‘Australia first’ is opportunism – and politicians should be careful where it leads

Donald Trump’s “America first” inaugural speech found strange echoes in Australia this week.

After the newly sworn-in president had pissed on his government’s chips by killing off the Trans-Pacific Partnership, Scott Morrison promised to pursue an “Australia first” economic policy.

It was difficult to tell how his prescriptions differed from the longstanding orthodoxies held by both major parties in recent decades – the treasurer mentioned more trade deals, more access to Asian markets, and even floated a TPP without the US.

The listener was left to conclude that the phrase “Australia first” was not about any substantive change in policy. Dominic Kelly, who is working on a PhD on the Australian right’s intellectual infrastructure of thinktanks and advocacy groups, succinctly offers one interpretation of this: “Given that Morrison is a total believer in free markets, it’s opportunism.”

But its opportunism of a particular kind. Given the moment in which we find ourselves, his parroting of Trump seemed like an attempt to demonstrate the treasurer’s attunement to the succession of populist uproars that have consumed Australia’s oldest allies.

The phrase not only conjures up the name of Graeme Campbell’s late 90s quasi-Hansonist political party (and other, even more unsavoury antecedents. It also encapsulates a certain narrow and xenophobic political mood, nurtured by talkback radio and News Corp tabloids, or wherever dissatisfaction has curdled into bigoted hostility.

While Morrison was a hardline immigration minister, he was able to surf the waves of Australia firstism. But in the mouth of an orthodox, overwhelmed treasurer in a floundering government, it sounds more like a superstitious incantation to keep the populist plague at bay.

More immediately, it seemed like an attempt to fend off the only plausible local vectors of a Trumpian insurgency, One Nation, with some empty, dog-whistling lip service to nativism and economic isolationism.

It’s not clear that this fear of One Nation and its voters is moored in reality. Also, Australia’s national political institutions and culture militate against a Brexit- or Trump-style catastrophe. But the continuity of these two foreign events with the slight return of Hansonism has become a part of pundit-class common sense and a piece of leverage for the Liberal hard right. Where those groups go, senior Liberal politicians and their retinues are all too likely to follow.

As Henry Sherrell puts it in an excellent essay, though: “Grouping them together is dangerous, misplaced and bestows an additional sense of undeserved legitimacy on Hanson. It’s also wrong.”