With campaigning for the federal election slowly rising in pitch, there is a background factor the commentariat seems to be wilfully ignoring. The United Australia Party (UAP) has had front page banner ads in all the major newspapers for months now, along with a heavy online presence, including on Facebook and YouTube, and (more reachable) road-side signs blaring in mindless triplicate slogans like ‘Sold Out’ or ‘Freedom’.
The failure to report on what is most visible, I think, is a symptom of the evasive aesthetics of liberal politics: it cannot state what is most fundamental to it. We seem allergic to thinking about it, perhaps because the campaign seems to have been developed with little thought; perhaps we feel it’s safer to dismiss it as the lunatic fringe. But in doing this we also fail to take seriously the unpredictable effect this campaign might have on the election result, as well as whether there are any genuine politics at stake in a phenomenon like the UAP.
There are parts of the UAP image that clearly fit the category of ‘populism’. Populism emerged in the midst of what Alex Hochuli, George Hoare and Philip Cunliffe call ‘neoliberal breakdown syndrome’ in their book The End of the End of History. They argue that what populists share is the view that the political establishment, or politics as such, is basically bankrupt. Populism emerged in response to the loss of legitimacy and technocratic stability under recent liberal and neoliberal governments.
Hochuli, Hoare and Cunliffe, the hosts of Bungacast (formerly known as Aufhebunga, after Silvio Berlusconi’s style of politics) argue that populist movements have often coalesced around the cry of ‘anti-corruption’ unconnected from other demands. This serves as a catch-all for popular discontent against elites. However, rather than build mass movements, it tends to smear all (other) parties with the same brush: corrupt representatives of the establishment. Hochuli, Hoare and Cunliffe argue that the resulting tendency is anti-political: demoralisation and apathy, atomisation and resentment, and the de-mobilisation of working-class or radical movements with genuine political ideologies.
In this view, politics is reduced to antics, or the perception of such, since all politics is necessarily corrupt and can only serve the interests of the elite. The UAP clearly has no aspiration to instigate a mass mobilisation of working people. Their agenda is targeted at small business and entrepreneurial types most affected by the lockdowns. Insofar as its two most prominent figures are Clive Palmer and Craig Kelly, they are hardly outside the establishment. This fits what I call ‘patrician populism’, meaning a populism lead by a transparently rich individual with a claim to rule benevolently from the top for the true people.
We can identify patrician populism by its combination of obfuscations. It proposes that ‘we’, the patrician rich (being honest in our moral corruption and transparent in our political aims) will take care of ‘you’, the people. Patrician populists differentiate themselves from the establishment from which they emerge by appearing as an ‘uncouth outsider, who uses raw language, refuses to follow established codes’ or abide by the rules of ‘traditional politics’. The quality of their ads is at the level of a warehouse bargain sales, like Rudy Giuliana outside Four Seasons Landscaping.
In compensation for the distinct lack of charisma or personable qualities in either of the figureheads in the UAP, Palmer and Kelly’s main strategy has been to articulate and heighten fear. During lockdown, it was fear of the government, vaccine mandates and closed businesses. Post-lockdown the campaign has shifted to fear of further lockdowns (‘never again’), of being forgotten, and generalised conspiracy theories. Craig Kelly has a history of transforming climate change into a fear about the government taking your job. Recognising and intensifying particular fears acts as a substitute for actual care, building instead an image of a protective patrician populist who can shelter the people from a hostile world.
Reaction and dismissal
In the 2019 federal election, the estimated $60 million Clive Palmer spent on his campaign was widely perceived to have contributed to killing Labor’s moderately progressive economic platform and handing government to the Coalition. Despite hand-wringing about campaign spending following this election, Palmer has continued to fund an extraordinary ad saturation of mainstream media outlets.
Since their emergence in 2013, liberal sources have tended to dismiss Palmer and his parties. John Birmingham in The Monthly smirked at the launch of the Palmer United Party. The ABC’s coverage consists in Vice-like exposés of the inflated membership numbers, which The Saturday Paper also stooped to report on, and efforts to call every candidate listed on the UAP ticket. Although they do expose the UAP as fitting the traditional norms of electoral politics in Australia, the idea that this alone might discredit the party is of a piece with the liberal doxa that held that exposing Trump’s misogyny or racism would shame his supporters into voting otherwise.
What none of these reports assess is the impact of a well-funded, if distastefully unattractive, ad campaign in the lead-up to an election, and whether it represents anything genuinely political. The fake membership scandal acts could, for instance, act as a bleak reminder of the hopelessly low membership of the major parties. The attempt at mass politics, and the blanket approach being taken, is destabilising to the technocratic and bureaucratic class who have become accustomed to undemocratic party structures.
Despite many of the candidates contacted by the ABC not being prepared to speak to the media, the recurrent scandals within the government and opposition, from bullying and factional conflict, to sexual harassment and outright corruption, vindicate the populist message that ‘we can’t trust them anyway’. UAP candidates are at least able to use their lack of preparedness to demonstrate their distance from the establishment. Such an appeal can only baffle those attached to the morbid neoliberal hegemony.
The small business constituency
UAP’s brand of populism is far from ideologically coherent. One of its least avoidable ads, which ran online during the lockdown when it was hard not to be online, depicted café owners in black and white, with their heads between their hands and doors with menacing ‘Closed’ signs. The lockdowns hit small business hard, especially when government support wasn’t forthcoming, or they fell through the cracks of the funding that was available.
Small business conservatism has a long history. In recent years it has mixed with an entrepreneurial ethos of hard work, and the fetishisation of the figure of the ‘boss’ as though it were shameful to be anything else. Yet in its support for market de-regulation, or ‘freedom’, the small business constituency has by and large supported pro-market reforms from which large multi-national corporations have benefitted far more than they, indeed often at the direct expense of small business.
