass following among the still existing mass of small peasants and rural labourers that persisted in these “clientelist” relationships with large landowners.[4] Although ongoing debate exists around the issue, the largest base of electoral support for the German Nazis was and remained the majority Protestant component of the rural population.[5] The support from the mass of declassed and newer urban-based voters emerged only after 1930. Almost 57 percent of the German population still lived in settlements with fewer than 20,000 residents.[6]

Of course, the intensity of the fascist onslaught of the interwar period also reflected the profound inter-imperialist conflicts of the time and the combined and uneven development of capitalism. The ideas of the fascists were not original: most of the major bourgeois political forces promoted nationalism and territorial expansion as a way of increasing profits and markets for their goods and promoting collaboration from labour. Most of the themes of the Nazis had been pursued by less confrontational means by parties like the National Liberals in the 1920s.[7] The external pressures on Germany and Italy, combined with a lack of capacity to defeat their insurgent labour movements, meant the fascist strategy of decisive confrontation with the labour movement was eventually largely adopted by the big bourgeoisie as a whole. It found its initial mass support, however, among sections of the rural population.

Eventually, the defeat of the Axis powers in 1945 and the associated capitalist economic and political reconstruction of Europe resulted in a period of comparative social stability.[8] Parties of the far right were – with some important exceptions – largely marginalised. While Europe’s small-farmer classes of the pre-and inter-War period had declined, they did not completely disappear. The parties of the Centre-Right enacted policies to protect these producers. They were an important mass-based constituency of these parties. Small landholders also proved more likely to engage in “self-exploitation” (long hours of labour) to keep control of their “pieces of land”. The eventual resurgence of turbulence in world capitalism from the 1970s onwards disrupted this political stability. The decline in profit rates by the 1970s and the associated rise of neoliberalism meant both Social Democratic and Centre-Right parties engaged in more fierce attacks on the working class and to a lesser degree farmers.

Eventually, sections of rural and regional-based populations – still largely segmented from or hostile to the urban labour movement – again revealed a predisposition to accepting reactionary political solutions. While the peasant class and smaller farm owners had declined, there remained populations of ageing rural inhabitants and small business owners. These were cultivated by ruling class political circles that favoured a more confrontational approach to the class struggle. Newer parties of the far right began to emerge in the face of the rising social problems during the 1980s. There was a slow decline in population and services combined with a battle to preserve their ownership of land and other assets.

Notable examples included the Northern League in Italy and the National Front in France. While these parties invariably focused on issues of race, immigration and unemployment, they generally remained more popular in non-metropolitan areas. The Northern League and the Swiss People’s Party, for instance, established their main constituencies in smaller regional municipalities and rural areas where there were few migrants and lower levels of unemployment.[9] These parties, however, while not explicitly fascist, assumed a populist and demagogic character. While urban-based working class populations could also absorb nationalist and racist ideas promoted by bourgeois political forces and ideologues, they were less likely to fully adopt the politics of the new racist right.

Therefore, both classic fascism in Europe and more recent far right-based organisations emerged initially from strongly rural and regional bases of support. Smaller landholders and enterprise owners hegemonised the politics of regional areas based on resisting the impacts of competition on their viability as smaller producers. They were susceptible to accepting the bourgeoisie’s nationalist and racial demagoguery.[10]

Australia’s “rural crisis” and the decline of the National Party

Australia was not immune from these political trends. The rise of the ONP is – among other factors –associated with the impacts of: the subtle promotion of racist ideas by bourgeois circles; the longer term processes of capitalist development in Australian agriculture and the countryside (and especially in the state of Queensland); the more recent neoliberal restructuring of rural areas; and the associated decline of the National Party.

Rural politics in Australia has long been dominated by the political right. In Victoria, for example, phenomena such as the Kyabram Citizens’ movement of 1902 were the archetype of many reactionary and small farmer-based movements that were hostile to organised labour. The Australian rural sector, however, was different to Europe’s: the large pastoral and grazier sectors meant that average farm sizes were among the largest in the world.[11] There were, however, still many comparatively smaller and medium-sized farmer owners. Although many of the rural population were wage earners, they often gravitated to supporting the more well to do farmer interests. These had the ability to mobilise resources and pose as local leaders.

