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Will there be a rise in populism in post-coronavirus Australia?

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Unlike the U.S or European countries, Australia has been able to repel the apparent lure of populism (image via YouTube).

Australia has avoided the pains of political populism, so far. If that were to change in post-COVID-19 Australia, it would bring disaster, writes Dr Ross Stitt.

A SECOND DANGEROUS pandemic is emerging: excessive optimism. We keep reading and hearing how wonderful the post-COVID-19 world is going to be.

Apparently, there will be a stronger civil society, more respect for science and greater faith in democracy. And our experience of shared adversity is going to make everyone reassess their values — greed and selfishness will be replaced by generosity and consideration for others.

We need a reality check. COVID-19 is not going to change long-held values or kill ideology. We all want a better world, but this pandemic won’t change the views of most people as to how we get there. From socialists to libertarians, conservatives to progressives, eco-warriors to climate change sceptics, most will find something in our current troubles that confirms their pre-existing world view.

In each case, that will be illogical and most probably offensive to those who disagree with them. But that is the nature of people and politics.

Nevertheless, COVID-19 will change some things. Not always for the better. For Australia, one significant and unwanted change may be the rise of political populism. 

Populism is more a style of politics than a political ideology — that is why it has both right-wing and left-wing manifestations. Populist politicians offer simplistic solutions to complex problems. They claim to defend the interests of "the people" against corrupt and self-interested "elites".

Their version of "the people" can be based on nationality, ethnicity or some other expedient characteristic. The "elites’"usually include some combination of the political, financial, scientific, cultural and educational "establishment" — depending whom the populist politicians want to demonise.

In its right-wing manifestation, populism is usually nationalistic and opposed to environmentalism, globalisation and immigration. There are populist parties on the far-right in many democratic countries such as the Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) in Germany and the Finns Party in Finland. There are also populist leaders of conservative parties. Republican President Donald Trump being the most obvious example.

His 2016 self-portrayal as a Washington "outsider" and his promise to "drain the swamp" positioned him as the people’s saviour against the political elite.

In its left-wing manifestation, populism focusses primarily on economic considerations. It is usually anti-capitalist and anti-globalist. The latter can incorporate both opposition to immigration and support for protectionism. Examples of populist parties on the left in liberal democracies include Podemos in Spain and Syriza in Greece.

To date, Australia has largely escaped the scourge of populism. Its standout practitioner in this country is, of course, Pauline Hanson. While she is certainly a political survivor, she has never achieved major success. On occasion, the main parties have dabbled in populism, from Tony Abbott’s "dog whistle" politics to Bill Shorten’s attacks on "the big end of town". Fortunately, neither side has judged it appropriate to go the full monty.

Why has Australia seen so little political populism compared to many other liberal democracies?

Overseas experience indicates that populist politics succeed with voters suffering from either economic insecurity or cultural insecurity. Those insecurities create a susceptibility to the messages that the plight of the people is the fault of an elite establishment and that there must be an easy way out.

Podemos arose as an anti-austerity movement in the aftermath of the global financial crisis (GFC), which caused a severe recession in Spain with very high levels of unemployment. The Alternative für Deutschland’s recent rise is attributable to voter concern about the impact of Muslim immigration, particularly after Chancellor Angela Merkel welcomed more than a million refugees in 2015. 

Political scientists Pippa Norris and Ronald Inglehart argue that Trump’s success as an "authoritarian-populist" in the U.S. is chiefly attributable to cultural insecurity — voters, particularly older white voters, being resentful of and alienated by multicultural cosmopolitanism and increasingly liberal social values. The resulting "cultural backlash" has been amplified by long term economic stagnation. 

Once populism is understood as a response by voters to economic and cultural insecurity, it is easier to understand why to date it has had little traction in Australia.

The country has enjoyed nearly three decades of uninterrupted economic growth and the resulting prosperity has been distributed more evenly than in many other western countries. This is not to say that there have been no economic losers in Australia. But we have not endured the mass unemployment of many European countries post-GFC or the hollowing out of the middle class in America.     

Historically, cultural resentment has not been a major feature of the political landscape here. Importantly, immigration has principally been viewed as an economic benefit rather than a cultural threat. Australia’s "culture wars" have looked more like mild skirmishes compared to the passionate conflicts that divide America on abortion, Black Lives Matter, gun control, and Me Too.

Nevertheless, recent responses in Australia to events like the same-sex marriage plebiscite, the trials of Cardinal George Pell, the Uluru Statement from the Heart and the dismissal of rugby player Israel Folau, hint at the potential for trouble here.    

 Will COVID-19 be the catalyst that ignites populism in Australia? Will it trigger levels of economic and cultural insecurity not previously seen here?

We are still in the early stages of this pandemic. We appear to be containing the medical crisis but there may be second and third waves of the virus.

Whatever the final outcome, there is no doubt that the country’s golden economic run has come to a shuddering halt. We now face a major recession: the worst economic contraction since the Great Depression. Unemployment and underemployment are soaring.

No one knows how high they will go or how long the devastation will persist. Significantly, a large proportion of Australians have never experienced any kind of recession before, let alone one as deep as this.

Economic insecurity will be a new reality. We should not be surprised if populist politicians emerge to exploit it. Those on the left will blame capitalism and globalisation for the depth of the recession and argue that "the people" are bearing a disproportionate share of the burden.

They may tempt traumatised voters with promises of greater financial redistribution, higher wages and economic protectionism.  

Populists on the right will appeal to nationalism and condemn globalisation. Their condemnation may extend to all things foreign, including immigrants, refugees and non-western countries. Their reactions are unlikely to be restricted to economic affairs. In keeping with the old adage "never waste a good crisis", they will assert that, because of the gravity of the economic situation, "less important" issues will have to be relegated to the political sidelines.

Social commentator Hugh Mackay says that 'already conversations about gender balance and the climate crisis have evaporated and such issues will seem less urgent in the wake of the pandemic'. Such reasoning will have enormous appeal to right-wing populists seeking to ride a cultural backlash made more febrile by an economic recession.

They will brand "identity politics" as an elite hobby horse that creates division at a time when the country needs unity.

We can only hope that Australians won’t be fooled by populism’s seductive offer of easy answers and false enemies. If they are, the political legacy of COVID-19 could prove much worse than its medical and economic consequences.

Dr Ross Stitt consults on tax policy and is a freelance writer, primarily on Australian politics. 

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