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.

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Warts And All Memorial

ORIGINALLY APPEARED IN THE SPECTATOR AUSTRALIA

As its name makes clear, the Australian War Memorial exists to memorialise the service and sacrifice of Australians in war, as a reflection of our shared commitment to our country and each other. It does not exist to denigrate our national character nor to pander to the worst kinds of elite self-hatred so lamentably prominent across our national institutions. Yet there is a danger now that this place of honour might be turned to these subversive ends.

In the wake of the Brereton report on alleged war crimes committed by Australian SAS troops in Afghanistan, there have been calls for the War Memorial to immediately reflect the allegations in its exhibitions. Memorial director Matt Anderson has suggested that curators will indeed do just that. Similarly, former Chief of the Defence Force, Admiral Chris Barrie has suggested that the SAS exhibit be removed altogether. The prime minister has responded meekly, saying only that all such changes will need to be approved by the War Memorial’s board.

But it should be clear that it would not fit the purpose of the War Memorial to foreground the bad acts of a few soldiers. Of course, wherever criminality is proved, it should be punished to the fullest extent, and if this comes to pass, no one would suggest that it be whitewashed from the history of Australia’s war in Afghanistan. Yet it would not be, and should not be presented as, the sum total, or even the most important part, of that history. Nor should the war in Afghanistan, despite its unprecedented length, be allowed to overshadow Australia’s larger military history.

The War Memorial’s curators are charged with telling the full story of Australians at war. That story is overwhelmingly a story of courage, discipline, loyalty and other virtues, demonstrated in defence of our home, our values and our traditional liberties. Australians have fought honourably from the Sommes to Kokoda to Long Tan and beyond, including in Afghanistan.

This is the truth to which the War Memorial is dedicated. Undue emphasis on the bad acts of a few at the expense of this larger story would not be truthful. It would, in fact, be deeply misleading.

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Closer to Home

This article from the Summer 2019 edition of the IPA Review is by Director of Research Daniel Wild and IPA Research Fellows Zachary Gorman and Andrew Bushnell. It is an edited extract from ‘Australian Values and The Enduring Importance of the Nation-State’, a research report prepared for the Senate Inquiry.

If Donald Trump has achieved nothing else, he has at least made the terms of politics more honest. In calling for a wall to be built on the United States’ southern border, and in adopting an aggressive America First foreign and trade policy, Trump has exposed a widening rift between those who benefit from globalisation and those who do not. For one group, the nation-state is nothing more than a barrier to progress and justice; for the other, the nation-state is a home and a source of meaning. The two visions are irreconcilable.

The dispute, of course, is bigger than Trump. All the countries of the developed world, and a few more besides, have been affected in some way by the question of how much global integration is too much. The British vote to leave the European Union (‘Brexit’) is often paired with the election of Trump. While these two events were landmarks, it is not true that politics suddenly changed in 2016 when they both happened.

To put these events in context, the surrounding years saw: the establishment of non-liberal governments in European Union member states Hungary (since 2010), Poland (since 2015), and as part of a coalition, until recently, in Group of Seven member state Italy; the greater assertiveness of Japan under Prime Minister Shinzo Abe (in office since 2012); and the 2018 election of Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil. This environment also helped our centre-right government hold onto power this year, and the same factors will determine whether Scott Morrison succeeds or fails.

What unites these events is a growing realisation that global governance, supranational entities, and large trading blocs sit uncomfortably with the traditional understanding of national identity and its expression in the sovereign state.

Though it would have been unthinkable even a generation ago—amid the flag-waving for Ronald Reagan’s Cold War victory, German reunification, and, here at home, the celebration of Australia’s bicentenary— global politics is now centred on the question of whether the nation-state can or should survive. This has become the signature issue of our time. It goes by various names: populism, nationalism, polarisation. It is present in every political debate, from congested roads to economic competitiveness and red tape to education policy and, naturally, immigration. If we are to address these issues, we need to first remind ourselves of the value of the nation-state, how Australia came to be the nation-state that it is, and the shared national values that have made our country great.

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Australian Values And The Enduring Importance Of The Nation-State

This is the media release for a research report with the above title, co-authored by me with Zac Gorman and Daniel Wild.

The preparation of Australian values and the enduring importance of the nation-state is motivated by the Senate Legal and Constitutional Affairs References Committee’s Inquiry into nationhood, national identity and democracy. This inquiry’s remit is broad and ranges from changing notions of nationhood, declining public trust in Australia’s major political institutions, and the impact of globalisation and economic interdependence on the nation state. This report focuses on five areas.

First, this report outlines three key Australian values: political and economic freedom, egalitarianism, and localism and argues that these values are deeply ingrained in Australia’s national identity. These values ought to be buttressed by broad protections for freedom of speech, association, and religion; low taxes and a tolerable regulatory regime so as not to discourage enterprise; and a return to the principles of localism and federalism upon which Australia was founded.

Secondly, it is argued that the society that will be best-placed to respond to the challenges identified in the Senate Committee’s discussion paper is an asset-owning democracy, within which individuals have reason and incentive to pursue their interests to their own benefit and to that of their community and nation. There are five key components of asset-owning democracy which give Australians a stake in the success of the nation:

● Home ownership is a stake in one’s local community and in the country.

● Work is a stake in one’s dignity through personal responsibility.

● Enterprise is a stake in the economy and the success of others.

● Tax is a stake in the size and activity of government.

● Saving, especially for retirement, is a stake in the future of the country.

Thirdly, this paper considers the ongoing relevance and importance of the nation-state as a home where millions of individuals can live together with a shared set of values, customs, habits, and beliefs, and enjoy with one another a common heritage and tradition.

Fourthly, we consider the idea of popular sovereignty and argue that declining trust in Australia’s governing institutions caused in part by the departure of our rulers from Australia’s fundamental values. In particular, this section outlines the way in which freedom, egalitarianism, and localism have been undermined through government intervention.

The final section considers the notion of democratic accountability—of giving power back to the people—and the ways in which this can be implemented so as to restore trust among the public in Australia’s governing institutions.

Download the report here

Cultural pronunciation

This piece originally appeared in the Spectator Australia in July 2018.

When I lived in Sweden, I would watch football with my Swedish mate Rob and struggle with some of the Swedish players’ names. Even now, I cannot roll an ‘r’, let alone roll one into the Swedish ‘g’, as in the common name ‘Berg’—which sounds more like our word ‘berry’ than something into which you might crash a ship. Once, Rob asked, perhaps redundantly, why English commentators never try to say Swedish names properly. I could only tell him that most people don’t know they are saying the names incorrectly, and even if they did know, they would likely pronounce them about as well as me. Being Swedish, Rob found this reasonable. Others, apparently, do not.

Last week, a minor controversy broke out over the way that SBS World Cup presenter Lucy Zelic pronounces players’ names. Following the example of the iconic Les Murray, Zelic often says the names as would native speakers. For this she has been subjected, shamefully, to abuse on social media. Zelic is an excellent professional, who clearly studies the players and the game very closely. Her decision to pronounce the players’ names as she does is not inherently objectionable. However, in response to the criticism, Zelic and her co-host, former Socceroo Craig Foster, moved from the reasonable view that a commentator should know the players’ names to implying the country as a whole needs a multicultural education and everyone should aspire to know all the names of the world. Foster said that Zelic’s pronunciation is ‘what SBS is about… respecting every culture’. He went on, ‘If you can’t get someone’s name right, you’ve got no regard [for him or her]’. Zelic added that the criticism means it is time for SBS to ‘re-educate a different audience’. But this suggestion that respect for others demands native, rather than anglicised, pronunciation is far too high a standard.

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