Australia’s Centrist Teal Alternative – and a Possible Center-Populist Alternative to the Alternative

The center-right Australian Liberal Party has long been a major political force, leading Australia’s government, in coalition with the agrarian-focused National Party, from 2013 to 2022. In 2022, however, it suffered a sharp reversal, losing 17 seats in the House of Representatives. Most of these losses were in wealthy inner-suburban electoral division in major metropolitan areas – historically the party’s main bases of power. The residents of these areas, however, have become more leftwing on social and cultural issues than the party as a whole, and they are much more concerned about climate change. Although some of these former Liberal strongholds turned to the center-left Labour Party, others opted for so-called Teal independents. While the Teals are strongly committed to countering climate change and upholding leftwing social values, they retain the Liberal Party’s more conservative economic outlook. Their “teal” label reflects these ideological commitments, as the color combines blue, symbolizing the Liberal Party, and green, symbolizing, of course, the Green Party.

The seven Teal independents who now sit in Australia’s House of Representatives are an interesting group. They are, by U.S. standards at least, relatively young, but they are also very accomplished. Several have had high-level executive careers, and two are scions of noted political dynasties. As befits sports-besotted Australia, a few of them are celebrated athletes. But what is more remarkable is that they are all women. (The slides posted below provide basic information on the seven Teal MPs.)

Although women are over-represented, men are not absent from the Teal movement. In 2022, the Australian Capital Territory (Canberra, essentially) elected a Teal candidate, David Pocock, as one of its two senators. (The Australian Senate is less powerful than the House of Representatives, but it is significant.) Born and reared in Zimbabwe, Pocock fits the Teal model, as he was vice captain of Canberra’s professional rugby union team, the Brumbies, and was twice a finalist for the World Rugby association’s honor of “player of the year.” He is also a noted activist for environmental causes and same-sex marriage.

The Teal surge reveals some interesting and important developments in political philosophy that are not limited to Australia. Historically, most democratic countries have been dominated by two main political parties, one of which primarily represents the economic interest of the elites, and the other those of the working and lower-middle classes. But as the former party has typically been more socially and culturally conservative, it has also attracted some support from working-class voters, particularly those living outside of metropolitan areas. By the same token, as the latter party has typically been more socially and culturally leftwing, it has also attracted support from elite voters, particularly those living in urban areas. Such discrepant bases of support generate tensions and imbalances that can potentially lead to political realignments.

In the United States, the Republican Party has historically been more oriented toward elites and the Democratic Party more oriented toward the working class. These orientations began to shift after the social upheavals of the 1960s, as culturally conservative non-elites – “Reagan Democrats” – turned to the Republican Party while culturally progressive elites flocked to the Democratic Party. In the 1990s, Democratic president Bill Clinton further propelled this realignment by embracing Wall Street and corporate capitalism more generally and by deemphasizing the party’s traditional working-class base. Although both parties now encompass major contingents of both elite and non-elite voters, the balance has shifted. As maverick Democratic Party analyst Ruy Teixeira demonstrates, the Republican Party seems to be emerging as the first choice of the multi-ethnic working class. The Democratic Party, in contrast, now enjoys overwhelming support in the county’s wealthiest inner suburbs, once Republican bastions. (See, most recently, Teixeira & Judis, Where Have all the Democrats Gone?)

Political evolution, however, has worked out differently in Australia, where the Labour Party has remained more focused on working-class voters. As a result, wealthy inner suburbs long remained loyal to the “Tories” (Liberals). But emerging tensions between increasingly green and socially progressive elite voters and the more conservative party base and establishment could not be contained forever. But rather than opting for the more economically leftwing Labour Party, many residents of the country’s wealthiest areas turned instead to the more economically conservative Teal independents. As a result of this exodus, the Liberal Party now finds itself in an uncomfortable situation, with some observers thinking that it might be relegated to long-term minority status.

But Australia’s Labour Party has its own problems, as indicated by the decisive defeat of the Indigenous Voice referendum that it strongly supported. As it turns out, many of its leftwing social and cultural policies have limited support in the working-class and immigrant communities that form Labour’s main bulwarks. Climate policy might become a bigger problem. In 2022, Australia’s parliament passed a far-reaching act that “codifies a 43 per cent emissions reduction target by 2030 (on 2005 levels), requires the Climate Change Authority to provide advice on Australia’s progress against those targets, mandates that the Minister for Climate Change reports annually to Parliament on Australia’s progress, and forces federal government agencies to adhere to the legislative requirements of the Act.” If this act results in significantly higher energy prices coupled with reduced reliability, as conservative critics foresee, significant working-class defections from the Labour Party might follow.

