Populism and the Failure of Conservatives

Whether it’s steadily growing support for minor parties and independents here, now routinely a third of the electorate; the stale presidential re-run now on offer in the US; the likely wipe-out of the British Tory government by a nondescript opposition; or the near disintegration of once-well-established parties in Western Europe, clearly more and more people are disillusioned with politics and unimpressed by mainstream political parties. Hence the rise of challengers to the established parties, and the rise of outsiders within them, across the West.

Calling this the “populist moment” is a sign of our dismay; but think about who’s normally tagged “populist”: a politician who’s popular, but not conventionally so. It’s the classic dismissal of outsiders by insiders. Left “populists” are not the reasonable, rational, pro-business centre Left of Bob Hawke’s time; but the green Left, who aren’t just climate zealots, but increasingly identity-obsessives too. Right “populists” are not the responsible, moderate, small-government centre Right; but make-their-country-great-again conservatives with a social agenda to roll back immigration and fight the culture wars. Perhaps the explanation for this “populist moment” is less that the people have abandoned the mainstream parties, than that the parties’ leaderships are estranged from their voters, or at least large chunks of them. 

This essay appears in May’s Quadrant.
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At least in the West, as economies stagnate and societies polarise, the work of government has got harder, and answers have become more elusive and less readily convincing. It doesn’t help that many mainstream politicians are focus-group-driven operators, more than true believers; with more in common with each other than with the people who vote for them; with decision-making increasingly in the hands of unaccountable “experts”, as if politics were a science, rather than a robust contest of ideas, to be won by those with the deepest convictions and the best arguments, as in the time of Thatcher and Reagan, and Hawke and Howard. 

The liberal reforms of the Thatcher–Reagan era revitalised Anglosphere economies and helped to win the Cold War. But the unipolar moment and the triumph of liberal capitalism morphed into the era of globalisation, with much lower tariffs, China in the World Trade Organisation, and supply chains outsourced to wherever components were cheapest: often China but also Mexico, Turkey, India, Bangladesh, Vietnam, Indonesia or anywhere whose factories could out-compete those paying Western wages. The result is undeniably a richer world but also a more equal one. Along with the Asian “tigers” that reached Western living standards a generation ago, quite a few other countries now have living standards approaching ours, at least for some of their people, as trips to many formerly Third World cities show.

In a world where people and goods were moving ever more freely, inflation was low and asset prices high. But in the Anglosphere especially, economic growth tended to be driven by immigration rather than productivity. Higher overall GDP masked stagnant GDP per person, with discontent-inducing, immigration-driven downward pressure on wages, upward pressure on housing costs, and massive pressure on infrastructure. And while the world at the beginning of 2020 was undoubtedly freer, fairer, safer and richer for more people than ever before, the Pax Americana that had enabled this peak in human well-being was increasingly fragile, mainly because of the Anglosphere’s relative economic and military decline.

And while the West was comforting itself that history had ended, and enjoying its peace dividend, old foes hadn’t disappeared: apocalyptic, death-to-the-infidels Islam, which had disturbed our complacency twice before—on 9/11 and via Islamic State—but now including a near-nuclear-capable Iran and its proxies, capable of convulsing the Middle East, perhaps with October 7 as an opening gambit; a revisionist nuclear power, as yet unpurged of its militarism (unlike post-war Germany and Japan), set on restoring the Russia of Peter the Great; communist China, no longer hiding its strength and biding its time, with Marxism-Leninism reinforcing traditional Middle Kingdom exceptionalism, set on avenging a century of humiliation, first by taking Taiwan and then becoming the global hegemon by mid-century; and closer to home, cultural Marxism, which has turned out to be much more effective at getting the middle class to revolt in the name of saving the planet or ending the patriarchy than it ever was at getting the working class to revolt in the name of equality.

It’s eighty or ninety years since Western countries have faced such internal and external challenges: with the rich getting richer and the poor getting less poor, but the middle class increasingly squeezed; with economies floundering under high taxes to pay for ever more generous welfare systems and the red tape needed to achieve ESG goals; with societies strained by the immigration to fill the jobs locals won’t do; and with young people increasingly pessimistic about a future where they can’t afford a home, think they might die in a climate catastrophe, and have been conditioned to see everything through the prism of oppressors and oppressed.

