The American Variant of Democracy Is Contaminating My Home

The Trump effect has helped make Australia’s democracy more untruthful, cynical, angrily partisan, culturally charged, and politicized.

An illustration of a kangaroo wearing a MAGA hat, carrying a joey wearing a MAGA hat
Ben Hickey

In late 2021, as Australian cities were seeing anti-lockdown and anti-vaxxer protests against the country’s long-running pandemic restrictions and newly implemented vaccine mandates, Donald Trump Jr. tweeted “Don’t Australia my America.” As someone who has recently moved back to Sydney after covering the Trump presidency for the BBC, I have instead found myself thinking the opposite: Don’t America my Australia. The American variant of democracy is contaminating the body politic of my home.

My family left the United States partly to escape its politics, so it was jolting to watch Trump banners that I was more used to seeing in Mississippi and rural Michigan being brandished on the streets of Melbourne. But the Trump paraphernalia, and crowds of Australian protesters that resemble mosh pits of MAGA diehards, have been only a mild form of the sickness. There have been more malign manifestations. Some lawmakers in the state of Victoria who backed tough lockdown measures received death and rape threats. Demonstrations at its assembly building in Melbourne frequently turned ugly. Protesters urinated on the city’s most sacred site, its temple-like Shrine of Remembrance. A gallows was even paraded through the streets, upon which was hung an effigy of Victoria’s state premier, Daniel Andrews, who has become a demonized figure similar to Michigan’s Democratic governor, Gretchen Whitmer. In November, counterterrorism police arrested and charged a man alleged to have encouraged fellow protesters to come with firearms so they could execute “Dictator Dan.”

Given its prosperity, multiculturalism, and strong civic tradition, Australia should be a model democracy and global exemplar. Its “Washminster” form of government, with its blend of parliamentary, executive, state, and judicial power, sought to co-opt the best of the British and American systems. Its parliamentarians sit on green-and-red-leather benches, a nod toward the Palace of Westminster, in legislative chambers that adopted the U.S. nomenclature, the House of Representatives and the Senate. It should embody all that is good about democracy; instead, it is displaying ugly American traits.

This isn’t simply evident in “street Trumpism.” A small-t Trumpism has also found a home in Canberra, the nation’s capital. Although Prime Minister Scott Morrison has a wholly different persona from the former U.S. president—more banal suburban dad in an Aussie soap opera than Fifth Avenue tycoon starring in prime-time reality TV—there are similarities nonetheless. During his three and a half years in charge, this former marketing executive has earned a reputation as a serial political liar and peddler of “alternative facts.” In a polity famed for plain speaking, maybe we should look upon him as Australia’s first post-truth prime minister.

His recent diplomatic spat with French President Emmanuel Macron, over the Australian government’s shocking decision to cancel a multibillion-dollar submarine contract with Paris, offered a case in point. Macron, in an unusually personalized attack, slammed Morrison for deceiving him. Asked whether he thought the Australian prime minister had lied to him, the French leader responded, “I don’t think; I know.” But even though Macron went out of his way to speak of his respect for the Australian people, Morrison—much like Trump would—equated any attack on him as one on the country as a whole, complaining that “the slurs have been placed on Australia, not me.” Using a term for cricket’s equivalent of trash talk, Morrison added, “I’m not going to cop sledging of Australia.”

That is just one example, but it is really the frequency and brazenness of Morrison’s truth twisting that veer toward the Trumpian, and that take Australian politics to a different, darker place. Ahead of the 2019 federal election, Morrison argued that the opposition Labor Party’s environmental policy would “end the weekend” because the zero-emission vehicles it was pushing for would be incapable of towing trailers and boats. Recently, however, he claimed never to have maligned electric vehicles—“That is just a Labor lie,” he protested—even though news organizations immediately started rolling the videotape showing that he did.

Morrison, who made his political name while immigration minister by stopping boats carrying asylum seekers from reaching Australian shores, has also come close to ventriloquizing the former president. If border protections were weakened, he claimed in 2019, asylum seekers with criminal records might be granted entry. “They may be a pedophile; they may be a rapist; they may be a murderer,” he said, using language reminiscent of Trump’s notorious attack on Mexican immigrants at the launch of his presidential campaign in 2015.

