Australians who thought the disruptions that have led many to view North Atlantic politics with disdain wouldn’t reach their corner of the world can no longer ignore reality. The urban-rural divide that drove Brexit and the election of Donald Trump is now reverberating closer to home, and it’s not a good look.
It’s one way of explaining the ludicrous spectacle of Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce’s refusal to quit over revelations that a former staffer is pregnant with his child. Joyce recently broke up with his wife, who is the mother of his four children. Joyce, booted from the family home, subsequently lived with the ex-staffer rent-free in an apartment owned by a political fundraiser, according to the Australian.
So what? It’s a private matter, right? Not when you build a career based on family values and complain that same-sex marriage corrupts a sacred institution. The National Party that Joyce leads, the junior coalition partner in Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull’s conservative bloc, typically represents farmers and rural voters, and moans about wasteful government spending and out-of-touch urban politicians.
Turnbull has signaled he wants Joyce gone. Joyce and his supporters are digging in, eroding Turnbull’s leadership. Turnbull is in Washington this week. You can bet that questions one, two and three to Turnbull in the obligatory post-Oval Office news conference will be about Joyce. Trump may even be asked his opinion of it; it’s hard to see him refraining.
That Joyce is still in office says a lot about the challenges Turnbull faces managing a one-seat majority in the lower house of Parliament. If Joyce chooses to quit politics entirely, that seat and Turnbull’s survival are theoretically in jeopardy.
It also says something about the chip-on-the-shoulder bloody-mindedness and parochialism that characterizes the National Party’s general outlook. If the elites in the coastal cities and, God forbid, the capital Canberra want Joyce out, then we should resist — never mind that family values of hardworking, God-fearing rural folks get trashed. Sound familiar?
Despite the image foreigners have of the country, the vast majority of Australians live in cities along one corner of the coastline. The Nationals hate that.
Turnbull is an especially attractive foil. He represents the eastern suburbs of Sydney, an area known for wealthy harborside mansions as well as diverse, trendy inner-city neighborhoods and the beachside mecca of Bondi. (Disclosure: I lived in this electorate in the 1990s before Turnbull was elected.)
To be fair, opinion on the right isn’t monolithic, even within the National Party. Whether Joyce leaves next week, next month or not at all, Turnbull’s one-seat majority gives Joyce’s supporters all the ammunition they need to feast on the rural-urban schism.
It’s this split that’s arguably the great swing factor in Australian politics, as opposed to the old labor-versus-capital divide that grew out of the 19th century.
For a while, Australians on both the right and the left thought that compulsory voting protected them from polarization because more than just a hardcore base would show up at the polls. That’s still largely true. It doesn’t mean the country is untouched by the broader political forces sweeping other Western democracies.
Many Australians also maintained that a quarter-century without a recession protected them from the worst strains affecting politics abroad. But the China-driven commodities surge that delivered much of that growth story has faded. Perhaps the political implications of that are just beginning to be felt.
Daniel Moss writes and edits articles on economics for Bloomberg View. Previously he was executive editor of Bloomberg News for global economics, and has led teams in Asia, Europe and North America.