However, the experience was not uniform across all the states. Queensland was an unusual part of the Australian federation, and it retained a large population of rural labourers in the pastoral and cane-growing sectors. This group’s electoral weight meant Queensland was politically dominated by the Australian Labor Party (ALP) until the 1950s.[12] The foremost faction within the Queensland ALP was the rural-based Australian Workers Union.

However, the mainstream Centre-Right eventually consolidated its hold over rural politics in both Australia and Queensland. First, the “sectoral-based” Country Party emerged on a nationwide basis after 1920. Led by agribusiness interests and larger land holders, it successfully established a base of support on a “country versus city” basis and the notion of “country-mindedness”. It became the main governing coalition partner with the urban-based Liberal Party. The Country Party – following international trends– became a very “pork-barrel”-based rural political organisation. It ensured the allocation of public subsidies to inefficient rural enterprises and infrastructure.[13] Their urban-based Liberal Party coalition partners were largely happy to acquiesce to these interests for the sake of holding political power and retaining a rural base.

Second, major economic and technological changes to farming practices began during the interwar years and intensified after 1945. Demand for agricultural labour declined, just as the urban-based manufacturing sector expanded. Settlement programs promoted land clearing and farm ownership for veterans and other landless groups.[14] The proportion of wage labourers employed in agriculture, therefore, declined sharply, while smaller-scale farming briefly flourished. Agriculture employed 422,000 people (26 percent of total employment) in 1910-11. By 1966 it comprised less than 9 percent of total employment.[15]

In Queensland, the rural-based ALP’s gerrymandered electoral system favoured rural voters. By the late 1950s a series of political crises and splits in the labour movement, combined with the numerical decline of wage labour, undermined the party’s base of electoral support. The gerrymander had the perverse effect of turning Queensland into a bastion of support for the Country Party.[16] While similar processes helped consolidate the political base of the Country Party in other parts of Australia, it seldom had the depth of support as in Queensland.

Eventually, other changes to farming practices also began to impact on smaller-farm owners.[17] By the late 1960s, an increased focus on export production, combined with the vertical integration by agribusiness suppliers and wholesalers, meant that farmers faced increasingly adverse market conditions. In 1979 the new peak body of Australian farmers – the National Farmers Federation – was founded, based on support for deregulation and export production.[18] One result was the emergence of the “rural crisis”. Australia’s rural population contracted from 18 to just 10.6 percent of the total population between 1960 and 2015. Employment in agriculture declined to 3 percent of the workforce. The sector’s contribution to gross domestic product shrunk to less than 3 percent.[19] There was, moreover, a contraction in the number of farms and rural enterprises. These had remained steady at around 250,000 between 1930 and 1970. They then fell to 129,540 by 1990 and there were still only 123,091 “agricultural businesses” in 2015. The main impact was a gradual increase in the average size of Australian farms, from under 2,000 ha in 1960 to over 3,000 ha by 2000.[20]

These economic and demographic changes had increasingly dire consequences for the Country Party. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, the party still obtained just under 10 percent of the first preference vote in federal elections. Their percentage vote, however, fell to below 8 percent in the late 1970s and early 1980s. By 1982 the decline had prompted it to rename itself the National Party of Australia (National Party), to appeal to non-rural voters.

However, the deterioration of the party’s base of support was uneven and it remained comparatively strong in Queensland. A minority of the ruling class even supported a prime ministerial campaign by Queensland premier Joe Bjelke-Petersen in the 1980s. Bjelke-Peterson had consolidated his power within the state through promoting anti-trade union and reactionary social policies. These curtailed civil liberties and freedom of assembly, allowed considerable environmental destruction, and prevented the implementation of Indigenous land rights. A network of conservative and evangelical Protestant religious organisations was also encouraged.[21]