The Morrison government’s legislative agenda has also borrowed from the GOP field manual, pushing culture-war issues and promoting questionable notions of voter fraud. The Australian government’s proposed religious-discrimination bill sought to both shore up support from faith-based conservatives and wedge the opposition over a divisive cultural issue that brought LGBTQ rights to the fore. Citing the threat from cancel culture, Morrison claimed that he wanted to protect religious people who made “statements of belief” that could be construed as discriminatory. (The bill was shelved after a backbench revolt from moderate conservatives.)

In another Republican-like play, the government planned to enact a potentially restrictive new voting-ID law, which indigenous leaders protested would have penalized First Nations people. This, despite the Australian Electoral Commission—a nonpartisan body—asserting that the problem of voter fraud is “vanishingly small.” Amid complaints from opposition politicians of “U.S. segregationist Jim Crow legislation,” a framing that again demonstrated America’s transpacific influence on political discourse, this unneeded reform never made it into law, either.

With the governing party trailing in the polls ahead of this month’s general election, Morrison has also sought to contrive a sense of polarization where bipartisanship prevails. Little separates Morrison’s Liberal Party from the Labor Party, for example, when it comes to the growing threat from China. Yet the prime minister has claimed the Labor leader, Anthony Albanese, is soft on Xi Jinping, and even labeled the deputy Labor leader, Richard Marles, a “Manchurian candidate”—a slur of Trumpian excess. (Morrison has also been critical of his rival’s sudden weight loss, claiming, “You can’t present yourself to the Australian people as something that you’re not.” As in U.S. politics, everything is being politicized, whether the response to China or the waistline of the opposition leader.)

Moderate conservatives have openly expressed concerns about the rightward lurch. The Liberal member of Parliament Dave Sharma, who is facing a tough fight for reelection in his coastal Sydney constituency, recently warned that if centrist conservatives like him were unseated, the Liberal Party would run the risk of further Americanization. As Sharma, a former diplomat who got to observe Washington’s politics up close during a stint at the Australian embassy, cautioned, “You’ll end up, I think, with a Liberal Party that’s less progressive and less moderate because those people will all be gone, and it looks more like the Republican Party in the United States. Do people really want that?”

Already the country has a clone of the modern-day GOP, the United Australia Party, which was founded by the mining magnate Clive Palmer. Billboards have featured this tycoon holding up both thumbs, à la Trump. Its slogans are “Put Australia First” and “Make Australia Great,” to which Palmer often adds the word again. Though the party remains something of a fringe outfit, it is well financed and pulling mainstream conservative politics further rightward. Morrison’s “I-feel-your-frustration response to the Melbourne protests was widely seen as a dog whistle to UAP supporters, who have thronged the anti-lockdown and anti-vaxxer demonstrations.

Certainly, Donald Trump is not solely to blame for Australia’s degradation of democracy. Indeed, the decline of Australian politics predates Trump’s rise. Despite its “wonder from down under” economy, the country has been in political recession for more than a decade. With its head-spinning churn of prime ministers—six from 2007 to 2015, with Morrison the first to finish a full term since John Howard—Canberra became what I called the “coup capital of the democratic world” (although the plots were executed in Australia’s equivalent of caucus rooms rather than by an insurrectionary mob). And just as Australia’s coal has polluted the global environment, the country has exported more than its share of political toxicity: Rupert Murdoch, Australia’s most powerful son, has become one of the world’s most prolific, and most profitable, purveyors of right-wing populism.

This latest election campaign, with its daily diet of dreary photo-opportunities featuring party leaders dressed in high-visibility fluorescent jackets, has felt more recognizably Australian. But there have still been American overtones. The Australian Electoral Commission has expressed concern about fringe candidates circulating groundless insinuations of election fraud and ballot tampering on social media. A Liberal Party candidate, Katherine Deves, who last year likened her campaign to bar transgender athletes from competing in women’s sport to standing up against the Holocaust, has also been a frequent front page distraction. Morrison has distanced himself from her past comments, but has resisted calls to “cancel” her, as he put it.

The forthcoming vote will determine the extent to which the Overton window, that indicator of political permissibility, has shifted. Will voters reelect Morrison and thus tacitly endorse his post-truthism? It is not that the Trump effect has made Australian politics more brutal. Rather, it has been a contributing factor in making day-to-day democracy here more untruthful, cynical, angrily partisan, culturally charged, and overly politicized.