The populism that inflicted Clive Palmer on Canberra and has now secured Donald Trump’s presidential nomination is not driven by cheap bigotries, as those it targets would have us believe. Rather, it is a clash between a dominant, insular elite and everyone else
Barely three years after Clive Palmer declared himself as the leader of the none-of-the-above movement, his political career is finished. “I think we need to take away the game from professional politicians who say the same thing,” he told the ABC’s Tony Jones on the night he announced the formation of his vanity party. “They’ve got the same lobbyists influencing them, the same focus groups. We need to think about more what the people need.”
All credit to Jones and his ABC colleagues—they were among the few who took Palmer’s rise seriously before the well-nourished Queenslander became the Member for Fairfax and his maverick team transformed a chamber of review into a chamber of refusal. We will never know what might have been, but the case could well be made that but for Palmer, Tony Abbott would still be prime minister and Campbell Newman would be enjoying his second term as premier of the Sunshine State.
Yet if Clive Palmer did not exist, he would surely have been invented. The voters who put the Palmer United Party first on their ballot papers—658,976 in the Senate, 709,035 in the House of Representatives—had one thing in common: exasperation with the political class. They form part of a growing worldwide constituency who are investing their faith in populist, insubstantial anti-politicians rather than letting the establishment run the show.
The Australian Senate—and hence the federal government—is hostage to the same populist forces we see on the rise in Europe and the United States. Half a dozen or so populist senators have enjoyed the power to veto any legislation the elected government proposes. Their appeal is not dissimilar to that of Donald Trump: vote for us because we are men and women of the people; we are not members of the elite.
Abbott hoped he would be able to govern by striking deals with the Senate, much as John Howard did for three of his four terms in government. The failure of negotiations to pass a number of key bills was cited by Abbott’s detractors as a reason why he had to go.
When Malcolm Turnbull took over he was determined to succeed where Abbott had failed. He granted the independents extra staff, and gave them a dedicated meeting room in Parliament House. In February he invited them to dinner at the Lodge with a group of his cabinet colleagues. By all accounts the evening didn’t go well. Two senators stormed out in a huff. One of them was Glenn Lazarus, a formidable prop for the Brisbane Broncos and the Kangaroos in the early 1990s when he was known as “the brick with eyes”. The next morning the brick tweeted: “Dinner at the lodge didn’t go well. I had to go via Maccas on the way home. Serving sizes were for ‘stick insects’.”
Howard was a shrewd negotiator in the Senate, but it is doubtful if even he would have been able to bash his way past the brick and his outlandish colleagues. Where would he have begun when the populist independents advocate nothing and stand for nothing? They are against virtually everything the government wants to do, but not on ideological grounds. They oppose because the raison d’être of the populist is to thwart the schemes of those in power.
Populism has reached the level of a pandemic, infecting the political order across the democratic world. There has been a recent outbreak in Germany, where the three-year-old Alternative for Germany party came second in the eastern state of Saxony-Anhalt and is expected to enter three regional parliaments.
The general election in Ireland this year ended without a clear winner. The balance of power is held by populist independents and Sinn Fein (once the political wing of the Irish Republican Army) which has successfully reinvented itself as a progressive, anti-austerity party.
Populist leaders from the Left are in power in Spain and Greece. The populist Jeremy Corbyn is leader of the British Labour Party. A populist—but entirely justified—campaign to leave the European Union is thumbing its nose at the British establishment and has split the Conservative Party in two.
And then there is Donald Trump, the orange-skinned vulgarian with machine-washable hair, who will be the Republican Party’s candidate for the White House. In the final months of the primaries, it is still not clear what he stands for. Is Trump’s campaign really about racism, hatred and division, as his critics suggest? Is he exploiting “the irrational fear of the other”, as some claim?
Not if you read the opinion polls. Gallup invited Trump’s supporters to tell them why they were backing him. Fewer than 10 per cent picked immigration; a mere 3 per cent said it was because Trump would control spending; barely 5 per cent nominated Trump’s honesty or trustworthiness; only 7 per cent said it was because he was strong and would accomplish what he set out to do. The most popular reason by far for voting for Trump, nominated by 22 per cent of his supporters, was that Trump was not a career politician. The Washington establishment says Trump’s lack of government experience is one of his greatest weaknesses, but his supporters believe the opposite. He appeals precisely because he is an outsider.
