Opponents of right-wing Australian Senator Fraser Anning like to note that he only won public office through the forced resignation of a colleague, and that he himself only polled 19 first preference votes.
With Australia set to go to the polls for a national election in May, Anning will likely struggle for re-election. But even if he does, Anning is certain to poll many more times the 19 primary votes he received in 2016.
Anning’s rise from an obscure Queenslander to a national symbol for the far-right has been a political phenomenon.
Originally elected to represent the right-leaning, anti-immigration One Nation party, Anning has since formed his own party – the Conservative National party – and has staked out fertile territory on the far-right of Australia’s politics.
From his first speech demanding a “final solution” to stop Muslim immigration, to more recent comments that the “real cause” of the Christchurch mosque massacre that killed 50 on March 15 was at root an immigration program which allowed “Muslim fanatics” into neighboring New Zealand, Anning has pulled all the rhetorical stops to shock and antagonize ahead of the polls.
His Facebook page has around 110,000 followers, many of whom congratulate him on his incendiary comments and suggest that he should one day be Australia’s prime minister. On the other side, a petition to oust him from Parliament has attracted more than 1.3 million signatures.
Then there was the “egg boy” incident last weekend, when a 17-year-old schoolboy cracked an egg on Anning’s head and got two slaps in the face from the senator in response. The footage went viral globally.
While it might be tempting to view Anning as an isolated, outlier figure, his rise to prominence comes in the context of an unprecedented momentum for right-wing nationalist groups in Australia, a growing phenomenon with major political implications.
This is new unsettling ground for Australia’s politics, which has long been dominated by the two major groupings of the Liberal-National Coalition and the Labor Party. Traditionally, the Liberal-Nationals are a center-right party, while Labor leans to the center-left.
Until recently, more mainstream right-leaning views found a home in the conservative wing of the centrist Liberal-National Coalition. But as politics have fragmented in recent years, those voters have drifted away to a number of new right-wing movements, many of them gaining strength and purpose from virulent commentary spread on social media platforms.
Anning is the only politician who has openly courted some of these fringe groups and has forged definite links.
For example, his security at a recent Melbourne event was provided by Neil Erikson, a convicted criminal whose far-right United Patriots Front (UPF) group aggressively opposes immigration, Islam and multiculturalism. Anning has also consorted at public events with fellow UPF leader Blair Cottrell.
In early January 2019, Erikson and Cottrell vowed to unleash a “Cronulla-style” riot, reference to a series of race riots and mob violence that erupted in a Sydney beach suburb in 2005. At the rally, many participants were documented giving each other Nazi-style salutes.
Still, Anning’s positioning on the far-right may have as much to do with differentiation as conviction. He claims his comments and remarks are often misconstrued by “thought police.” But when the election comes in May, his new party will be one of several courting the rising right-wing vote.
Pauline Hanson is more well-known as a pioneer on the xenophobic scene in the mid-1990s. Her One Nation party currently holds two seats in the 76-member Senate.
While Hanson’s maiden speech in Parliament lamented that Australia was being “swamped by Asians,” today her concerns are more focussed on Islamic immigration. Her main political stunt last year was to wear an Islamic burka into Parliament to demand its banning across Australia.
Then there is South Australian Cory Bernardi, who was originally elected as a Liberal Senator but defected to create his own Australian Conservatives party in 2017.
In Newspoll’s most recent survey, 7% of those polled said they would vote for Hanson’s One Nation, while another 8% say they will vote for unspecified “others.”
Even if half of this vote is given to right-wing candidates, then the right-leaning vote would be up to 11% nationally, bringing its members out of obscurity and into mainstream politics.
Whichever major party forms the next government will have to deal with a Senate cross-bench minority with significant right-wing membership. Disunity among the far-right is the only thing that has prevented its representatives from becoming more of a force, but this may happen if the movement matures.
This will also have implications for the type of legislation any government is able to pass through the bi-cameral Parliament and will inevitably lead to negotiation and compromise to placate right-wing senators.
More importantly, the rise of the right is eroding the political center.
Discord inside the Liberal party is most clearly a divide between traditional moderate “small l” Liberals and a conservative right camp which is scared of losing votes from what they see as their traditional “base” to the new right parties.
This fear was behind last year’s ousting of Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, a moderate, before his term was complete. Current Prime Minister Scott Morrison has built a political career out of “dog whistling” on issues sensitive to right-wing voters – most commonly on immigration and refugees – while attempting to appear centrist.
Driven more by fear of electoral loss than ideology, the Liberal-National Coalition has been in a long and ambiguous flirtation with right-wing populism, which should come more clearly to the fore in its upcoming re-election campaign.
The election will be the most bitterly fought in decades and debate on divisive issues such as Muslim immigration are at fever pitch after the Christchurch mosque massacre, perpetrated by an Australian white supremacist fanatic, and a spate of race-based violence on Australian soil.
Both potential electoral outcomes have implications for the far-right. If the Liberal-National Coalition wins re-election, it is likely because they successfully shored up the rising right-wing vote. But to do so will require some placatory policies that will inevitably heat up public debate around immigration in the months and years ahead.
If Labor wins, which seems likely from current opinion polls, their victory is likely to embolden the far-right movement to take an even more aggressive stance against traditional centrist policies and positions. Either way, Australia’s politics is entering a new and divisive new phase with implications all around.