Midway through last year the political situation in the developed English-speaking world looked pretty good to those of us right-leaning voters who put a big value on small government, free-speech, Hobbesian strong national defence and national sovereignty. There were conservative governments in Canada, New Zealand, the UK and here in Australia. Canada had Stephen Harper in office, who had been Prime Minister a decade, despite being hated by the public broadcaster, the bien pensants in the universities and all the usual inner-city types gathered at their favourite fair-trade coffee shops.
New Zealand had a long-serving John Key in office. True, when it comes to national defence the Kiwis can and do free-ride on the coat-tails of Australia and the US, spending next to nothing while making meaningless (indeed harmful) gestures about no nuclear US navy ships being allowed to visit. Prime Minister Key isn’t exactly my cup of tea when it comes to his enthusiasm for criminalising parents who spank their children, or his views on the highly proportional German-style voting system there, or indeed on the need to change the Kiwi flag. (Mr. Key favours all three of those, I dislike them all.) Yet by New Zealand standards he is far more right-leaning than the alternative.
In the United Kingdom in the middle of last year you had a Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron who looked decidedly vulnerable. An election loomed and his prospects looked less than sterling. (We all now know that Mr. Cameron went on to lead the Tories to a surprising majority government win.) Mr. Cameron had by midyear taken to trying to reposition himself to the right, as he had discovered he actually needed the votes of regular party members who were bleeding off to the United Kingdom Independence Party. Heck, Mr. Cameron had even promised a referendum on staying in the Europe Union should he win the next election – admittedly not the most likely possibility at the time the promise was made.
Here in Australia, Mr. Abbott was the prime minister. On national sovereignty and foreign affairs he was excellent. On government spending he at least made the right noises, the incompetence of making the case for it and then implementing it notwithstanding. You knew he was a man of the right. You knew he was despised by the ABC, which is almost always a sign of being on the correct side of any argument (not unlike finding yourself on the opposite side of an issue to the Greens). He was a good way down in the polls but the betting market had him still as a strong favourite to win, and he certainly commanded strong support among Liberal Party members.
Of course, in the most important Anglosphere country of them all, the United States, there was a Democrat as President. Mr. Obama was (and is) probably the most left-leaning President in US history, and certainly in recent times. If you doubt me just go and compare the policies of fellow Democrat President Bill Clinton (free trade, welfare reform, surpluses) to those of Obama. The Republicans had by the middle of last year captured both the House of Representatives and the Senate. But it’s fair to say that the Republican leadership in both those Houses of the legislature was hardly putting Mr. Obama on the spot by forcing him to veto bill after bill. But at least they could block any left-leaning legislative agenda the president might otherwise have in mind – forcing him to try achieving his goals by the back door of executive orders (which can be easily undone when a Republican next wins the White House).
That was midway through last year. Three conservative prime ministers and a distinctly non-conservative president. Today, things have grown worse for small-government Hobbesians. After a bit more than a decade in power Mr. Harper was badly beaten by the left-of-centre Liberal Party in Canada led by Justin Trudeau (the son of former Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau). Justin has to be the least accomplished leader in the Western democratic world, and certainly in the Anglosphere. By that I mean the credentials and life experiences he brought with him before taking office were decidedly thin. No university degree, though he started a couple of different ones. No experience of business success or, indeed, of running anything.
True, Trudeau Jr had been a snowboard instructor, a summer camp counsellor and a substitute drama teacher, but I doubt his CV would have won him even an interview for a bog-standard middle-management job, save for his famous last name and inherited wealth. Oh, and did I mention that he’s a young, good-looking guy with a good-looking wife and good-looking kids? True, Justin’s view are so unbelievably politically correct he could pretty much count on the automatic support of the usual vendors of suspect opinions. For example, he objected to the word “barbaric” in a citizenship study guide describing unsavoury Muslim practices, such as honour killings, and he further explained that the Boston Marathon bombing “happened because of someone who feels completely excluded … completely at war with innocence” (whatever that means). He makes Malcolm Turnbull look like Winston Churchill by comparison. But that’s what Canadian voters wanted, someone other than Harper. And that’s assuredly what they got.
In New Zealand not much has changed since the middle of last year, but here in Australia politics has clearly moved to the left. Mr. Abbott is gone and Mr. Turnbull is in. Today we have probably the most left-leaning leader of the Liberal Party, well, ever. By all normal comparisons – so excluding a comparison to Justin Trudeau – Mr. Turnbull is politically correct; he leans left on constitutional matters; he’s at home in the inner-city coffee-culture haunts and the ABC’s workshop collectives, where the merest mention of Mr. Abbott provoked (and still does provoke) spasms of apoplexy and the spewing of bile. Ourt latest Prime Ministe is seemingly far less concerned about reining in the deficit than Mr. Abbott — though, to be fair, that may just be because his key selling point to 54 MPs when defenestrating Tony was his ability to keep the opinion polls favourable and so actually taking a tough decision on cutting spending is hardly a way to do that, however important it may be to the country’s long-term future. Alas, one even worries about border security after the next election.
What of Mr. Cameron in the UK, now that he’s won that surprise majority government? Well, having promised a repeal of their statutory bill of rights (aka Human Rights Act) and a referendum on leaving the European Union, we can expect tensions in the Tory Party to become increasingly fraught as conflict between wets and the dries escalates. It will take all of Mr. Cameron’s skills to keep the Tory Party together. And if the EU referendum produces a result in favour of leaving, well, it’s hard to see how such a pro-stay-in-Europe PM as Mr. Cameron can stay in his job, at least not in the long term.
That brings us to the US. This November is a presidential election of unusual significance. A win by a Democrat and the Obama legacy (Obamacare, incredibly weak and naïve foreign policy, plenty of emphasis on side-stepping the Republican-controlled legislature and forcing change by executive fiat, with all the implications that has on federalism) will be locked in for some time to come. A win by a Republican and much, perhaps all, of it will be unwound. Odds are still strongly on Hillary Clinton to win the nomination for the Democrats. Things are far less clear for the Republicans: a Trump win is now imaginable (though not, in my view, desirable), with Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio the two most likely ‘normal’ candidates to emerge victorious and take the Repubican nomination. Hillary carries a lot of baggage and is nothing like the campaigner that Obama is.
The election will be a very close one. As far as world affairs go this is the contest that matters, with the UK’s referendum to leave the EU a close second. For right-leaning, small government Hobbesians, the Australian election due sometime this year doesn’t seem to matter much at all. We don’t have any skin in the game as it were, as either way it will be a left-of-centre winner.
James Allan, Garrick Professor of Law at the University of Queensland is the author of Democracy in Decline