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May 17th 2016 print

Merv Bendle

Populism From Above

We are cursed with a bi-partisan political class that will say and do anything it believes might secure the hearts, minds and votes of those whose self-interest matches its own desire to remain in power. Principles and the common good? They count for nothing

free stuff“A permanent crisis in governance across the democratic world”. That is the threat we face, according to Greg Sheridan in an excellent article, “Populism diminishing democracies”. Sheridan is one of the few political commentators capable of seeing the big picture. While most journalists focus on trivia, Sheridan is able to analyse Australian politics in the context of a range of ominous global trends that will shape the future far more profoundly than Bill Shorten’s ‘man boobs’ or Malcolm Turnbull’s ‘harbourside mansion’. But is Sheridan correct? Is the crisis one of populism, as primal forces are unleashed within Western societies? Or is the crisis actually caused by the failure of the elites in those societies?

Populism, of both the left and the right, is Sheridan’s concern, and he attempts to define it and account for its emergence. Across the democratic world, the centre of the political spectrum is increasingly being deserted in favour of “gross, vulgar, hyper-partisan populism [which] is winning victory after victory for irrational hatreds and prejudices.” He cites the presidential victory of Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines, the success of Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders in the US, the impeachment of Brazil’s President Dilma Rousseff, the victory of Norbert Hofer of the far-right Freedom Party in the first round of the Austrian presidential elections, the accompanying shift of Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic to the ‘illiberal right’, and the embrace of naked populism by the previously economically rationalist UK Independence Party.

The rise of populism reflects the impact of the Global Financial Crisis, which devastated economies and discredited the financial system, together with the mainstream politicians and governments that supported it, often bailing out banks and other corporations with massive transfers of taxpayer money and loans. (And, consequently, Shorten’s election promise to institute a royal commission into the banks is attracting significant support.) It also reflects the impact of the global Muslim insurgency as the ordinary citizens of Western societies realize they are being sold out by their ruling elites. This is especially the case in Europe, where the EU continues its progression towards the ‘Eurabia’ prophesied by Bat Ye’or in Eurabia: The Euro-Arab Axis (2005) and Londonistan: How Britain is Creating a Terror State Within (2006) by Melanie Phillips.

Other longer-term factors may be even more important. These involve the delegitimization of liberal democracies that began under the Comintern in the 1920s, was re-invigorated by the New Left in the 1960s, and then found fertile soil in the 1970s with the Watergate scandal in the US and the Whitlam dismissal in Australia. Capitalism and Western governments (and especially their security agencies) are now invariably portrayed as greedy, corrupt, murderous, ecologically rapacious — as power-hungry monsters, basically, accountable to none but themselves. Western society is similarly demonized as racist, sexist, homophobic, consumerists, etc, etc, and such notions have achieved mythic status in the education system, popular culture, and especially in cinema and television (exemplified by Oliver Stone’s mendacious Untold History of the United States (2012), currently on Foxtel). All this is massively magnified on social media. As Sheridan observes, this “is now many people’s mental reality”, and they approach politics from this blighted perspective, making political mavericks and outsiders attractive political candidates. To make it worse, politicians themselves now make no attempt to preserve the integrity of the system by observing the long-standing conventions that make it work. This has been recently demonstrated in Australia by the Senate’s behaviour, the ALP’s repeated attacks on the Governor-General and that party’s attempts to embroil him in their campaign against the Royal Commission into Union Corruption.

In Australia, populism takes the progressivist-statist form historically championed by the ALP and the left generally. At its extreme, the Palmer United Party was populist par excellence and managed to have several ferals and no-hopers elected to the Senate, where they demonstrated an historically unprecedented level of irresponsibility. Disrespecting the constitutional role of the Senate as the states’ house of review, they connived with the Greens, the ALP, Nick Xenophon, and a couple of ‘accidental senators’ to form a populist ‘government in exile’. Then, in collusion with the ABC and a compliant media, this two-bit would-be junta blocked passage of much of the Abbott government’s election mandate. This laid the groundwork for the Turnbull coup and subsequent political paralysis as the new Prime Minister seeks to appeal to the populace while struggling to establish his pwn political legitimacy. As Sheridan says:

“The Turnbull government … is a prisoner of populism … unconsciously apeing the rhetoric of the populist Occupy Wall Street movement, the anti-1 per cent movement [that] demonises high-income earners.”