Nevertheless, after a brief surge of support in the 1987 polls – capitalising on rural discontent with the Hawke ALP government’s neoliberal policies – the party’s vote resumed its decline. The Queensland Nationals eventually lost power in 1989. The National Party received under 6 percent of the national primary vote in the 1996 federal election.[22]

Meanwhile, the reactionary and racist ideas that had underpinned the nationalism promoted by the Australian ruling class had never disappeared. While both international and domestic political forces eventually led to abandonment of the White Australia policy, the new policy of “multiculturalism” did not mean an abandonment of racism. Multiculturalism, on the contrary, while providing greater support for immigrants, promoted the idea of a common Australian national identity.[23] Political commentators and leaders like Geoffrey Blainey and former Liberal prime minister John Howard repeatedly used racism to counter demands for Indigenous rights and native title and to target different immigrant groups.

Moreover, wider discontent with the combination of: the impact of the Hawke-led ALP’s restructuring of capitalism in the 1980s, the 1990 recession, and the failure of the labour movement to defend living standards during the period of the Accord all helped created a sympathetic climate for racist ideas. The first wave of the ONP’s rise, accordingly, occurred in 1997-8. Contrary to common assertions, the ONP’s base was not predominantly working class. The rise of the ONP vote largely occurred at the expense of the National Party and it was most popular among middle-aged males living in regional Queensland from across different income groups.[24] The ONP subsequently underwent a rapid decline. The partial absorption of the ONP’s policies around refugees and Indigenous people by the mainstream parties also reduced its appeal.[25]

Nevertheless, increasing problems continued to confront the National Party. On a national scale, it remained the Liberal Party’s coalition partner in government. Some anti-trade union and anti-Indigenous measures were predictably popular with some of its base.[26] Although the National Party leadership of John Anderson extracted concessions in the form of subsidies and infrastructure spending, the negative impacts of the Howard government’s neoliberal economic reforms increasingly strained relationships between the party and its rural base.[27] One result was that Bob Katter – the federal member for the rural seat of Kennedy in Queensland – resigned from the party in 2001. He established his own right wing populist party, harking back to old-style rural pork barrelling politics and the need for rural development banks. His seat also contains important mining centres with larger working class populations, like Mount Isa and Cloncurry. He has been less willing to support Coalition attacks on trade union rights.[28]

In 2007, the Queensland National Party amalgamated with the Liberal Party in Queensland. The merger left a legacy of unease among some National Party supporters and friction with the Liberal Party-based factions. The amalgamated Liberal and National Party (LNP) proved unable to win more than one term of government. Its last term in office, between 2012 and 2015, under the leadership of Campbell Newman, ended disastrously. The remaining stand-alone National Party in other states received less than 5 percent of the primary vote in the 2013 and 2016 federal elections.[29]

In addition, the rural population increasingly confronted other social and economic pressures. The long-term decline in the terms of trade for agricultural goods did partially reverse after 2002.[30] It did little, however, to boost farm-gate prices or income. Increases in agricultural and food prices did see a temporary reversal in the decline of farm numbers and the rise of new conflicts over foreign investment and “land-grabbing”. There were also mounting environmental and climate change-associated problems. In other places, competition for land use emerged as mineral prices increased, resulting in a surge in open pit and coal-seam gas mining. These trends were not enough, however, to forestall the long-term rural decline.

On the contrary, there is significant evidence that these newer sectors are contributing to the problems of rural and regional areas. The regional and rural population is now and has always been broader than just farmers. There is increasing competition between agriculture and mining, tourism and forestry. The old regime of the countryside:

had distinctive agrarian dispositions, perceptions and patterns of behaviour and farmers and graziers controlled most economic assets. Economically, agricultural producers enjoyed a privileged situation… Culturally and socially, the agricultural sector dominated the scene too. The annual agricultural show and popular recreational activities, competitions and festivals celebrated agricultural production and rural skills. As well, the preferred clothing of the Australian rural elite – including moleskin trousers, Akubra® hats and R.M. Williams® boots – defined prevailing tastes and status. Many social relations were then mediated through prominent rural organizations including agricultural producer associations, the show society, pony clubs, sports clubs and long-established bodies such as the Country Women’s Association, especially until the 1980s.