Melinda Cooper has recently argued that the contemporary Right is ‘neither populist nor elitist in any straightforward sense: it is both’. Large corporations have been able to align themselves with small business by the common denominator ‘family-owned’, or ‘independent’, or using nationalist packaging like the ‘Australia Owned’ sticker. Such branding flattens the difference between the local café, independent contractors, a franchise chain, inherited business, both flourishing and declining, and even large private corporations like Palmer’s own. Amid the general populist denunciation of monopolistic or predatory multinationals, using low-hanging fruit like social media companies, the difference between ‘family-owned’ mining corporations and small businesses is gently buried.
But this alone does not explain the appeal of Palmer and co. to the small business constituency. UAP also allows them to amalgamate the effects of economic stagnation, the gradual resurgence of labour power amid staff shortages, and decades of financialised globalisation and debt-financing into single-issue politics. They can see themselves as the interest group of the silent majority, trodden on by what Michael Lind calls the managerial elite.
What this amounts to, Cooper notes, is less a genuine alliance against the so-called professional managerial class as an insurrection of ‘one form of capitalism against another: the private, unincorporated, and family-based versus the corporate, publicly traded and shareholder-owned’. The free market wing of the Liberal Party has also found itself frustrated by increasing shareholder activism and the vulnerability to litigation of publicly traded companies. What the UAP correctly identifies is that this frustration can be refined into an explicitly pro-coal, pro-business platform. They gain from the loss of the pretence of respectability.
UAP’s moral and political message reiterates the neoliberal imperatives of economic libertarianism alongside a punitive work ethic. Clive Palmer, in a piece published in Meanjin in 2015, wrote that ‘Each of us, every day, is the sum total of all the experiences we’ve ever had’. This piece of self-help wisdom burdens the individual with responsibility for failure or success, elevating our background ‘experiences’ into every single decision we make every day. Along with the abstract ‘Freedom’ emblazoned across many ads over recent months, UAP sounds like most other right-wing populists: covering for a broadly neoliberal status quo.
Nihilism and anti-politics
In his Meanjin intervention, Palmer states blandly: ‘Public service is about serving the public. The clue is in the title’. He continues, ‘Politicians say they care about you…All they care about is being re-elected’. This tautological cynicism characterises the complacent apathy of the middle and upper middle classes, for whom an election cycle is just another way to make sure taxes don’t rise.
But what does Palmer care about, if not being re-elected? The anti-corruption, and broadly distrustful messaging of UAP ads implies an abandonment of the ideal of good government, as Hochuli, Hoare and Cunliffe note of anti-political populism. This brand of anti-politics flirts with nihilism, sweeping the ground from any attempt to repair liberal political processes (in contrast with the technocratic aim of post-political populism), or to reinvigorate radical politics by mobilising people.
The pervasiveness of lying and disregard of any standard of public discourse evinced in Craig Kelly’s most prominent positions (pro coal, anti-vax) suggest the kind of liar against whom Hannah Arendt warned in ‘Truth and Politics’: the risk is not misinformation or ‘fake news’ but the erosion of the common world, which is the condition for politics to begin at all. Arendt writes, ‘organised lying always tends to destroy always tends to destroy whatever it has decided to negate… a particular lie… tears, as it were, a hole in the fabric of factuality.’
Arendt notes this alongside the acute recognition that the liar is a political actor par excellence, namely someone trying to change reality. Denied its stabilising force in reality and factual truth, however, we risk entering what Anton Jäger calls ‘hyper-politics’, in which reality is determined along party lines. The turn to lying and transparent falsehood represents the fantasy that rulers could re-write reality to suit their constituents, bypassing climate, economics, and the world composed of other people on whom we are profoundly dependent.
One reality that is recognised by the UAP, its candidates, and supporters seems to be that in an intensely competitive world we would do well to align ourselves under the protection of a patrician. One of the candidates interviewed by the ABC, a pastor in an outer Western suburb of Melbourne, said of Palmer, ‘He’s not flawless by any means but, when I hear him talk, I believe he’s genuine’. This reality is the purity of self-interest. There is a transparency to buying votes or political influence that can be mistaken for honesty or integrity, when all we have to measure our common world by is private exchange on the market.
The combination of anti-corruption as a platform and the transparency of self-interest as the only basis for politics can endorse an acceleration of tendencies within neoliberalism, namely the ‘privatisation of politics’, and the naturalisation of the market as the only forum for exchange and activity. This might help make sense of UAP’s pro-austerity response to the pre-election budget and the apparent contradiction of its call for more government support to small business. Richard Seymour has identified a new kind of ‘disaster nationalism’ characterised by strong welfare support for middle-class businesses and property owners alongside austerity for the poor.
UAP’s constitution announces its remit to ‘distribute gratuitously’ materials ‘calculated to promote the objects of the Party’. The patrician populist sees no contradiction between the celebration of privileges for the (true) people, which it distributes gratuitously, and the punishment of both certain multinational corporations (symbolically) and the working class (through austerity).
Alongside general evasion in the same media that Palmer is now subsidising, one reaction to populism is a revanchist desire for the post-politics of bureaucratic managerialism, or on the other hand an anti-political desire for authoritarian forms of order, which persist alongside harsh economic libertarianism. Western governments’ responses to the pandemic have followed all three of these tendencies: harsh lockdowns and bureaucratic spending that subsidised businesses and catered to opportunistic state capture by private interests. Patrician populism represents a reaction to these options, if hardly an appealing one.
The last decade has seen the failure of the centrist form of neoliberal progressivism that occupied the left parties in the face of an onslaught by right-wing populism, which mobilised forces old and new to present themselves…as a response on behalf of the people against the entire ‘political/media’ class, as represented by those in power.