Under the Turnbull government, we are seeing the consolidation of a soft form of progressivist populism. Devoid of principle but (so far) avoiding the explicit language of class hatred, it has nevertheless given up on any hope of downsizing government and the reach of the Nanny State wile paying mere lip service to reducing taxes and regulation. The entire economic rationalist narrative emphasizing government-spending restraint, free markets, economic deregulation, privatisation, tax cuts, and labour-market flexibility that began in the 1980s has been jettisoned.  Instead, Turnbull is following the lead of the Rudd-Gillard-Rudd years in massively expanding the interventionist role of government.

For example, the National Disability Insurance Scheme is the epitome of populist politics, based on emotion and sympathy for the unfortunate and provoking hysteria when the viability of the scheme is questioned. It is projected to have a total annual cost of $22.1 billion when fully implemented in 2019-20, yet the National Disability Insurance Agency administering it has admitted this figure will blow out by many billions of dollars annually because it cannot control the cost of the program as it lacks the power to define ‘disability’ or even to require adequate evidence that any such affliction exists. Consequently, there will be some 460,000 people immediately supported under the scheme (at $48,000 each), and that number can be expected to grow exponentially as its ready accessibility becomes widely known. It has the potential to wreak economic and social havoc.

The same thing is projected to occur with the Higher Education Contribution Scheme. Pursuing the absurd and deceitful populist notion that everyone should of right have a place at university, the government will increase the number of government-supported tertiary students from 522,000 in 2015 to 696,000 in 2026, increasing the annual cost of HECS from $1.7 billion to $11.1 billion.  Over that period, the contribution of the program to the national debt will balloon from $13.4 billion (4.8%) to $48.1 billion (18.3%). It has been projected that by 2026, $4 billion worth of new and unpaid loans will need to be written off annually.

Although this is presented as a populist response to the alleged desire of most young people to go to university, HECS is really a scheme to transfer much of the cost of a bloated university system, with its absurdly expensive but grossly underutilized staff and facilities, onto the shoulders of those young people seduced by the alleged status of university credentials, with the tax payer picking up the bill for the rest. The tragedy of all this is that young people are being enticed into tertiary study for which they are not suitable and are acquiring often crippling debts (projected to be some $50,000 for a three-year degree) that will financially handicap them for decades. And this is happening at a time when many could go into essential trades and earn far more than an a degree in arts or journalism or feminist ecology will ever produce. For example, plumbers and electricians are now charging more than double what the average lawyer earns on an hourly basis and have no HECS debt to deal with (and many may also be able to use their trade contacts to build their own home or investment property).

Incredibly, while it is conniving in such budget-busting schemes the Turnbull administration has sought to establish its populist credentials in this ‘race to the bottom’ by targeting its own political base with draconian retrospective changes to the superannuation system, apparently operating on the assumption that its life-long ‘rusted-on’ supporters have nowhere to go and will be forced into line by the spectre of a Shorten prime ministership. In fact, all they are doing is placing even more pressure on the political centre, driving perfectly reasonable people out towards whatever party they feel represents their legitimate interests — or at least offers them some respect.

This is a grave political miscalculation, of the sort in which the Liberals have come to specialize. Although the government’s assault on the superannuation system is presented as a clampdown on the super-rich, it appears to a great many people as an existential threat, easily comparable to that conjured up by John Howard’s WorkChoices scheme. As Paul Kelly discusses in Triumph and Demise (2014), this threatened the implicit social contract that had long existed in Australia between employers, employees, and the state, and actually “unravelled a consensus that had been building up over a long period of time in favour of the de-regulation of industrial relations,” as an industry leader observed. The attack on superannuation will elicit the same type of outrage, and prove just as counter-productive, as people re-shape their financial positions to protect themselves and avoid tax as best they can (by, e.g., pouring their capital into the family home, further exacerbating the housing crisis). Politically, it could prove as fatal for Turnbull as WorkChoices did for Howard, especially if Shorten (with union support) is politically adroit enough to present the ALP’s position as a fairer alternative and thus attract a substantial protest vote.

