Flat White

Why our pissant political class can’t do populism properly

27 July 2018

2:18 PM

27 July 2018

2:18 PM

For political tragics, the western world has been a marvel over the past five years. A popular groundswell demanding self-determination has emerged in the United States, Britain, the Visegrad countries, Italy, Denmark and even Germany.

Here in Australia, we cannot say the same. As I’ve written elsewhere, our political system makes it difficult for the unconnected to have an impact.

We have no David Cameron-type fool to promise a referendum that might disrupt a government; we have no election primaries to hold powerbrokers and candidates to account; we have no first-past-the-post or proportional representation to scare hacks into paying attention.

We certainly don’t have an articulate, persistent, high profile, long-term fighter for institutional change in favour of voter sovereignty. Not a single one. We have representatives who think they are, and supporters wishing and hoping they were. But that’s all.

Instead, we’ve a few marginal political players and a few media types screaming over the spectrum in an ad hoc and frequently self-serving way. Oh, and a compromised ex-prime minister who trundles out the right words every now and then, yet who cannot shake off the sense that he is governed by factional gamesmanship and his own tin ear for what voters think.

In electoral politics, we see the likes of Clive Palmer, Pauline Hanson, and, of all people, Derryn Hinch. We have the self-marginalising, part-of-the-problem Cory Bernardi. We have the pathologically contrarian, nano-constituency-pandering Leyonhjelm. We have assorted independents who manage to capture the votes of the disaffected without doing anything else.

These figures all actively undermine the popular rising by confirming every suspicion poorly informed, “respectable” voters have about people who want to reform the ruling class.

The few within political party ranks who have the means and opportunity to truly represent popular concerns are limited by ambition or factional position. On occasion, Federal Immigration Minister Dutton has spoken clearly – though I suspect as a kind of designated bad-cop for the otherwise dripping wet Liberals. So has New South Wales Treasurer Dominic Perrottet, but as later actions have shown, his drive is internal factional positioning rather than a desire to address popular concerns.

In media life, we have an array of mainstream professionals, occasional performers and activist bloggers whose sole objective seems to be recounting leftist irrationality and hypocrisy – as if it were news to anyone. Once, a decade ago, it was eye-opening and entertaining. Now it’s an easy, and lazy, ploy for attention and for an audience. On top of that, other media players actively undermine the popular rising by reinforcing every yobbo stereotype and alienating prospective supporters (Mark Latham, I’m looking at you).

Too much of the energy of our counter-media and counter-politics is expended fanning outrage or intellectual smuggery among existing supporters, and too little in building a clear message to engage new ones.

Take Sky News as an example. Sky evenings are dominated by outrage porn. Performers are almost all embedded in the establishment political-media class, ginning up opposition to that class while benefiting from their intersection with it. Where there is an opportunity to discuss, they resort, FoxNews style, to reinforcing audience prejudices, to rants, or to partisan pundits talking over each other and doing nothing other than raising the blood pressure of the minuscule audience.

Without a unifying issue (the EU’s democratic deficit, uncontrolled mass immigration, a wildly unjust economic structure), it seems neither our politicos nor our media people are capable of presenting a positive, popular program to the large number of truly pissed off voters.

And as many more insightful political analysts than I have pointed out, what moves large numbers of voters is a clear moral and emotional appeal. Our politicos are not interested in – and possibly, not capable of – delivering that type of appeal. Convincing emotional appeals require two things in short supply in our ruling class: understanding and respecting voters, and moral conviction rather than message calibration.

Instead, we have petty bribes, personal slurs, ad hoc panicked action, social media sluttery, and at the nerdy end of things, utterly robotic technocratic waffle. And the ever-present scoffing at lefty lunacy.

No doubt fear rules the centre-right political class. A “positive, popular program” would elicit immediate slurs and Twitter rage. Few hacks – political and media – are prepared for a lifetime of Farage-style condemnation and ostracism from our ruling class and its hangers-on. Those who are prepared for it are already ranting – ineffectively.

So the field is left to the outrage media, the ranters and the self-promoters like Lauren Southern, Palmer and Hanson. But not without our establishment betters borrowing a little outsider status by supporting free speech rights – while risking nothing by making a case of their own.

This is not a terribly insightful observation. But it matters, because the absence of an effective, emotionally-resonant agenda could easily see Australia miss its best chance to reinforce accountable and responsive government.

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