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Does the chaos of US politics have any impact on Australia?

18 January 2021 at 5:39 pm
Neil Pharaoh
In short, yes. Neil Pharaoh says the insidious nature of US politics is already with us.

Neil Pharaoh | 18 January 2021 at 5:39 pm


Does the chaos of US politics have any impact on Australia?
18 January 2021 at 5:39 pm

In short, yes. Neil Pharaoh says the insidious nature of US politics is already with us.

Well didn’t 2021 start with a bang. Between an attempted insurrection in the US, the Australian border wars heating up, and the Australia Open and Grand Prix both creating their own special kind of havoc, you can be forgiven for assuming we were still in the chaos of 2020. 

I loved the questions and emails over the break, one which stuck with me was in relation to the impact of the US political drama and whether it will impact politics, and not for profits, in Australia. In short, it already is impacting us – in three main ways: 

  • Firstly, the erosion of faith in democratic systems and the flow through impact this has on our community and not-for-profit space.
  • Secondly, the explosion of alt-right hideouts on the internet.
  • Thirdly, using government for partisan means.

Political actors trying to undermine democratic systems have been happening on and off in Australia now for the best part of 15 years. Ever since the Karl Rove “Paint the Country Red” campaign, largely (but not exclusively) conservative political forces have been trying to shape and adjust the underpinnings of our political system. Examples of this federally mainly occurred when Abbott was PM, things like calling a royal commission into the opposition (Union Royal Commission), forcing former PMs to testify at parliamentary committees (Julia Gillard and pink batts) or even releasing Cabinet documents of the former government to throw mud – all of these things deliver short-term political expediency, but undermine systems and processes of good responsible government. Earlier still, removing permanent tenure for public servants is of the same theme. This has continued into even the progressive side of politics. Labor in Queensland abolished the last remnants of the Fitzgerald Enquiry into Police Corruption quietly in 2019, and in Victoria the creation of a Crisis Cabinet, to which all public servants report, directly removed Westminster responsibilities of ministers. In the Hotel Quarantine Inquiry it was this “Westminster failure” which was largely attributed to the consequences.  

I point these out mainly to show that the insidious nature of US politics, summed up by “any means justifies the ends”, is already with us. For social purpose organisations there almost needs to be a compact or agreement that we won’t drop to that level, or support changes that do, however that horse may have already bolted. Sector wise, making sure that we insist on due process and procedural fairness will become more key in decisions moving forward – funding or policy, at state and federal level. 

To the second point, over the weekend we saw the first more public impact of alt-right politics hitting the paper in Melbourne. A Queensland MP is using the alt-right social media network Gab, the go-to social media platform for neo-Nazis, QAnon conspiracy theorists and right-wing extremists. Gab is far more unashamedly aligned with the far right – neo-Nazis, white supremacists – than other social media sites. 

The consequences of a harder alt-right politics being normalised can not be understated, especially for organisations working with minority communities and those of diverse backgrounds – in short anyone outside a very narrow demographic who is placed at statistically higher risk when alt-right political events are on the rise. We may need to start to consider as employers and service providers how to mitigate or manage such risks. Are they in our risk frameworks, have we considered the consequences of our community being a higher risk target? We owe a duty to those we work with to keep them safe, but many community groups do not have the risk frameworks in place for the type of activities which are now all too common in the US.

Trump’s alleged actions or refusing to allow the National Guard into Washington DC will be investigated and discussed for a long time to come, but the rise of governments using the coercive powers and resources of executive government for their own ends seems to be on the rise. In Australia we see this already with government advertising leading into election campaigns where the powers of government are used for partisan ends with no check or balance. A parliamentary inquiry into this is well worth a read. A number of witnesses expressed the view that this pre-election spike in government advertising is of concern, not just because it indicates that the advertising in question may be substantially politically motivated, but also because it distorts the system of public funding of elections. 

For the social purpose sector, it is going to be harder and harder for those depending on favourable funding and policy outcomes from government to call governments at state and federal level to account for using government to achieve partisan ends. Globally, COVID has allowed autocrats to grab more power, both The Economist and NY Times have run great articles stepping into why. The key line from autocrats globally is “strong measures are needed to keep the public safe”. For many Australians on the margin this sounds eerily similar to governments domestically for the last few months. 

In wrapping up, 2021 is going to be existentially challenging for our sector. Philanthropy, funding, fundraising, demand and consistent uncertainty all will have substantial impact. Added to that, I think most social purpose organisations need to review their risks in 2021 – adding the above three considerations may have a marked impact on your organisational risk register, and resourcing going forward. 


About the author: Neil Pharaoh has spent most of his voluntary and professional life in and around social purpose organisations, government, public policy and advocacy. Neil has been behind many leading social policy and advocacy campaigns on gender rights, equality, medical research and education, and ran for Parliament in Victoria in 2014 and 2018. He regularly runs workshops and advocacy sessions and advises leading social purpose organisations on their government engagement strategy and systems. @neilpharaoh on LinkedIn, Twitter, Instagram and Facebook. 

Happenings on the hill is a fortnightly column focusing on all things politics, policy, campaigns and advocacy. Stay tuned for updates around political trends and elections, lobbying and advocacy news, and hints, tips and ideas on government engagement that are specifically written for the social purpose/for purpose sector.

If you have any ideas, suggestions, tips or questions, please feel free to email Neil Pharaoh at or reach out to him via social media at LinkedIn, Twitter, Instagram and Facebook @neilpharaoh.

Neil Pharaoh  |  @ProBonoNews

Neil Pharaoh has spent most of his voluntary and professional life in and around social purpose organisations, government, public policy and advocacy.

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