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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What The ACT Election Results Tell Us About Our Rulers In The Bubble


Last weekend’s ACT election results have again revealed how out of touch our nation’s capital city is with mainstream Australians. While it is tempting to write off the ACT Legislative Assembly as little more than a glorified city council, ACT elections are one of the clearest indicators of elite opinion that we have – and the results are alarming. 

ACT Labor will continue to govern, as it has done since 2001, but the big winners were the Greens, who have more than doubled there representation. The 25 seat ACT Assembly will have ten Labor members (down from 12), nine Liberals (down from 11), and six Greens (up from two). The Greens already have a seat in cabinet, in exchange for propping up the minority Labor government, and will now be even more influential. The radical Greens are a party of government in the ACT.  

Overall, the ACT electorate is markedly out of step with the country. Labor, the Greens, and minor left-wing parties received more than 58 per cent of the first preference vote – a tally even exceeding the left’s primary lower house vote in Victoria’s landslide 2018 election (approximately 56 per cent).  

Of course, this pattern diverges wildly from that seen in more conservative states. At the 2019 New South Wales election, left-wing parties received only 44 per cent of the first preference vote (in the lower house), and at the 2017 Queensland election, the figure was 45 per cent. 

Many Canberrans are transplants who have moved to the city to work in the federal bureaucracy, so the political differences are quite striking. Canberra, it seems, both attracts a certain type of person and instils in people a certain set of beliefs and attitudes. These sorting mechanisms have gradually separated the capital from the country over which it rules, encasing it in a bubble of ideology. 

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An Economic Policy Agenda For Mainstream Australia

Media release for a research brief I co-authored with Daniel WIld.

The 2019 election result was driven by mainstream Australians rejecting an agenda to fundamentally transform Australia. The government now has an opportunity to build and reinforce institutional bulwarks against the forces which undermine mainstream Australian values. To achieve this, public policy should seek to reinforce a community of stakeholders which underpin the success of mainstream Australia and secure the Australian way of life.

There are five key economic themes which underpin mainstream Australian values:

  • Home-ownership provides a stake in local communities and the country.
  • Work provides a stake in human dignity.
  • Enterprise provides a stake in the economy.
  • The payment of tax provides a stake in smaller government.
  • Control over retirement income provides a stake in the future.

The 2019 election demonstrates that policies which reflect the values of mainstream Australians are both popular and good for the national economy and society.

This parliamentary research brief outlines these five economic policy themes, and provides an analysis of the emerging “New Heartland”.

Download the IPA’s Parliamentary Research Brief 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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Comfortable and relaxed with conservative populism

This piece first appeared in Meanjin (Autumn 2018).

The last time identity played such an outsized role in Australian politics, then opposition leader John Howard famously stated his ambition for a country in which people should feel ‘comfortable and relaxed’ about the past, present and future. Howard’s phrase has been remembered because, for detractors and supporters, it captures something deep and resonant in the conservative idea of government. It is an idea worth revisiting now, more than 20 years later, as our politics again breaks down over claims of institutional and historic unfairness, and a conservative response that is, depending on how you look at it, either wilful complacency and disregard or an entirely understandable desire to be left in peace.

The purpose of this essay is not to rehash the meaning of Trump and Brexit, to muse about the collapse of the conservative establishment, or to declaim against any specific issue on today’s activist agenda. Instead, I propose to examine the philosophical debate that underlies the political back-and-forth. I will explore the struggle for recognition that animates identity politics. In the concept of recognition, progressives have found a cause to rally behind: differential institutional treatment of members of historically oppressed groups that enables those individuals to participate fully in society, thereby securing their dignity as truly equal citizens. Its absence is held to cause real harm. This is a strong claim that, if correct, implies a justification for the coercion, both state and cultural, of those who contribute, by act or omission, to the continued marginalisation of others.

The question, then, is whether anyone can in good conscience believe that the existing political and cultural institutions of our liberal democracy (which together I refer to as the social order) are preferable to a politics that prioritises the recognition of difference. Or, alternatively, whether such conservatism, indulging in comfort and relaxation not available to all, is an ongoing threat to equal citizenship and individual dignity, and must therefore be excluded from our politics and our society.

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