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Environmentalists' potential allies on the populist right

  • 03 August 2016


Discontent has reached Australia. The brash anti-establishment populism of the Tea Party and Trump in the US, Brexit and UKIP in the UK and a menagerie of left and right parties in Europe has finally washed up on our shores.

It's been coming for a while. Australia escaped the worst ravages of the Global Financial Crisis and was largely spared from the populist backlash that spread across Europe in the aftermath. But the historically high vote for protectionist independents in the federal election is a sign that we're still caught up in these turbulent times.

So what's driving this populism? Writing about Brexit, Trump and the fracturing of conservatism, academic Clive Hamilton has argued 'the underlying issue is the widespread uneasiness many feel about the loss of control over their lives due to the forces of globalisation'.

He identified three broad concerns: the ubiquity, power and apparent impunity of transnational corporations; the ability of 'global finance' to wreak local economies (e.g. through the outsourcing of manufacturing jobs); and apparently uncontrollable immigration, which seems to jeopardise the social fabric of communities.

We can see concerns about the power of transnational corporations and the vagaries of the global marketplace in Donald Trump's bellows about ripping up free trade agreements, or in the overwhelming support for Brexit among former manufacturing hubs in northern England.

Closer to home, we can see discontent with globalisation in Senator Nick Xenophon's opportunistic protectionism, Bob Katter's rejection of privatisation, and One Nation's talk of 'sovereignty'.

All of these are about reclaiming the local jobs and industries, not to mention the national identity, lost in the neoliberal phase of globalisation during the 1980s, when financial regulations, trade barriers and social welfare systems were swept aside with the rise of free market ideology.

For political elites, it's terrifying — a slide into the nationalism and fascism that precipitated the Second World War. But it's also worth asking if there are opportunities in the chaos, particularly for progressive causes that have withered under the stranglehold of the neoliberal agenda.


"Given these overlaps, it's possible to see left-leaning environmentalists and right-leaning populists working towards the same goals for different reasons."


Take environmentalism as an example. At first glance, right-leaning populism might seem incompatible with the goals of protecting our natural wonders or acting on climate change. And yet what is most incompatible between environmentalism and right-wing worldviews is neoliberal economic theory — the belief in minimal government intervention, unfettered free trade