The uncomfortable truth for the political class is that in so far as Trump exploits hatred, the principal object of that hatred is not Hispanics, Muslims, women or homosexuals. The hate is aimed squarely at the political class itself. The anger welling up around their ankles is the product of exasperation towards politically correct, morally arrogant, know-it-all, condescending urban sophisticates—people in other words just like themselves.
The dominant political and cultural fault line—from Washington to Warsaw to Wangaratta—is not the divide between Left and Right, the proletariat and the bourgeoisie, workers and employers, or the haves and the have-nots. It is between insiders and outsiders. It is a clash between the cosmopolitan, socially liberal values of the tertiary-educated elite and the pragmatic, socially conservative outlook of the rest of society.
It is the divide I wrote about in my book The Lucky Culture. I described the emergence of a new ruling class—a new elite—who think, act and live very differently from their forebears or their fellow Australians. They live in different suburbs, shop and socialise in different circles, listen to different radio stations, read different newspapers, and adopt a set of manners that marks them apart from the class we might call middle Australia.
Three years after the publication of The Lucky Culture, the chasm separating the insiders and outsiders has widened considerably, and hubris has set in among the cultural elite. Witness the ease with which Australia’s insiders have succeeded in closing down debates on issues that challenge their presumptions. On same-sex marriage—and a whole range of what we are now obliged to call LGBTI matters—serious discussion is all but impossible.
Tony Abbott’s task as prime minister was made considerably harder by the unrelenting opposition of the insiders. Their dominance of the media and their control of powerful, well-funded pressure groups give them considerable clout. Abbott—who incidentally wrote the first review of my book—came to power in part because he stood up for the outsiders. In government, however, he failed to straddle the divide and in September last year the insiders got their revenge. Few insiders would have voted for either leader, but this was a cultural, rather than a political victory. Their glee was palpable.
With hindsight the cultural foundations of the current outburst of populism are clear. The Occupy Wall Street and the Tea Party movements that seemed to spring from nowhere were precursors to a popular revolt that gave us Trump and Bernie Sanders. One is nominally on the Right, the other nominally on the Left. But that’s not the point. The two may be glib and superficial in their own peculiar ways but their policy platforms—and the constituencies they attract—are surprisingly similar. They are not so much politicians as leaders of a protest movement. We are witnessing the revolt of diminished expectations.
Turning the populist tide will not be easy. Support for populism is driven not by logic or ideology but by frustration. Behind the anger lurk the emotions of despondency and disillusionment. Mainstream politicians must heed the message and recalibrate their messages accordingly.
It is easy to discern why governments appear remote from the people they are supposed to serve. The trend over the past four decades is for government and corporations to become less human, more bureaucratic, and more centralised. There is a growing suspicion that government is more responsive to vested interests than to the public interest.
Our challenge, as Steve Hilton recently wrote, is to make government more human. It must focus on outcomes rather than processes, and break the bureaucratic stranglehold of provider culture. Unnecessary regulation and the policies of the nanny state should be expunged. Government should remove itself from the business of everyday life.
Politicians should return to their core business. Good government is not just about balancing the books—the overwhelming preoccupation of the centre-Right today. Neither is it about the dispiriting obsession with redistribution and social engineering, favoured by the Left. We speak of economic growth and productivity in the abstract, forgetting that these things are achieved not by organisations, but by people.
There are parallels between those who feel alienated from today’s political class and the cohort described by Robert Menzies as the forgotten people. For Menzies the industrious middle class were the drivers of the economy. Their ambition was the motive power of progress and growth. He wrote:
To discourage ambition, to envy success, to have achieved superiority, to distrust independent thought, to sneer at and impute false motives to public service—these are the maladies of modern democracy.
These maladies also, I firmly believe, create the mood that saps hope and fosters populism. Our best chance of defeating populism will be a return to the first principles of Liberalism: freedom for the individual, reward for endeavour and a passionate commitment to parity of opportunity.
Nick Cater is Executive Director of the Menzies Research Centre. This article is based on a speech he gave to the New Zealand Initiative in Auckland in March.