Within these networks:

There were identifiable social groups – such as landholders, townies and blockies – each with a set of dispositions and preferences according to their position in the symbolically defined agricultural social space.[31]

The more well-to-do farmers therefore tended to dominate social and political networks. More recently, however, the rise of mining and decline of smaller towns has led to a decline in their status. In some places, there has been a virtual “industrialisation” of the landscape. Smaller farmers survive as “blockies”, while “townies” eke out a living providing services.

Apart from Bob Katter, the emergence of Clive Palmer’s Palmer United Party (PUP) in 2013 was another expression of political disenchantment in Queensland. A veritable “saviour from on high”, Palmer was a coal industry-based billionaire who had fallen out with the Queensland LNP leadership. The PUP won over 11 percent of the lower house and 5 percent of the Senate vote in Queensland in the 2013 federal election. The levels of support were higher in regional areas.

Although it is difficult to know how much the support for either the PUP or Katter crosses over with the ONP, it does suggest a common base of support for economic populism. Clearly much of the regional and rural protest vote is motivated by economics. The level of explicit support for racist policies is uneven. Palmer repudiated many aspects of mainstream asylum seeker policy. Ex-PUP senator Jacqui Lambie, on the other hand, degenerated into obscene levels of Islamophobia.

Finally, the themes of racism and nationalism that were used by ruling class forces and both the National and Liberal parties to appeal to more backward layers in rural areas had been subtly ramped up. As noted above, both Abbott and Turnbull had exploited panics about Islam and the emergence of the Daesh to distract from impacts of their cuts to public spending and the decline in wage growth that took place after 2012.[32] At the same time, the government was exploiting its 457 visa regulations to allow the import of often de facto bonded labour. It was not surprising then that these ideas found their greatest resonance in the heartlands of the conservative rural areas for the benefit of the Coalition’s main competitor from the right.

One Nation and the 2016 election

The outcome of the 2016 election was an unpleasant surprise to those who thought that the ONP had disappeared in the early 2000s. Both the largest number and percentage of votes for the ONP were in Queensland, and overwhelmingly in rural and regional areas.

The scale and location of the ONP vote[33]

First, the ONP’s overall vote in House of Representative seats was quite low, with it running candidates only in Queensland and New South Wales. They got 5.52 and 0.16 percent of the overall vote in those states.[34] It had, however, a much larger impact in the Senate. Malcolm Turnbull’s decision to call a double-dissolution election meant the threshold required for any party to have a senator elected fell to 7.7 percent of each state’s vote. The three states with the largest Senate primary vote for the ONP were Queensland (9.19 percent), New South Wales (4.1 percent) and Western Australia (4.03 percent). The vote in Queensland was the most significant. Examining the election data in more detail, it is notable how much higher the ONP vote was in traditionally National Party-voting rural areas.

Indeed, the ONP vote varied considerably across different parts of the state, with its Senate vote being much higher outside of Brisbane.[35] Averaged across Local Government Areas (LGAs), the ONP vote was just 2.7 percent in the Brisbane City Council region. It then climbed to 7.3 and 9 percent in Moreton Bay and Logan City and continued to rise along with the distance from Brisbane. The most prominent belt of support was between Bulloo in the far west Queensland, through Longreach to Isaac on the east coast. The belt was between 800 and 1,200 kilometres from Brisbane. The level of the ONP vote then fell again in the most remote parts of the state. Of course, Brisbane and its surrounding areas comprise the largest proportion of the state’s population, so the very high percentage votes in regional areas represented just less than half of the state’s population.[36]

There was another important factor that contributed to the ONP success in the Senate: a range of other far right political parties also ran, and many directed their preferences to Hanson.[37] The most notable, as indicated in the last section, was Bob Katter’s Australia Party. While Katter’s focus was mostly on promoting old-style rural politics, he did enter the debate on immigration. He supported a moratorium on accepting immigrants from Muslim countries. Perhaps recognising that a full ban might alienate important export markets (cattle exports are a major industry in his electorate), he at least thought that Indonesia (one of Australia’s closest neighbouring states, with the largest Muslim population in the world) should perhaps be an exception.[38] There were other parties that allocated preferences to the ONP. These included the Australian Liberty Alliance, Family First and the Shooters, Fishers and Farmers Party. There was, therefore, an alliance of Islamophobic secularists, conservative Pentecostals and opponents of gun control that all contributed to the ONP’s success.