Nevertheless, it seems that Turnbull has no alternative but to appear hairy-chested in this vulnerable area. Trapped within the Nanny State paradigm, his eager capitulation to populist pressures means he is unable to carry out the major reforms that are required on the side of government expenditure. Consequently, he has decided to pillage retirees. Ominously, he has also implicitly joined in the steady demonization of his own generation that will have tragic and divisive social consequences in the near future, as it increasingly comes to rely on a younger generation that has been encouraged to see itself as cheated, a case strongly made in Generation Less: How Australia is Cheating the Young (2016) by Jennifer Rayner.

Ultimately, Sheridan is right to lament the rise of populism, but it is too easy (if apparently paradoxical) to blame the people for this. Perhaps he should have paid some attention  to Robert Michel’s Iron Law of Oligarchy, according to which democracies will  tend always to succumb to the rule of a leadership elite, which, far from representing the masses or being their servant, comes to dominate them, centralizing power and controlling the flow of information, resources, patronage, and rewards. Politics is shaped by the pursuit by the elite of its interests, not the interests of the people.

Culpability for the crisis in governance therefore lies with the political leadership and especially their egos and pursuit of self-interest, along with the presidential mode of campaigning, which almost verges on the Führerprinzip. Desperate to be elected, the leaders and their parties are prepared to promise anything, and to prevaricate and lie whenever necessary, ultimately discrediting the entire political process. In this they are supported by the broader elite apparatus, in particular the media. These share a common limited world-view, connive together and increasingly overlap, as the prominence of ex-politicians and political staffers amongst the commentariat in the present election campaign so vividly reveals. Their focus is tactical, sensationalistic, cynical and insular, with little capacity to broaden the analysis to encompass or drive home to the electorate the full ramifications of the often ruinous policies being promoted. Consequently, elections come across as a reality TV show, with the key question being: Who gets voted off the island? Not: how can the nation survive and flourish?

Populism is a disease of the elites, imposed by them on the people as they struggle to maintain control, and the present crisis and popular revolt is best seen as a reaction to this.

Comments [15]

  1. Anthony H says:

    Spot on – am excellent article!

  2. Peter says:

    I like this Merv. For one thing I have thought not of populism in the way you perceptibly describe it. But of course populism has given us the bloated welfare state and Malcolm Turnbull. Sheridan is best when writing about foreign policy. He has no sure touch when it comes to politics. In fact, in his dislike of Trump he is effectively on a populist bandwagon of the ‘Never Trump’ brigade, whose stock-in-trade is to caricature Trump’s policies and to feign outrage about a bit of bad language. Apparently what he said about the precious and over-rated Megyn Kelly is worse than Hillary lying to the families of those murdered in Benghazi and being asleep while, over many hours, they were being murdered, or covering up for Bill’s sexual indiscretions by pillorying the women involved; and so on and so on and so on where Hillary is concerned. If populism means overturning the feckless and treasonable political elite and trying to return to civilised common-sense values count me in.

    • Richard H says:

      Spot on, Peter. Sheridan is frustratingly uneven as a writer, with intelligent and insightful pieces one day, and lazy regurgitations of the conventional wisdom – such as his Trump-bashing – the next.

      One area that the conventional wisdom (ABC, Fairfax, etc) gets consistently wrong is central Europe. Naturally the EU boosters despise the patriots of Hungary, Poland, Czechia (the new official English-language name of the Czech Republic) and Slovakia for putting their own peoples ahead of the Eurocrats’ internationalist ambitions, and this view permeates the mainstream media.

      For a more informed view of central Europe, Quadrant readers need look no further than, for example, “The Siege of Budapest” in last October’s issue, or the website of former UK ambassador Charles Crawford.

      • Jody says:

        And don’t forget Austria. It has closed the border at Brenner Pass in a move which signals that they’ve had enough. This tiny nation of 8 million people reminds me of The Little Engine That Could. And Chancellor Faymann has been forced to resign; I should think so after his appalling remarks that the Hungarians were “putting people on trains and not telling them where they were being taken – reminding us of another time”. These comments were the nails in Faymann’s coffin.