Is it any wonder that mainstream parties are struggling to adapt and that voters are susceptible to political quackery? Even so, our challenge is not to lament the world, but to rediscover the intellectual and moral clarity, the leadership to change it for the better: a task that grows more urgent by the day, especially as the external challenges could explode at any moment.

What’s needed, from both sides, is a new and better political program, a program that doesn’t shirk hard issues; that seeks to address them in ways that are consistent with each side’s instincts and beliefs, and doesn’t split either party; and certainly that’s capable of being accepted by a sceptical electorate. 

But while the centre Left and the centre Right devise their different policy approaches to delivering, say, cost-effective health care to an ageing population; restoring academic rigour to education at every level; creating sustainable immigration that adds to economic strength and social cohesion; recovering budget management that reconciles voters’ demands for services with their willingness to pay for them; giving young people more of a stake in society via owning a home of their own; fostering stable families; swiftly adding to our armed forces the capability to help our allies across the globe, while being able to strike hard at a malign superpower, alone if needs be; and somehow taming the Wild West social media space without unduly curbing free speech; there are three fundamentals that need to be resolved. 

First, and it’s at the heart of so much public policy, is the belief that, without urgent action to address climate change, normal life could become almost impossible. Or the belief that climate catastrophism is now so widely engrained that credible policy-makers can’t avoid catering for it. When really, it’s less climate change that’s threatening to make normal life impossible, but the policy to deal with it.

Quite apart from the fact that the climate has been different at different times in the earth’s past without any human involvement, these one-sided efforts to reduce human carbon dioxide emissions are not only futile but are leaving the West both weakened (because manufacturing is migrating to countries that aren’t ruled by the climate cult) and impoverished (because creating back-up for wind and solar power is prohibitively expensive or hasn’t yet been proven at scale). 

With current technology, it’s simply impossible to have the trifecta of making the electricity we all need constantly cheap, clean and reliable. It could be cheap and reliable if we keep using coal and gas; it could be clean and reliable if we used nuclear power; and it could be cheap and clean if we only used renewables—but that would mean living life in spurts, when the power’s on, while the wind’s blowing and the sun’s shining.

We need to face up to these truths, as the federal opposition is now trying to do, by proposing to end the nuclear ban. As indeed do the South Australian premier and the Australian Workers Union on the other side of politics. Because there’s no chance of a stronger economy and better living standards with the current energy policy insanity of running our power system primarily to reduce carbon dioxide emissions.

Second, there’s identity politics, that the centre Left is succumbing to and the centre Right is often pandering to, in all its various guises: from the ubiquitous acknowledgments of country at official events (as if the country belongs to some of us more than it belongs to all of us) to the absurd proposition that people’s gender is simply what they say it is. Sure, J.K. Rowling has had the guts to call out the gender folly, and the federal opposition successfully opposed the Voice referendum that would have entrenched race-based separatism in our Constitution. But there has to be a clear acceptance by both mainstream parties that distinctions based on characteristics people can’t change are wrong; and that efforts to right historic injustice mean that people who themselves have done no wrong end up atoning to people who themselves have not been wronged. By all means, let’s address present disadvantage, but visiting the supposed sins of distant generations on today’s people is just asking for trouble. 

Third, and finally, there’s this sense that the least racist and most colour-blind countries on earth are somehow tainted: America by slavery; Britain by colonialism; and Australia by settlement itself, even though pre-settlement Australia resembled a Hobbesian state of nature. Whatever imperfections there might be, and however they might be addressed, there has to be an acceptance—by both mainstream parties—that modern Australia with its indigenous heritage, its British foundation, and its immigrant character is a country to be proud of. 

Too many key people in the mainstream parties are ambivalent on questions which aren’t so much matters of left or right, of being populist or not; but of fact or fiction, and right or wrong. That’s why the electorate is disillusioned, and tempted to vote for people who seem better at facing up to unpalatable truths; or on the other hand, are more sincere in their commitment to fantasy.