But where could such disgruntled voters go? In the United States, the increasingly right-populist Republican Party is the choice of many who find themselves in the same situation. In Australia, however, the main right-populist party, Pauline Hanson’s One Nation, has been in decline for decades and currently has a negligible presence in government (two national senate seats, one seat in state and territory lower houses, and three seats in state and territory upper houses). Its stridently anti-immigration and anti-Asian stance precludes widespread support in the more socially conservative working-class suburbs that rejected the Indigenous Voice referendum, as they all have large immigrant population.

Perhaps a new party or political movement will emerge to represent the concerns of such voters and communities. The only existing possibility, to my knowledge, is the center-populist Dai Le & Frank Carbone Network, which was registered as a political party earlier this year. Tellingly, its two founders hail from the two main parties. Frank Carbone, formerly of the Labour Party, is currently mayor of the astoundingly diverse city of Fairfield – home to one of the world’s largest Assyrian Christian communities – while former Liberal Dai Le represents the spatially intersecting electoral division of Fowler in the Australian House of Representatives. She won this position in 2022 even though Fowler had been classified as one of Labour’s safest seats. Significantly, Le abstained from the Climate Change Bill of 2022, stating that “I support a cleaner and greener environment, but my main priority is making sure the high cost of living and unemployment rates in our area are stabilised – especially in these very tough economic times.”

Similarly, the stance of the Dai Le & Frank Carbone Network on the Indigenous Voice referendum was “unknown, undecided, ambiguous or neutral.” But after the measure’s defeat, Le, who came to Australia as a child refugee from Vietnam, pushed back at accusations that it revealed a deep strain of racism in the country. As she put it: “Of course, they are people who are racist, but it doesn’t mean Australia is a racist country. Far from it, we are … in the Southeast Asian region and we have become a multicultural country …  We are embracing that.”

Le also proudly embraces Australian patriotism. She symbolized this attitude by wearing an Australian-flag dress for her first Parliamentary speech (see below). In this emotional address, she praised the “freedom” and “endless possibilities” that Australia offers.

But although the Dai Le & Frank Carbone Network potentially represents a new force in Australian politics, its current ambitions are limited and local. As reported in the Wikipedia article on the new party:

The ideals espoused by Le and Carbone have had an emphasis on the Western Sydney region, a majority Labour-aligned area. Le stated to the Guardian Australia in May, following the party’s creation, “Our people… pay tolls and taxes, and yet the money doesn’t come back into building services and infrastructure for our community, we need to come together and build a stronger western Sydney voice for our community.” Further adding: “The end goal is to have representation for western Sydney, from people who are actually from western Sydney, live in western Sydney, understand the issues of western Sydney.” Party co-founder Frank Carbone, in an interview with Sydney’s 2GB said: “Ultimately we’re here for the people in the western suburbs, and, you know, the western suburbs is one of the largest economies in Australia and we just feel that a lot more needs to be done to actually improve the quality of life of people who live out here…”

Mainstream political parties in many countries are currently in some peril, losing voters, suffering from internal conflicts, and undergoing wild swings of fortune. Germany’s center-right Christian Democratic Union is currently polling at only around 29 percent in “national party voter intention,” while its rival center-left Social Democratic Party comes in at a miserable 16 percent. In the United Kingdom, the Conservative Party scored a stunning victory in 2019, gaining 48 seats in the House of Commons while the Labour Party lost 60; today the Conservatives are polling at less than 25 percent. In the United States, the presumptive nominees of both main parties are decidedly unpopular with the electorate at large, opening possibilities for third-party candidates of various stripes.

Although there are many reasons for such instability, I suspect that the dynamics explored above in the Australian context figure prominently. Historically, parties representing the economic interests of the elites were also socially and culturally conservative, regarding radical change in these areas as threatening the status quo that upheld their power. By the same token, parties representing the economic interests of the working and lower middle classes were open to change, and as result tended to be suspicious of conservatism across the board. Today, many working-class voters fear that radical cultural change threatens their standing, while many elites welcome it, viewing it as more liberatory than threatening. If such tendencies intensify, we could see politically mature democracies transform from political systems dominated by center-left and center-right mainstream parties to ones dominated instead by culturally progressive center-elite parties (“Teals”) and more culturally conservative center-populist parties (“Dai Le & Frank Carbonites”?). But it is probably more likely that we will see instead intensified chaos and the growth of parties and political movements of more extremist bents, whether left, right, or unclassifiable on a one-dimensional spectrum. I, for one, hope that the center holds, but I am not confident that it will.

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