Their vision is certainly ambitious. Claiming to represent “the 80 per cent of us in the sensible centre of Australian life”, they want to run candidates in all 151 lower house seats at the 2022 federal election. And while it might sound trite, they want to change Australian politics.
“It’s basically stuffed,” says Hughes. “It’s polarised. It doesn’t reform things. It doesn’t change things. It’s short-termist. It always tinkers around with solutions that help governments win the next election but fail to address anything else. The question is: what can we do about that?”
For decades centrist third-parties have attempted to answer that question. The most well-known example was the Australian Democrats, which Hughes joined twice during its heyday. (He also had a brief dalliance with the Democratic Labour Party, and in the 2000s tried to start a populist movement called People Power with shareholder activist Stephen Mayne.)
More recently, Nick Xenophon cultivated a personality-based party whose new incarnation, Centre Alliance, still has a presence in Federal Parliament but faces an uncertain future. And Clive Palmer’s $60 million effort at the last election shared many hallmarks of centrist populism, though he cut a deal with the Coalition and essentially campaigned against the Labor opposition.
I ask Vithoulkas how the Sensible Centre differs from Palmer’s offering. “Besides that I’m thinner and prettier?” she jokes. “He treated people and politics like a business plan and forgot that there were people in play. And he had his own personal agenda.”
Hughes says Palmer’s party was “a one-man vanity project”; by contrast, they are trying to create a grassroots movement.
But the Sensible Centre has been slow to get off the ground and its status is not entirely clear. Hughes says it has about “1000 members and participants”; Vithoulkas says it’s “a few thousand”, then later says it’s 2000. The joining fee is $25. They have not yet registered as a political party, but will have to if they want to contest elections. Plans to run candidates at Queensland’s council polls in March did not come to fruition, but a state election looms in October.
What the Sensible Centre does have to show for itself at present is a schmick website, including a policy charter that stretches the definition of centrism.
On immigration, it says our annual intake is “unsustainably high”, multiculturalism is “cumbersome and inorganic” and refugees should be given temporary asylum rather than permanent homes. It also calls for “ethnic enclaves” in our cities and schools to be “broken up”.
Vithoulkas rambles when asked about this policy. She says her parents, who migrated to Australia from Greece, “didn’t come here because there were free handouts and they could just do nothing”.
Is that what today’s migrants do?
“The challenge with immigration in this country is if you talk about immigration, you’re either a racist or you’re not. It’s one or the other. Because that extremism has appeared, we haven’t had a proper conversation.”
Across 15 policy areas, the Sensible Centre’s charter also speaks of removing “passive welfare” for Indigenous Australians and developing a “self-help culture”, upholding “the natural authority of families” and capping private school fees at $20,000 a year.
Recently the movement has focused on criticising Australia’s response to the pandemic, accusing politicians of panicking, shutting down society and putting the economy “in a coma”. Its website urges visitors to sign a petition to “Stop the Corona Madness”, which claims that Australia was protected from the virus by its geography, low population density and suburban backyards.
I suggest to Vithoulkas and Hughes that this may not be a centrist position, given both sides of politics saw the need to take harsh measures to stop the virus and the vehement opposition has mostly emanated from the hard right.
Both say our leaders failed to prove the measures they took were necessary. Hughes argues the response was “wildly disproportionate” and that closing our borders, along with 14-day quarantines for returning citizens, would have likely been sufficient.
Peter Chen, a senior lecturer in politics at Sydney University, says this shows one of the problems with the political centre – everyone thinks they’re in it, no matter where they sit on the spectrum.
“There’s a popular centrism that says: we’re different because all those other elites are corrupt and we’re talking to the 80 per cent of the population who are Aussie battlers,” says Chen. “Often it’s a kind of a code word for ‘non-political’, ‘non-partisan’ or something like that. It’s a kind of nothing thing to say.”
On platforms such as Reddit and Twitter, it’s fashionable to dismiss centrism as a flimsy product of the establishment that largely wants to uphold the status quo by presenting it as “common sense”. Critics often deride centrists as having “brain worms”, with bland prescriptions that please nobody, achieve nothing and pretend to have eschewed ideology for pragmatism. It is particularly common in American political discourse.
Australia’s past three Coalition prime ministers have all at various times championed the “sensible centre”. Tony Abbott, as opposition leader, spoke of returning the industrial relations pendulum to the sensible centre. Scott Morrison has talked about finding the sensible centre on climate change policy. (Warringah MP Zali Steggall has also appealed to the “sensible centre” on climate policy.)
Malcolm Turnbull was especially fond of the term. In a speech in London while prime minister he championed Robert Menzies’ version of Liberalism as a progressive force, not a reactionary one. “The sensible centre was the place to be,” Turnbull said at the time. “It remains the place to be.”
If it’s true that elections are won in the centre, why do explicitly centrist movements inevitably fail to galvanise voters? Vithoulkas and Hughes concede it’s a tough question. “The only thing I would say is that I and other people just have to be smarter, wiser than previously,” says Hughes.
“The external environment is more favourable than it has ever been. In every country you’ve seen unprecedented levels of distrust in politics and collapse in trust in the whole political process. So that’s the context and it’s the same in every Western country.”
That is true. The Australian National University 2019 election study found trust in government was at a record low of just 25 per cent. Satisfaction with democracy was at its lowest level since the 1975 constitutional crisis, at 59 per cent. Only 12 per cent of people thought government was run for “all the people”, while 56 per cent believed it was run for “a few big interests”.
But Chen says we should take those figures with a grain of salt. “A lot of that is a bit of a natural reaction,” he says, in the same way people are typically sceptical about the integrity of used car salesmen. Furthermore, it doesn’t mean people are about to abandon the major parties en masse in favour of some populist, centrist alternative.
“You can barely fit a credit card between the two major parties,” says Chen. “I just don’t see this huge gulf between the LNP as some ultra-conservative right-wing party and the ALP as some thrall party to the union movement sitting out on the socialist left. There are topics the elite don’t really want to talk about, and there’s a space for an opportunist party to break into, but that’s different from saying there [can be] a catch-all party in the centre.”
Vithoulkas won’t let such pessimism deter her. “I’ve always had to climb a mountain,” she says. “I’m not going down without a fight. I don’t care about losing. But the big boys, that’s all they focus on: not losing. When you don’t worry about that, you make change.”
Michael Koziol is deputy editor of The Sun-Herald, based in Sydney.