Where populism ain’t so popular

This piece originally appeared in the Spectator Australia.

It has been five years since populism returned to prominence in the politics of Western democracies, yet it seems Australia’s political class still does not understand what it is or where it comes from. This is the overwhelming impression one is left with after reading the final report of the Senate’s Inquiry into Nationhood, nationality, and democracy, which was released last month. The report draws on more than 200 submissions from academics, think tanks, government departments and assorted quangos and provides a fascinating, and somewhat worrisome, survey of elite opinion on just what democracy entails – which, as it turns out, apparently has little to with giving the majority what it wants. And there, as they say, lies the rub.

The inquiry was established in July 2019, ostensibly as a response to growing dissatisfaction among voters with our politics and perhaps even with our political system itself. The report, then, takes up the question of how the state can best cultivate the feeling of national belonging required to motivate participation in politics and widespread acceptance of political outcomes. What it finds is that trust in government is at an historically, though perhaps not unprecedently, low ebb but that support for democracy itself remains strong. Submissions speculate variously that there is some connection between these facts and, among other things, changes in the economy like the casualisation of the workforce, the structure of the media industry, the narrowness of political party bases and the professionalisation of the political class.

But the greatest threat to democracy, we are told, is populism, especially of the right-wing persuasion. Populism is here presented as mostly a kind of right-wing identity politics – ‘a barely disguised form of xenophobia’ – that undermines democratic institutions by claiming to speak for a silent majority against a corrupt elite and thereby calling into question the procedures by which liberal democracy aggregates and trades off the different interests of society. Populism damages social cohesion, and, as one submitter puts it, ‘erode[s] a shared truth or shared reality’ relied on by liberal democratic institutions.

According to the report, populism has already more or less ended democracy in Hungary and Poland, and it almost did the same to the United States. Australia, however, exhibits few signs of the same fervour and the report attributes this to widespread support for multiculturalism, defusing one of the main causes of populism overseas, and a prolonged period of economic growth. The report happily quotes one witness’s testimony that ‘our elites haven’t failed on the scale that they have in the United State or in Europe’.

Thus absolved, the report makes a set of recommendations that are mostly about increasing the power of politicians and experts and spruiking their regime. To the first, the report recommends increasing public funding for major parties (though no submission suggested it), more parliamentary committees (to hear more expert testimony), and the establishment of a Parliamentary Science Office (to extend white coat rule beyond the pandemic).

To the second, the report emphasises the need for teaching Australians a new national story based on the ‘three great streams’ of Indigenous history, British settlement and modern multiculturalism, along with enhanced civics education that promotes active citizenship and the value of diversity. For good measure, there ought to be a ‘national strategy for fake news and misinformation’ and pressure, of some sort, placed on the United State government to censor its citizens on the internet. This is to be monitored by a new ‘democratic audit’ to mark, by some standard or other, Australian democracy against comparable countries.

All in all, then, there is little wrong with Australia that more scientific administration and controlled communication would not fix. But this prescription reveals the basic flaw in the report’s understanding of populism: it is not primarily about elites or institutions, but results.

In Australia, the results of our politics have been poor for a long time. Last month, we at the Institute of Public Affairs released research that shows that on 23 of 25 measures from right across Australian society, the quality of the Australian way of life has declined since 2000. Everything from housing affordability to business formation to the marriage rate is getting worse. The building blocks of the good life are crumbling.

All this reflects badly not only on our politicians but also on the experts who advise them. The entire system of credentials, which vouch for elite competence, is called into question. Moreover, few of this class have experienced the bad effects of their own policies. The Senate report mentions economic inequality as a potential cause of dissatisfaction with politics, but the important divide is that between the ruling class of publicly funded politicians and experts, big corporations and university academics and administrators who are thriving, and mainstream Australians who pay for them and for everything else.

In short, people understand that politics is a grubby expedient, but it is only the expedience that excuses the grubbiness. Talk of procedures being, as the report says, ‘robust by international standards’ is perverse when the results of those procedures are so bad.

The importance of substantive concerns, ahead of procedures, is why our submission to the inquiry focused on Australian values, which provide the standard by which we judge government’s performance. We suggested an asset-owning democracy, where people have the chance to own a home, get a job and start a family, would properly express mainstream values like individual freedom, opportunity and hard work. But our ruling class prefers to hobble investment, drive up the cost of electricity, dumb down our universities, divide us by race and, if needs must, lock us in our homes. Which is to say, our politics is doing badly because it does not aim to do good as most Australians understand it – and that idea, that our institutions should aim at the people’s values, is what democracy is really about.

Rather, then, than fiddling about with institutional tweaks or trying to convince us not to trust our own eyes, if the government really were concerned about populism it would start by admitting that populists have a point.