By Jonathan Barrett and Colin Packham
SYDNEY (Reuters) – Retired policeman John Browner lives in the sort of town that might have voted for U.S. President Donald Trump – a proud place going through tough times that feels ignored by the political establishment.
But while the themes may be familiar to U.S. “rust belt” voters, the location is very different: Browner lives on the other side of the world, in the remote Western Australian gold town of Kalgoorlie.
The post-boom mining settlements and outback agricultural centers of Western Australia have become important battlegrounds for a state election on Saturday, and populist politician Pauline Hanson’s resurgent One Nation party is winning significant support.
“One of the main reasons to vote for a party like One Nation is because the establishment just goes to parliament and tells us what to do, when it should be the other way around,” Browner told Reuters.
“We were riding on gold’s back for a long time with money pouring into the state and now it’s gone. Where did it go?”
The revival of Hanson’s One Nation echoes what has been seen in the United States and Europe, where centrist governments are being challenged by right-wing, anti-immigration parties.
AMP Capital chief economist Shane Oliver said while Australia’s prosperity and 25 years of uninterrupted economic growth might limit the national appeal of One Nation, there were large parts of the country going through hard times.
“There’s been job losses and property price collapses in Western Australia,” said Oliver. “It’s easy for populist politicians to prey on that even though there’s no easy solution for the state other than bringing back a mining boom.”
Facing likely defeat at Saturday’s election, the ruling center-right state government in mineral-rich Western Australia ditched its traditional allies to strike a deal with Hanson’s party to swap preferences – a measure in Australia’s voting system akin to nominating a friend who gets your votes if you bow out of a contest early.
So far, the tie-up hasn’t appeared to dampen Hanson’s anti-establishment appeal. This week she posed for selfies with teenage school kids and chatted with pensioners during campaigning in struggling Western Australian regional centers. A few citizens even cried.
Like Trump, Hanson has been promising a return to better times and emphasizing One Nation’s hardline immigration and law and order policies.
“(There are) a lot of issues in this town,” Hanson said in Kalgoorlie on Wednesday in a video published on her Facebook page. “People feel like they have been forgotten by the major political parties. No one wants to address it.”
A STEP TO THE RIGHT
The resurgence of Hanson – she leads a four-person One Nation voting bloc in Australia’s delicately balanced federal Senate – has caused a headache for Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull’s Liberal party and its center-right state counterparts.
The Liberals have come under heavy criticism in WA for teaming up with a party that is wary of foreign investment and trade, wants to ban new mosques and stop Muslim immigration.
Four politicians in Hanson’s home state of Queensland have quit the state Liberal National party to join her, unsettling senior members of the federal government.
It’s unclear whether the Western Australian deal will be enough to save the Liberals, who are trailing the center-left Labor party in polling, or simply put its voting base offside.
While established conservative parties work out whether they should embrace or oppose the rise of the right, one thing that has been missing is an effective attack from the left, like the one led by U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders.
Greens Senator Lee Rhiannon, a prominent left-wing politician, said the movement had trouble cutting through in the current political climate.
“The tradition of the left is to work in a collective way. We need people to inspire voters,” said Rhiannon.
“Partly the conditions haven’t thrown up the big name but there is also an issue in getting the message out as we don’t have the same megaphone as the conservatives have.”
In Kalgoorlie, Browner said he was still making up his mind between voting for the traditional rural-based National Party and One Nation.
“I know Pauline isn’t from around here but she’s dealing with the issues that are important like petty crime,” said Browner. “She could be from Mars for all I care, I just like her.”
(Editing by Lincoln Feast)