Populism and fake news are here to stay


Labor’s excruciating navel-gazing and entrail-picking review this week of its May election loss makes a couple of good points – Bill Shorten was unpopular and Clive Palmer bought a lot of votes – and misses another crucial point – fake news and misinformation are beyond combatting.

With hindsight, Labor would have been better off ditching Shorten for Tayna Plibersek in the way New Zealand Labour replaced the uninspiring Andrew Little for Jacinda Ardern just before the 2017 election.

Bear in mind, Australian Labor won an election after ditching the once popular Bob Hawke for Paul Keating. And won again (just) after ditching Kevin Rudd. The Liberals won after ditching Tony Abbott and won again after ditching Malcolm Turnbull.

And these are Prime Ministers. Opposition victories after ditching leaders abound. The Liberals would almost have certainly lost in 1996 if they had not dropped Alexander Downer for John Howard.

A successful leader must have a least two of three things: trust, respect and likeability among the bulk of voters. Just one is not enough

The electorate does not think; it feels. Many voters have feelings about the leader and the leader’s personality and vote accordingly, irrespective of policies.

Who knows, the Liberals might have won in 2007 if they had ditched Howard, because the voters saw him as yesterday’s man.

Both major parties might have made a big mistake in making it harder to ditch an under-performing leader because it seems the leader is almost everything.

Labor might be stuck with Anthony Albanese. He is likeable enough, but we will have to wait to see if he gets trusted or respected by voters. I avoided the cliché “earns the trust” or “earns the respect”, because these things are as much down to luck and serendipity than just assessment of diligence, honesty or intelligence. 

The review into Labor’s loss pointed to lots of factors, such as a poor campaign strategy, having too many policies and so on. But with a different leader they might not have mattered. A different leader might even have made Clive Palmer’s money less effective.

Too often, the rise of populism has been depicted as the rise of charismatic, quirky or bombastic leaders heading right-wing fringe nationalist parties or capturing centre-right parties and moving them further to the right.

But populism dominates all politics. Hawke and Whitlam were populists in their way. It is inescapable that many voters will put their feelings about the leader first and not critically evaluate the party’s policies on some measure of global, national or personal benefit.

The best vacuum cleaner does not necessarily win. The best vacuum salesperson wins.

Robert Menzies won so many elections, not because he had better policies or would take the country in a better direction, but because no-one would buy a vacuum cleaner from Labor’s Arthur Calwell.

So what of fake news and misinformation? Ironically enough, fake news and misinformation has to have at least a veneer of credibility to be effective. If voters do not like or trust or respect Shorten, however poorly grounded those feelings might be, they will be more likely to believe fake news or misinformation about him and his policies.

They are likely to believe a statement that Labor would introduce death duties if Labor does not have a popular enough or credible enough leader who is believed when he or she denies the statement.

Similarly, Labor’s 2016 Mediscare campaign worked because many voters felt Turnbull was out of touch with their health struggles and that the Coalition had the replacement of public health with private health in their DNA.

So the Labor review’s statement that Labor “must develop a comprehensive strategy for message defence and combating disinformation, which should include full-time resources dedicated to monitoring and addressing false messages” is really misplaced.

The “comprehensive strategy” merely needs to be having a believable leader.

It is not Shorten’s fault. Often very intelligent, diligent, honest people become detested in politics and shallow charlatans become, loved or at least followed.

As for the review’s calls for truth in campaigning, it is an unenforceable pipe dream in this internet age.

However, doing something about big political donations is not. Australia’s opaque and secretive donations law are a twin evil. First the money can help an undeserving party win including by paying to the propagation of misinformation. Second, those who make the donations (pay the piper) can call the tune. That’s why a lot of big businesses and big business organisations make donations to all political parties. It does not matter who wins or who gets the balance of power, the big donors get heard loud and clear.

Distrust in politics has grown, not because of leadership spills. That has happened frequently in politics, one way or the other, since Julius Caesar lost his leadership 2000 years ago. Distrust has grown as sectional interests buy ever more influence so politicians have no choice to put the sectional interests over the broader public interest.

Voters then turn against the major parties who they see as not representing their interests.

Bizarrely, according to a Museum of Australian Democracy survey, the politicians, individually, recognise this and would love to be free of it, but collectively they are powerless.

If one good thing comes out of all Labor’s navel gazing and entrail picking it would be an end to corporate and union political donations in Australia and a limit of, say, $1000 a year from individuals, with details of all donations publicly available immediately online.


This article first appeared in The Canberra Times and other Australian media on 9 November 2019.


4 thoughts on “Populism and fake news are here to stay”

  1. Crispin, I look at life from both sides now, from win and lose and then somehow, it’s life’s illusions I recall, I really don’t know life at all.

    But from my position of someone who researches policies that support my principles, I can’t agree with you. Labor can not win an election with a popular leader and LNP light policies. I commented several times during the election campaign that it was NOT a presidential election which Morrison made it. The MHR’s can call a spill anytime and replace the leader. It is policies we are voting for and not celebrity.

  2. Thanks Crispin – a welcome rundown on the sad reality of the recent election.
    I do think that all credit should go to Scott Morrison. He may not be really intelligent, and certainly lacking in “emotional intelligence”, but he has one single remarkable skill – marketing ! Yes, Scott Morrison most adeptly put lipstick on a the pig of the Coalition’s lack of policies. And, helped by the Murdochracy, the Australian public found that pig attractive.

  3. The Review mentions Adani – they didn’t have a choice, did they. The Review deliberately omits the Sydney rebuff of the open-ended migrant-parent visa – they knew a complicit media wouldn’t call them on it.

    Nevertheless, voters will quite reasonably type Albanese and Keneally as open borders “Green Labor”. They won’t win with these two up front.

  4. If Labor cut its ties with the unions (and became what … the Social Democrats?) would there be enough middle-class progressive voters to win sufficient seats to form government even in coalition with the Greens? The trend of working class voters with “old fashioned” values and economic fears to vote Coalition would be accelerated. An interesting question for the psephologists. By the way has New Zealand Labour cut its ties with unions? And finally, the Labor-Green government in the ACT doesn’t seem a happy model for the rest of the country!

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