In a democracy, it’s said, people ultimately get the governments they deserve. But if voters can’t really blame their discontents on the politicians that they voted in, politicians can hardly blame the people when they no longer vote for them. If the people fail to vote the “correct” way, that’s hardly their fault, but that of politicians who lacked a plausible response to their values and their concerns. So oppose “populism” by all means; but if it’s the elected populists that worry you, isn’t that mistrusting democracy itself, which we should never do? 

I still think there’s a majority of Australians who could be persuaded to vote for a party that’s passionate for freedom, passionate for small business and the family, and passionate above all for our country—as long as they can find one. 

The Hon. Tony Abbott was Prime Minister of Australia from 2013 to 2015. This is the text of his speech at the Populist Moment conference in Sydney on April 8.


17 thoughts on “Populism and the Failure of Conservatives

  • Podargus says:

    Australia faces many challenges but a few stand out.
    Climate hysteria with associated poor to disastrous decisions.
    An insane immigration policy coupled with devotion to outmoded refugee conventions.
    A long standing reliance on defense treaties rather than a determined attempt to cover our own backside using our own resources. When push comes to shove nations will look to their own interests regardless of others.
    Membership of international organizations such as the UN and the WHO which have long passed their use by date.

  • ianerskine says:

    Hi Tony,

    It was great to have attended the meeting to discuss this topic firstly let me mention the sudden passing of David Martin Jones a true freedom lover and one we should never forget.

    I liked your speech but the problem I am having is and it is your last seven words.

    The Liberal Party was once the great bastion of freedom and standing up for ones free speech but since COVID I have become increasingly dismayed and somewhat shocked at how far the Liberal Party has strayed from its founders Guiding and strength that of Menzies.

    So where does a true Liberal turn perhaps the minor parties One Nation, United Australia, Liberty Party, no as our voting system makes it nigh impossible to gain enough votes to get past the two majors.

    Perhaps it now time for the Liberal Party to embrace first past the post elections for Australia, just a thought opening it up for debate if you Like

    Cheers Erko

    • David Isaac says:

      The Teals have managed it, albeit by disguising their lupine policies in the ovine clothing of attractive perimenopausal White women. But they are an answer to a question which the bien pensants are largely convinced, courtesy of worldwide propaganda, demands urgent action. The task of national conservatives is first to create a similar urgency in the electorate for advancing a White majority and a culture which honours tradition, reveres the family and gives men and women acceptable (but not the same) roles in it, and in the wider world. Viktor Orban is showing the way.

  • robtmann7 says:

    From the distance of New Zealand I’d not seen this man as such an intellectual. It is a shame, and a surprise, that he could remain so ignornant about nuclear power. How could he be unaware of its huge capital costs, very long times for construction (with large interest payable during construction), unreliability, and dangers?

  • Geoff Sherrington says:

    Mr Abbott,
    My volunteered years as manager of government relations for a large Aussie resources company were unrewarding and boring. More exciting were the previous years working with good science to build that company from small, to large and highly profitable. That growth success is enduring and measurable, whilst success in dabbling with politics is flip-flop and not accurately measurable.
    Too many voters here no longer know the meaning of “Conservative”. It used to be taught by politicians, but few of them now know its meaning, so they cannot teach it, let alone in the clear and positive style of the Menzies era that I recall. With immigration numbers out of control and many newcomers ignorant of “Conservative”, some scales are tipped.
    All government needs a master plan. For decades our Constitution played its part. Today, more effort seems to go into finding ways to get around the Constitution instead of using it. This contempt for past principles is illustrated by the recent Referendum that clearly showed a 60% majority of voters disagreeing with a proposed government way. Have governments not learned that they are there to express the will of the people, not to dictate to the people?
    The master plan now seems to be a fragmented mess of competition among “isms” like socialism and communism. No strong signal about conservatism is heard in this household. Instead, wee hear conservative groups being confused with labor-lite or green or teal.
    We have a large bureaucracy at each tier of government. Absent strong guidance from a master plan, they have voluntarily inserted themselves as the creators and enforcers of many matters that are new to traditional government. As you note, the topic of climate change has been given a central bureaucratic role. There are even instructions by some politicians that it be a central theme in every ministry, so that for example, in education, climate change is the prime example to be used in schools. In maths, it is not 1 + 1 =2. It is now one species extinction + one species extinction = two species extinctions. What has happened, to allow bureaucracy to addle the young brain with policies like this? Or to addle the brains of adults with unscientific “net zero carbon” nonsense?
    The bureaucracy has to shrink. Australia needs to have more people engaged in the production of saleable goods and assets, as in the golden times of the 1980s. I can find no evidence that a bigger bureaucracy has helped this country to prosper. There is ample evidence that our standard of living is in decline, with no event to reverse the decline in sight. People glibly mouth that “the government ought to do something about it” without knowing that such is the cause of the problem, not the cure.
    Politicians need to read or re-read our Constitution, then to work within its limits and intents. Sure, 9th July 1900 was a long time ago, but some principles like truth, liberty, freedom, endeavour and kindness do not change with time, even when separated by semi-colons.
    Geoff S

