Spinning Populism


What values are needed to beat conservative populism?

This question is not as simple as it appears. To start with you need an issue in mind: perhaps multiculturalism, land rights, refugees, gay rights, old-growth forests, or The Republic. But do these values resonate strongly enough with the kinds of people who have been convinced or seduced by conservative populism for enough of them to change their mind?

Many Australians assume that ‘outsiders’ or ‘non-citizens’ would love to join the Australian community and if they don’t want to join us, then there must be something wrong with them and not something wrong with the Australian community. For many the identity of Australia is good-hearted and they would not accept that the opposite could be true. This thread still runs deep in the Australian psyche and impacts on a whole variety of policy issues.

As an example, Australians are divided over whether Aboriginal people are empowered by receiving land or whether they are empowered by simply being allowed into the Australian community. Many Australians (I would say wrongly) see that being Australian is the highest honour and the idea of Aboriginal land rights introduces a kind of a two-tiered citizenship, which is an affront to established citizenship.

The two sides of the refugee debate also highlight an inherent value judgment that Australia is a ‘decent society to be valued’. For many who sided with the Howard Government on the refugee issue, there was a value in maintaining citizenship at the heart of Australian identity. And Australian citizenship being such a reward that it should not be given until the person is accepted by the community and its laws. Whilst the notion of ‘queue jumpers’ is jingoism that demeans people, it also summed up the value of citizenship for many Australians.

On the other hand, for those who sided with the asylum seekers, there was still an implicit belief that Australia should preserve its identity as a good-hearted nation by allowing the refugees to apply for visas with a view to eventual entry into Australian society.

Gay marriage is another issue that is perplexing and deeply divisive for the left of centre. Like the Tampa-induced refugee debate, there seems to be no middle ground with this policy area, and no issue sums up the identity crisis at the heart of the Australian Labor Party better than this one. For the ALP, with a Catholic backbone that is often conservative on social issues, attitudes towards gay marriage are defining. For many in the right faction of the ALP the so-called identity politics tradition of the 1960s and 1970s is an imposition on the ‘pride of the working class’. While for others (often in the left faction), this is the only Labor tradition that matters.

No single issue decided the ‘culture wars’ at the last election to quite the same extent that Tampa and 9/11 did in 2001, but the policies of each major party on old-growth forests indicated the way blue-collar union workers could vocally side with a conservative government. When the polls turned against Labor, the strategy of ‘greening’ the ALP was an obvious point of blame. After the election, some Labor MP’s were right to question the policy basis on which Labor should establish its constituency blue-collar workers and jobs, on one side; or green sentiment on the other. Another identity crisis was in play when Lindsay Tanner asked whether Labor was a party for loggers or for trees. This question has yet to be answered.

The Republic seemed like a good populist issue to run on. The British monarchy is an easy whipping boy (no pun intended). However, during the so-called republican debate, the anti-monarchist message was corrupted by the vocal advocates for its cause. Compare the two opposing scenarios: on one side, assembled war veterans advocate for the current system; while on the other, Malcolm Turnbull, Steve Vizard, and Eddie McGuire were the faces of the Republic. The image was so mismanaged that the ‘common people’ were repulsed by the Australian Republican Movement’s slick paparazzi platform. What people perceived was an ARM model that had ‘no improvement on the current system’, with no ‘substantive change’, and advocated for by ‘rich people living in Wentworth’. The debate on The Republic confirmed that the ALP had been captured by the elite.

By 1996 people wanted to hear about their current lives not a big vision for the future. Mark Latham categorised the divide as being between the ‘tourists’ nd ‘residents’. As journalist Margaret Simons wrote in an article about Latham on this and other topics:

He [Latham] says the insiders live like tourists in their own country. There is a sense in which they don’t live in Australia at all. ‘They travel extensively, eat out and buy in domestic help. They see the challenges of globalisation as an opportunity, a chance to further develop their identity and information skills. This abstract lifestyle has produced an abstract style of politics’ …The outsiders, on the other hand – the people who live in the outer suburbs and the regions – are the residents of Australia. Their values are pragmatic. They cannot distance themselves from the problems of the neighbourhood and good behaviour and good services are important. There is no symbolism and also no dogma in the suburbs. The residents look for small, pragmatic improvements and they are not interested in ‘big pictures’.


As an example of Latham’s thesis one can use his mentor. Gough Whitlam has been lauded in the Labor tradition because of his crash-or-crash-through vision. But on reflection, Whitlam crashed more often than he crashed through. Labor wasted a chance to become the natural party of government after 23 years in opposition and lost the ‘residents’. This lesson was learnt and the excesses of social liberalism did not emerge in the Labor Party of the 1980s. Labor became the natural party of government for five elections.

When reconciling the values of modern Australia with a progressive agenda, Bob Hawke was massively successful. Bob Hawke was able to establish a connection with the electorate that was very similar to the current one. Hawke had ‘mate value’, a blue-collar tradition, and economic credibility “ an extraordinarily powerful combination. He found Australia’s home-‘spun’ values and tailored them to more progressive positions. There was no crash-or-crash-through “ only a direction dedicated at becoming the natural party of government in Australia.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.