Adding these combined votes of the far right together presents a sobering reality. These parties achieved overall 8 percent of the total vote in Brisbane. Their highest level of support was an average of 49 percent of the vote in Etheridge shire in North Queensland. These preferences, combined with those from the LNP, enabled the election of the ONP’s second “zombie” senator, Malcolm Roberts.

In 2016 then, the main vote for the ONP and the far right – as in Europe– had come from rural and regional areas that were traditional bulwarks of the National Party and LNP.

Racism and Islamophobia

As noted, internationally, electoral support for the far right was also often higher in regional areas with less proximity to and a lower presence of racial minorities, migrants or Muslims. The extent of the absorption of the ruling class’s promotion of Islamophobia and racism in Australia is a matter of ongoing debate. It is clearly, however, being more directly expressed electorally in the countryside.

This trend is clear from the 2016 Queensland vote. The ONP’s initial target – in the late 1990s – for racial intimidation had been Australia’s Indigenous and Asian immigrant populations. By 2016, however, it focused more on the issue of Muslim immigration because of the long “war on terror”. As is to be expected, though – and given that Muslims comprise just over 2 percent of Australia’s population – there was no relationship between the presence of these groups and levels of support for the ONP.[39] The overall percentage of the population identifying as Muslim in Queensland (2011 census) was only 1.3 percent. Most of the larger concentrations of Muslim populations were, moreover, in the state’s south-east and (to a lesser extent) the coastal regions.

There were two exceptions. Richmond shire had a Muslim population of 0.73 percent. Given the entire shire’s population was less than 900 people, it is likely that this was one or two families. The other was the Lockyer Valley between Toowoomba and Brisbane. Here there is a growing Muslim population of former refugees, and there have been violent attacks on mosques. The Muslim population was still only 0.33 percent of the population in 2011. The ONP obtained 29 percent and the combined far right 38 percent of the Senate vote in Lockyer LGA booths.

There are two main implications of these trends. First, although there may be varying levels of absorption of Islamophobia and racism among urban workers, it has not been heavily reflected in voting trends. Recent polls suggest contradictory results concerning these issues.[40] Second, it demonstrates how ideological rather than substantive the rise of Islamophobia has been so far. Few ONP voters were likely to have encountered the ethno-religious minorities that they seem to fear in any large numbers. Rather the appeal relies on a traditional reliance on fear of the other and the competition they represent.

Unsurprisingly, Pauline Hanson’s inflammatory statements made her very unpopular with Indigenous voters, being designed to appeal to racist sentiments among the settler population. A comparison between the percentage of the population that was Indigenous in each LGA and the level of the ONP and far right vote suggests there was an inverse relationship. Both the absence of and greater distance from Indigenous populations corresponded with an increase in ONP voting.[41] The largest proportional Indigenous populations live in the remoter parts of the state where the ONP’s vote was correspondingly much lower (20 percent of the population in Cook and much higher in the adjacent and heavily ALP-voting Indigenous-based shire councils). The combined vote of the far right was, however, still quite high. Other conservative parties (notably Bob Katter’s Australia Party, which rhetorically backed some pro-Indigenous policies) still received higher votes that may have flowed as preferences to the ONP.[42]

There were similar patterns with Asian, Middle-Eastern and North-African migrant communities. The lower presence of and greater distance from these minorities corresponded with higher votes for the ONP. The rural areas are, therefore, playing a classic role of reactionary incubators while the overtly pro-racist vote remains low in urban centres.

Economic and Social Factors

Finally, the relationship between levels of ONP support and various social and economic factors corresponded both with some of the longer term and recent processes outlined above.

