Down Under Donald? We've already had ours and it didn't last long.

By Dom Knight

Wednesday was a baffling day for many Australians. A man who we knew primarily from his grandstanding on The Apprentice, and whose campaign blended Wall Street with Animal House, was elected President of the United States.

From 20 January, Donald Trump won’t be firing hapless celebrities. He’ll be firing missiles.

To win, the president-elect defied the polls, scandals that ranged from the amusing to the thoroughly disturbing, and a public persona that once led The Simpsons to use “President Trump” as a punchline.

Seventy-seven per cent of Australians supported Hillary Clinton, according to the Lowy Institute, while only 11 per cent plumped for Trump.

The president-elect seems like a uniquely American creation, coughed up by a culture that doesn’t consider ‘reality tv’ an oxymoron. He’s relentlessly brash, has a torrid personal life, and loves lawsuits almost as much as he loves holding rallies in front of his Trump-branded 757.

We might assume that in Australia, an idiosyncratic billionaire couldn’t win office through bluster, chutzpah and well-targeted populism that struck a chord with discontented voters. And yet we’ve already had our very own Donald Trump.

In 2013, a billionaire with a flamboyant hairstyle and a love of putting his name on hotels and golf courses sailed into Australian politics aboard the hypothetical Titanic II. Like Trump, Clive Palmer found success with a patriotic campaign against the elites and the establishment, He also flaunted his wealth, blurred the lines between campaigning and marketing, and sued anyone who suggested he wasn’t as rich as he claimed.

Like Trump, Palmer offered tax cuts while simultaneously boosting infrastructure and health care. And although he didn’t put it on a baseball cap, he promised to make Australia the ‘lucky country’ again, presumably unaware that the term’s origin is ironic.


For months, the former Member for Fairfax was on the news every night doing something outlandish, grabbing the ‘earned media‘ that later fuelled Trump’s success.

Australian hopefuls have to toe the party line

But unlike Trump, Palmer only won 5 per cent of the vote. And that’s because of one of the major differences with our system: the primaries.

In America, pretty well anybody can run for either party. Trump was considered a Democrat for many years before switching to the GOP, while Bernie Sanders is still an independent senator despite coming second in the Democratic race. And you don’t need to have a ‘serious’ public profile to compete – ask Ronald Reagan, Arnold Schwarzenegger, wrestler Jesse ‘The Body’ Ventura or satirist Al Franken.

In Australia, celebrity candidates either start their own party, like Palmer or Derryn Hinch, or fit in with one of the majors. Peter Garrett had to drop his opposition to uranium mining when he joined the ALP, and whether you’re Nova Peris, John Alexander or Cheryl Kernot, you have to toe the party line.

Unlike Trump’s capture of the GOP and subsequent abandonment of its core economic principles, Australian parties remake recruits in their own image. What’s more, disagreeing with your colleagues gets you dumped, even if you’re the prime minister. There’s really no Australian precedent for the recent showdowns between Trump and many congressional Republicans, including the Speaker, Paul Ryan.

‘Captain’s calls’ are now discredited in Australian politics. And indeed, it’s ex-‘Captain’ Tony Abbott’s victory that most resembled the Trump revolution, sweeping through poorer socio-economic areas that had traditionally voted for a left-wing party. Abbott ran on undoing the perceived excesses of a left-wing, ‘politically correct’ government not unlike Obama’s, and the Convoy of No Confidence could have just as easily boarded the Trump Train.


Australian politics, though, tends to shy away from extremes. Abbott wasn’t long for the Lodge, and his party nearly lost this year. This has forced Turnbull to pay more attention to his right flank, but those of his colleagues who see themselves as fellow travellers with Trump, like George Christensen and Cory Bernardi, are very much in the minority in a Coalition that’s always viewed itself as a broad church.

What’s more, the extent to which the hard right is currently getting its way in the Coalition party room may well explain the Government’s current problems in the polls.

One Nation’s fortunes inflated by double dissolution

The closest analogy with Donald Trump in Australian politics is One Nation. Pauline Hanson’s party shares Trump’s scepticism towards immigration, globalisation and climate change. But while she and her colleagues toasted Trump’s victory under the parliamentary flagpole this week, there’s little sign that they’ll build the kind of broad populist movement that Trump has.

One Nation received only 4.3 per cent of the nationwide Senate vote in July, and its fortune in winning four seats has more to do with the lower quotas in a double dissolution than any groundswell of popular support.


Perhaps the biggest brake on a local Donald Trump is what stops One Nation winning office: the moderate instincts of Australians, fuelled by an egalitarian ethos and relative economic equality.

The most successful governments, those of Hawke-Keating and Howard, won multiple elections because of their focus on keeping things ‘relaxed and comfortable’, and delivering a strong economy for the middle class.

Anti-immigration rhetoric (beyond the perpetual contest to be tough on asylum-seekers) does not have the same potency in Australia as we’ve seen in Trump’s election. Twenty-eight per cent of Australian residents were born overseas, the fourth-highest proportion in the world, and more than double the UK and US. But resentment of those migrants has minimal potency here, as opposed to what we saw with Trump and Brexit.

We live in a society that is far more egalitarian than America’s, and as a result, far fewer of us want to ‘drain the swamp’ and start again.

In a country where we have more access to education, healthcare, social security and a liveable minimum wage, and far less access to guns, most of us seem to feel that things are already pretty great.

While that continues, there isn’t much chance of a Down Under Donald.

This post originally appeared on ABC News.

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