  • Dallas Beaufort says:

    Reflections, All hands on Ausrtalia’s deck

  • whitelaughter says:

    1) ‘populist’ – the people who are what the voters want, rather than who the spin doctors and media vultures want.

    2) yes, our old enemies are regrouping. What else were they going to do?

    3) You had the chance to slash the bureaucracy when you were PM. You didn’t even need to abolish the positions – if the govt doesn’t assign funding, then they don’t get paid. If ministers don’t delegate the right to pay them, they don’t get paid.

  • Tony Tea says:

    Well said, Tony. I just wish you could have carried through the issues you’ve mentioned when you were in the top job. As an electrical engineer my pet bug-bears are the climate cult and the power system; how have we let those two fiascos off the leash? I’m getting the sense that things have started to turn, but since politics is the art of exaggeration, and both have been exaggerated with extreme prejudice, it’s a long way back to the sensible middle ground.

  • lbloveday says:

    Way off topic, BUT the article to which I wish to reply “The Authoritarian Assault on Free Speech” has no provision for comments and I figured this is the quickest way to bring it to the attention of QOL staff.

  • Elizabeth Beare says:

    The climate cult and its hold on the media and within the bureaucracy is one of the main things which needs to change, and quickly, before we lose all capacity to remain a modern industrial economy and before we lose our major export advantages in coal and gas. A coalition government if returned to power should immediately do a corrective mail out on climate issues (remember that Gillard did her own ‘black balloon’ piece of absolute spin setting the trend to ’emergency’ nonsense). It should go to all voters and put the alternative case to Gillard’s hype; call it an ‘update’. This at least would get this crucial issue up in the media and get it talked about in schools and universities and around the kitchen table. Scientific bodies should be pulled to more account too and educator’s funding, including research funding, should rely on due recognition being given to the lack of any climate emergency so far. To do this, of course, the debate would first have to b won within the Liberal party room and good luck with that, unless Tony can talk a few more away from this ruin.

    Pulling down the apparatus of Covid hysteria could be used as a template for challenging climate cultism.

  • sonofscott says:

    As our nation-regimes fracture we’re starting to see that power isn’t really exercised by governments at all anymore, but by trans-national bureaucratic and corporate networks of various sorts. Without the set piece of politicians giving a performance with any credibility the curtain drops and the true power play becomes more apparent.
    The honourable Mr. Abbott seems to be writing from a vantage point of ten years in the past. We’re not voting our way out of the trouble we are presently in. It’s time to stop attaching quixotic expectations to “democracy”.

  • ChrisPer says:

    Greatly appreciate your writings Tony, but where is my 18c reform?
    I and the others of the former Liberal voter/volunteer crew were proud to slap whatsisname Trumble around, but are very sad not to have a political party that will represent us any more.

  • Searcher says:

    “that would mean living life in spurts, when the power’s on, while the wind’s blowing and the sun’s shining”

    Unreliable power isn’t cheap. It’s diabolically costly. “Living life in spurts” is a desperate euphemism for that.

  • Searcher says:

    “It could be cheap and reliable if we keep using coal and gas.”

    Coal and gas are clean.

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