On the one hand – and contrary to common assertions – there was mixed evidence of any association between areas with either more low-income earners and higher unemployment and levels of support for the ONP. On the contrary, the unemployment level (as recorded in the 2011 census) was lower in most of regional Queensland than in urban areas. The census corresponded with the economic recovery of Australia’s mining boom after the GFC. LGAs in the south of Queensland, such as Bacoo and Quilpi to the west of the Darling Downs, had negligible levels of unemployment. The areas in the state’s north, on the other hand, in the Gulf of Carpentaria and Cape York Peninsula, had higher unemployment. Yet the level of ONP support was lower in these more far-flung areas.[43]

However, there are of course limits to using statistics from 2011 for examining unemployment. Increases and decreases in joblessness can occur quite suddenly as a result of the capitalist business cycle and other factors. The figures for 2016 ABS regions (“statistical area 3”) that are larger than LGAs indicate that there was quite a spike in joblessness associated with drought conditions and the slump in mining activity.[44] The large “Queensland Outback” area, however, is difficult to assess as it covers both the state’s far north and west. Some rural areas like the Darling Downs still had very low levels of unemployment. The big mining regions like Mackay and Central Queensland experienced some job losses. Townsville’s unemployment rate was also very high. The economic climate may have impacted on the ONP vote. The very high levels of unemployment in the north of the state did not, however, correspond with a higher ONP vote. These mostly Indigenous communities voted primarily for the ALP and Katter. There were some exceptions, such as in Weipa. Here there was a large vote for both the ALP and the ONP. There had also been many job losses in the mining sector.[45]

Likewise, there was also little relationship between areas with more low-income earners and levels of ONP support. The main trend was a higher percentage vote as the numbers of low-income earners declined.[46] There was also some evidence that there was a positive relationship between higher incomes and levels of support for the ONP. While these statistics examine the characteristics of areas rather than who may have voted for the ONP, it seems it was not the most low-income areas that voted for Hanson. Putting this together, much of the ONP vote appeared to come from the comparatively better off and non-Indigenous rural population.

In terms of the main types of employment, there were three main trends evident. First, there was a slightly positive relationship between the presence of blue collar workers and the size of the ONP vote.[47] Yet the numerically largest concentrations of these sectors of the labour force were located around Brisbane, where the ONP vote was lower. Other data suggests there were some mixed trends. The presence of miners was strongly associated with higher votes for the ONP. It is not clear if these workers voted for the ONP (except in small centres like Weipa where they did) or if it was a vote in reaction to the impact of mining. The ONP opposed expansion of CSG and foreign land ownership. The presence of manufacturing workers, moreover, had an opposite relationship to the levels of support for the ONP.[48]

Second, the overwhelmingly strongest relationship in terms of occupation was the proportion of the labour force employed in agriculture. It was in these LGAs where the ONP vote was proportionately the highest. It again points to a strong association with rural support for the ONP. It is impossible say if or what kinds of agricultural labour voted ONP. There are residual farm labourers, blockies and more well to do broad-acre farmers and graziers. It is clear though, that the presence of these sectors corresponded with a higher ONP vote.[49] Third, at the other end of the spectrum, managers are generally considered to be more senior, educated and well remunerated. Another stereotype is that such people are less likely to vote ONP. Many ONP-voting LGAs also have high proportions of the workforce that identify as managers.

These last points are important. As argued in the previous section, there was a demographic and structural change in the character of the labour force in agriculture in the inter- and post-war years. The census records employment in agriculture the same way regardless of the person’s relationship to the means of production: they may or may not own the farm. The combination of the agricultural and manager data suggests that much of the labour force either directly owns their farm/enterprise or are employed as managers with very few workers. The pattern is typical of both larger and smaller-scale capital-intensive agriculture with high levels of mechanisation.

Queensland’s poorest and more marginalised LGAs – especially in the areas with higher Indigenous populations – were overwhelmingly more likely to vote for the ALP and (to a lesser extent) Bob Katter’s Australia Party.