    • Colin S says:

      I agree with Merv and Peter about Sheridan. He is, literally, all over the shop. I have stopped reading his political stuff but always read his foreign policy columns.

  3. LBLoveday says:

    Quote: “increase the number of government-supported tertiary students from 522,000 in 2015 to 696,000 in 2026, increasing the annual cost of HECS from $1.7 billion to $11.1 billion”.
    I know the basis of that claim is a PBO analysis, but I don’t get it – how does a 33% increase from 522,000 to 696,000 in students result in a 553% increase from $1.7b to $11.1b per year?
    Are the $ figures not in constant dollars, implying an inflation rate of 17%pa? Are universities expected to raise fees from an average $3,256 to $15,948 per annum in constant dollars? Are a much higher percentage of students predicted to take HECS loans in 2026 than now?

  4. Dallas Beaufort says:

    Tipping points arrive, journalism mostly follows.

  5. Jack Brown says:

    They are good points on the utility of a trade qualification compared with a degree in feminist ecology, say, or even law, which these days serves, for most law graduates, as a generalist degree for a career in business rather than the profession, for most of law graduates. However comparing what plumbers and electricians are ‘charging’ with what the average lawyer ‘earns’ on an hourly basis wasn’t needed to make the point and is a misleading comparison. One needs to compare charge out rates for both or take home pay plus benefits for both and in both cases the average lawyer’s rate would be double that of the average tradie’s. PS. Can’t disagree with the observation that Sheridan’s pieces are very inconsistent.

  6. Dallas Beaufort says:

    Privatise the Universities and deliver affordable education, Hex should be on their books, not the taxpayers. The public sector need accountability.

  7. Don A. Veitch says:

    Excellent point. populism IS a disease of the elites. For example, Pauline Hanson was created in the Liberal Party , won Liberal preselection then lost it for advocating non-PC miscegenation (Please explain “miscegenation” – intermingling of ‘races’). The Murdoch press, especially, promoted the gang & counter-gang game, gave her millions in free publicity hence making Howard the main game, look good, moderate and centralist .

  8. pgang says:

    It’s political narcissism without boundaries, another product of postmodernism.

    By the by I think the Work Choices issue was largely an invention of the media to explain something they didn’t understand – Howard losing an election. People were tired of a stale government, and Labor seemed to be demonstrating some sort of energised, viable alternative. And people gave up on super as a serious form of saving a long time ago, so that will not be the big issue portrayed here.

    • ianl says:

      > And people gave up on super as a serious form of saving a long time ago, so that will not be the big issue portrayed here

      Disagree 180 degrees. Where is the evidence for your assertion, considering that the SGC (superannuation guarantee charge) is law. People simply cannot avoid it, except through not working, yet both major “elites” (plus the MSM) continue to plunder the very treasure trove they decree as mandatory – and this won’t stop. Ordinary people, with only a modicum of ambition, accumulating +$1m over a lifetime working is not allowed in this country.

      Apart from that, Merv has writen another pointed article which will be totally ignored by the poisonous “elites” and the low-informed population.

      People get exactly the politicians they deserve.

  9. mags of Queensland says:

    Unfortunately for Australia most of the whining comes from the children and grandchildren of those who were caught up in the ” equality” game of the Whitlam era. One didn’t have to be terribly good at anything but could get a tertiary education at the taxpayer’s expense.He also promised government aid from the womb to the tomb. And hasn’t that come back to bite us – in spades.

    Once you get that kind of mindset into the public arena, bolstered bu succeeding governments to win votes, it is like trying to put the genie back into the bottle – well nigh impossible. Those of us who lived through the post war years learned that nothing is for free. To take a handout from the government was considered the most shameful thing imaginable. Today, it is actually expected that you can be nurtured by the government, brainwashed by socialist media and education and lulled into the delusion that there will be no day of reckoning.

    You are right, ianl, people Do get the governments they deserve because they fail to take responsibility for themselves because someone else will.

    • pgang says:

      And yet this is a product of government, so which came first, the chicken or the egg? I’m with Merv in that it is elitism that has sold us up the river, and that this is not the fault of people who have very little understanding of politics, no say in what goes on, and no influence over public policy. ‘The people’ can only follow the currents.