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Is Australia Next?

Amid the sound and fury of US President Donald Trump, European populists, and Brexiteers, it is tempting to think that Australia has been spared from the political turmoil sweeping Western democracies. But if one focuses not on the rise of populism but on the decline of the mainstream, Australia no longer looks like an outlier.

SYDNEY – As Australia prepares for federal elections on May 18, it probably looks to outsiders like an oasis of stability and sanity among Western democracies that have gone haywire. There are no widespread populist revolts, no “yellow vests” or agitators calling for a Brexit-style retreat from the Asia-Pacific. Though Australia does have far-right fringe parties, they have not had anything like the electoral success of their European counterparts. In fact, among countries with more than ten million people, Australia has one of the highest migration rates of any major economy, yet there is hardly any public backlash.

If one accepts that a spike in populism is the defining characteristic of contemporary Western politics, Australia appears to have dodged a bullet. But if we set aside populism, we see that Australia is not an exception after all. The key development across Western democracies in recent years, Australia included, is not that something new has emerged, but that something old has declined.

Back in 2013, Irish political scientist Peter Mair warned that Europe’s postwar party system was unraveling, owing to the decline of traditional center-right and center-left parties. Modern democracy cannot function without political parties, yet, according to Mair, “The age of party democracy has passed.” Though most mainstream parties remain intact, they have shed members and become increasingly “disconnected from the wider society.”

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