A range of additional factors appeared to influence the vote. Other statistical analysis suggests one of the biggest predictors of the level of ONP support was the proportion of the electorate with less than year 12-level education. Although many readers may be sceptical of elitist claims about rural voters that are often made by more urban and middle-class Australians, there is some reality to the situation. The lower-skilled and less formally educated rural population is more likely to support the ONP. Another major factor – a product of the long history of evangelical groups and their promotion by Joh Bjelke Petersen – was higher presence of non-traditional Protestant church attendees in LGAs.[50]

The main trend was that the presence of an agricultural labour force with lower levels of education – including many small farm and business managers – corresponded with the highest level of votes for the ONP. Added together with the lack of presence and proximity to Indigenous, Muslim or Asian immigrant populations, it can be concluded that it was a predominantly European constituency drawn from these groups. It suggests a pattern of reaction to the general economic stagnation, demographic decline and marginalisation of the agricultural sector. The blue collar and working class components of the base were a secondary factor reflecting the predominance of smaller enterprises and possibly clientelist relationships with small business owners and managers who were “leaders” of these communities. There is some evidence of support from the mining workforce.

The ONP and rural reaction

In sum, as with both the historical and international experiences, the main base of the ONP in the 2016 election was predominantly located in rural and regional areas, with the strongest overall presence being in Queensland. There were longer, medium and shorter-term historical trends that help explain this.

Nationalism was and remains the de facto ideology of the bourgeoisie as it seeks to create a common territory and foster the loyalty of the working and other non-ruling classes. Fascism, racial politics and right wing populism are the radicalised expressions of these sentiments. They are used by bourgeois political forces to distract attention from the real causes of crises and attempt to shore up a mass base of support in opposition to the urban labour movement. These rightist movements, however, tend to display a range of characteristics similar to the ONP’s base of electoral support.

The historical experience of fascism and right wing populism suggests that rural and regional areas were often an initial base of these movements. In the case of interwar fascism in Central and Eastern Europe, the still ongoing processes of agrarian transition meant that considerable small-farming and peasant classes existed. These groups assumed a petty proprietor-like outlook hostile to threats posed by organised labour and big capital. Concerned primarily with not losing their small land holdings and generally not engaged in the same kind of collective struggle as wage labour, they were vulnerable to manipulation through the adoption of a racist and nationalist political outlook.

The impact of the Great Depression added a latter constituency of declassed urban middle class to the movement’s base. The bourgeoisie eventually opted for the fascists’ strategy of confrontation with labour. Of course, once in power, the fascists adopted policies that were highly detrimental to these groups and favoured the interest of big capital (and rearmament). The rural and regional populations of Europe generally supported parties of the Centre-Right in the post-war period. The rise of neoliberalism and reductions in public support for these farmer and rural communities eventually led to the emergence of a variety of right wing and populist political movements after the 1980s.

In Australia, the historical processes of capitalist development led to contradictory trends within the agricultural sector across the twentieth century. The larger rural populations of agricultural labour in states such as Queensland declined in size with modernisation. These processes, combined with the political power of the Country Party as a coalition partner with the main bourgeois Liberal Party, meant that many small and medium-sized farming enterprises initially survived. From the 1970s, however, the so-called “rural crisis” comprised both the decline of the rural population and the number of farming and agricultural enterprises.

Both these trends impacted on the electoral popularity of the Country Party/National Party. Its electoral base deteriorated considerably after the 1980s and it lost control of the Queensland state legislature. The merger into the LNP in Queensland, combined with lingering resentment over the impact of Coalition government policies, led to various populist political electoral rebellions among Queensland’s conservative voters. Examples included the first wave of the ONP’s emergence in the 1990s and later Bob Katter’s Australia Party and the Palmer United Party.

