The Rise of Populism – A Different Lens
Make America great again. I mean, how simply can you put it? There’s no substance underneath it, but we don’t have time for substance, we just want the quick answer, thanks very much. Populism is a political approach or ideology which seeks an expression of, quote, “the undiluted will of the people.” While populism has been around for many, many centuries in millennia, there is something about the contemporary form of populism which is quite interesting and quite distinct. The essential element of populism is what it stands against and what it stands against is the establishment. It stands against political parties. Populism is when people resort to stereotypes to promote a certain point of view. It’s temporary, it’s ephemeral and so anything that’s based on populism, I think, is in the long term going to be destructive, rather than constructive. And so what we start to see in elections in the 2010s is that left-wing voters, as well as right wing voters, converged through vehicles like One Nation Party, the United Kingdom Independence Party, the National Front in France and so on to mount a critique of globalisation. Basically, they were responding to their material circumstances and they were seeking to register a protest. What truly matters is not which party controls our government, but whether our government is controlled by the people. The economy has collapsed. People don’t have jobs. If people don’t have that sense of well-being, then they look for answers. If the system doesn’t yield those answers or doesn’t have the resources to yield those answers, then they’ll look for people who want to break the system or change the system. In the United States, they have been impacted by the global financial crisis in a significant way so what we see over the last 10 years is the electorate there being fed up by the economic and social policies of the established parties and established candidates. Trump’s perfect as Trump is a creature of media. That’s all Trump is, he is a media construction. So in the environment where you’re looking to try and get a simple, easy to digest message across, Trump is perfect. Make America great again. No substance underneath it. We don’t have time for substance, we just want the quick answer, thanks very much. He understood that. He understood that people were in pain so he has offered them a solution. I think, ultimately, people will work out, well, was that the answer? Well, probably not, but let’s wait and see how that’ll unfold. What we’re finding is Australia’s populist experience is very different to the rest of the world. Where there is this real deep division in society that has developed over time. That is very much concerned about economics, social identity, multi-culturalism, race and of course religion. A lot of people have been locked out of the political process, it’s failed them they’re saying so and the political class, and the media class, have got very few answers so they instead of trying to understand or cater to, they are raging and venting and insulting. For people who are on the edge, they will look, maybe, at different ethnic groups and say, well, you know, if it weren’t for them coming in then, you know, I would have a job. Well, that’s nonsense. It’s actually got nothing to do with that. In fact, immigration has been the greatest blessing for Australia because it’s economically a really powerful means of getting our economy going and bringing in new ideas. In our surveys when we ask people, “What’s the most important issue facing Australia today?” and immigration, population issues, population growth, that suite of policies, and linked to that probably is asylum issues and boat arrivals, those sorts of issues are very significant There’s nothing very sophisticated, I don’t think, about the – the Pauline Hanson messaging here. She’s found a way of exploiting some peoples’ nascent concerns about the other, about migrants and she can blame them very conveniently. It links to concern about sovereignty. It links to concern about the Australian way of life, whatever that may mean. For these voters, preserving that form of government and that form of nationalism that they characterise as the world of their parents, the world of their grandparents, what Australians fought for. The worst thing we could do as a country is to turn on our immigrants and our immigrant forebears and say that’s the problem. That’s not the problem, it’s actually part of the solution. When we think about populism there’s an instinct to think about the worst of people so how does populism become a pejorative for prejudice? People who are enticed by populist policies are not people who are bad, you know, they’re not necessarily prejudiced and biased and racist and all of these things. They’re more than that. These are people who have a feeling that they’ve lost something. and they’ve lost the sense of trying to be a good citizen and not achieving the rewards that they thought they would get by being a good citizen. I don’t think that the contemporary populism is, in many ways, comparable to Nazism because the political situation is quite different. What’s similar is each populist movement tries to appeal to particular kinds of grievances in a particular political situation. People dismiss the supporters of the Pauline Hansons or the Cory Bernardis or for Greens, for that matter, as stupid but you could equally say it’s stupid to persist with political parties that haven’t delivered. I completely understand why they would feel threatened and why the kinds of ideas of Hanson would really tap into a sentiment of theirs. And if we’re being told by Malcolm and his crew that we should be agile, you know what, I’m not feeling very agile. I’m 55, I’m white, I’m male, I don’t have a lot of skill set and my job has just disappeared. Does this feel do I feel very agile here? I’m feeling really scared and intimidated and then I listen to One Nation and I think she makes sense. We’re one of the richest nations in the world. We do not cater well for the needy and we don’t have sufficient social structures to kind of support those people who are left behind. At one level there’s a marked similarity between populism in whatever country you look at, whether it’s Germany or whether it’s England or whether it’s Australia, and that similarity is that distrust of the existing system, the yearning for simplicity, the yearning for a leader that will encapsulate the national will. The Australian populist parties are very small, they are minor parties and they do not have the decades of experience, nor have they amassed the same resources as a major party has. So they are organisationally very brittle and they are prone to collapsing and morphing into something else. What we’ve got to remember when it comes to populism, is that populism is more rhetorical than real. When we look at what Trump has actually been able to achieve, very strong on rhetoric, but he knows he can’t just simply shut down all the trade with China. That would plunge the economy into complete reverse and would be an absolute disaster. This is where populism has its challenges. So, basically, it will only ever work while you deliver what you said you were going to deliver and, increasingly, voters mark their cards of the politicians very, very hard. We ask people, you know, “How much confidence can you have that the government in Canberra is doing the right thing for the Australian people?” And at the peak of our surveying that was in 2009, nearly half the population said, “Yes, I’ve got a lot of trust or some trust,” and now it’s less than one-third. What we’ve also seen is a complete gumming up of the works. Nothing can get through the Senate that isn’t soft and fluffy and lots of spending. Hard decisions can’t be made and increasingly it’s harder to appeal to the wider public interest for anything. Firm leadership, for good or bad, is almost impossible now in Australia. Populist parties never really expect to form a government but what they do want to do is influence parties that will form a government. The rise of these minor parties in Australia, even the rise of these populist parties is actually very good for the Australian democratic experience because it opens up more options for voters, more policy options, more choices, more candidates, and a sense of these parties being able to keep governments more accountable. Amongst young people I think what they are better able to incorporate in the way that they think is That they accept the world is made up of differences that don’t actually matter. Young people understand the world is being a bigger space and a global community in some respects. Universities, that’s what they’re for, thinking, independence, developing your ideas. Where are the limits to what we tolerate and how open are we going to be? Where does free speech stop and hate speech start? And so I think as long they’re talking about those issues, then universities are still making, hopefully, a really good contribution to a civil future.