The evidence suggests that the surge in support for the ONP in 2016 was the latest expression of these trends. The ONP’s base of support was heavily concentrated in the regional and rural areas of Queensland. The social and political conservatism of this population had been consciously promoted and consolidated during the long years of National Party dominance in the state. Coinciding with a downturn in mining production and drought conditions in the state, the ONP found a ready audience for its mix of anti-immigration and economic populist and socially conservative policies. The arbitrary character of the agricultural-based population’s xenophobia was evidenced by the differences between the ONP rhetoric between the late 1990s and 2016. Whereas the “other” were Asian immigrants before, the years of the so-called “war on terror” created a new “enemy” in the form of Muslim migration. Neither of these groups are present in any significant numbers in most of regional Queensland. Indigenous populations, of course, remained a focus of prejudice and discrimination. Indigenous voters did not support the ONP, although some supported Katter’s Australia Party.

There are positive and negative implications of the re-emergence of the ONP for the mostly urban left and the Australian labour movement. The ONP’s base is mostly regional and rural, therefore, tends not be an immediate factor in day to day city-based politics. Few political forces, however, can directly counteract the influence of the ONP in these regional areas. One exception is the residual presence of trade unions in the mining and resource sectors, although they have so far adopted a conciliatory attitude to the ONP. Their industrial and political weaknesses mean they are unlikely to have much impact. Inasmuch as the ONP has won a base of support among rural workers, it remains to be seen how popular it will be now that it has supported the Coalition’s anti-trade union legislation and unpopular budget measures. It seems the main approach of the political mainstream has been to welcome the ONP into the “tent” in return for support for unpopular measures.[51] The main downside is that if the political situation continues as is, with a low level of working class resistance, the ONP could begin to make more inroads into urban working and middle class constituencies.



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[1] Thanks to Mick Armstrong and Sandra Bloodworth for their feedback on earlier drafts.

[2] Trotsky 1969.

[3] Frieden 2006.

[5] Thurner et al. 2015.

[7] Tooze 2007, p2.

[8] Lipset and Rokkan (eds) 1967.

[9] Agnew and Shin 2011, Fitzgerald and Lawrence 2011.

[10] The rise of Tea Party and other right wing elements in the so-called Republican-voting “Red States” of the United States has some parallels to the European experience. A comparison with Australia is beyond the scope of this article.

[12] Fitzgerald 1985, Strangio 2012, p.64.

[13] Wear 2003.

[14] Davison and Brodie 2005.

[16] Fitzgerald 1985.

[17] Lawrence 1987, pp4-5.

[18] Wear 2003.

[21] Wear 2002.

[23] Kim 1996.

[24] Davis and Stimson 1998, Goot and Watson 2001.

[25] Mick Armstrong, “How Howard took Hanson Mainstream”, Red Flag, 80, 12 September 2016; Lee Ack 2016,

[27] Lawrence et al. 2013.

[28] Francis Keany, “Election 2016: Bob Katter to support Malcolm Turnbull in event of hung Parliament”, ABC News online, 8 July 2016,

[31] Everingham et al. 2015, p47.

[32] ABS 2016b,; Ben Hillier, “What’s the point of anti-Islam bigotry?” Red Flag, 78, 15 August 2016,

[33] Follow the links provided for this section to interactive maps and diagrams. Click the information and the “pop-ups” in the maps for details of the results.

[38] James Owens, “Bob Katter: ban Muslim Middle East, North Africa immigration”, The Australian, 25 August 2016,

[40] See See also Roy Morgan Research’s critique of Essential Research’s use of “commercial panels” and its own results:

[42] Patricia Karvelas, “Black rights top Bob Katter’s wish list”, The Australian, 4 September 2010,

[44] Amy Remeikis, “Queensland job figures: Unemployment rate rises slightly in June”, Brisbane Times, 14 July 2016,

[45] Nick Dalton, “Rio Tinto cuts 41 jobs at Weipa bauxite mine operations”, Cairns Post, 21 April 2016,

[48] Finer resolution maps and regression analysis are available from the author at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. and forthcoming in other publications.

[50] A preliminary stepwise regression analysis found notable positive relationships between ONP votes and these variables (as well as both small and large enterprise ownership). Data is available from the author at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

[51] See for example the image of Hanson being embraced by Liberal minister Michaelia Cash on the occasion of her maiden speech to the Senate at