In Australia, populism goes up in smoke

The unanimous support in the Senate for the law regulating vapes was a pleasant departure from the growing polarisation in Australian politics.

For some time, it appeared that the Opposition was going down the path of opposing for opposing’s sake or rejecting evidence and science in favour of the commercial interests of their donors and supporters.

Just a week ago the president of the AMA, Professor Steve Robson, got stuck into the Nationals for doing precisely this.

Nationals leader David Littleproud was on record as opposing Labor’s plan to outlaw the domestic manufacture, advertisement, supply and commercial possession of non-therapeutic vapes. Littleproud, clutching at any argument said, “Prohibition hasn’t worked.”

But there was no prohibition, just a restriction of supply of vapes to pharmacies. The Coalition has a long history of taking Big Tobacco’s side. But this time science and evidence has prevailed.

This Australian example contrasts with what happens in the two democracies we are compared with most: the United States and the United Kingdom.

The differences do not seem to amount to much but they are critical. Indeed, it is worth celebrating and understanding some of the good things about Australian politics that seem to be defying a trend elsewhere towards populism and authoritarianism.

The stand-outs are compulsory voting; preferential voting; an independent Electoral Commission; and to a lesser extent the party system.

Compulsory voting adds legitimacy to the result. Everyone has taken part. More importantly because everyone takes part, contestants have to appeal to the middle ground. A major party cannot rely on a combination of its extremist base enthusiastically coming out to vote and its centrist opponents suffering from voter indifference of the stolid.

In Australia’s voting system stolidity has its rewards and policy is by and large better for it.

Preferential voting prevents the divide-and-rule syndrome that has dogged British politics, where so often the Conservatives have ruled with 40 to 45 per cent of the vote because the 55 to 60 per cent progressive vote in so many seats is split between Labour and the Liberal Democrat candidates resulting the Conservative having the most votes and a win despite having less than 50 percent support.

In the US, the Electoral College system, frequently results in a candidate with a minority of the vote winning the presidency.

The Australian Electoral Commission prevents party-dominated hacks at state level drawing up rigged boundaries, as in the US.

Strong party discipline prevents well-funded interests picking off a few individual powerful members of Congress to stymie public-interest legislation. In Australia you have to capture the whole party. It is not impossible, but it is more difficult, especially if the party has to face elections with compulsory voting.

Party discipline does not have to be as rigid as the Labor Party’s, but good party discipline adds to policy certainty.

Without these four things, the lurch to right-wing populism, that has run hand-in-hand with the rise of ubiquitous, unchecked social media, would have been more possible in Australia.

As it is, the two most prominent populist banner-unfurlers in Australia – Pauline Hanson and Clive Palmer – have had limited success. All the money and internet misinformation that they have spread like dung fertiliser through the Australian electorate has not borne fruit.

Neither has populism had much of a hold in the major parties. Labor’s Mark Latham failed. The Coalition’s Tony Abbott did not last a term.

Nonetheless we should be wary of populism. The formula is fairly straight-forward.

Polarise wherever possible. Play on the resentments, fears, and alienation of one side of that polarised world. Use falsehoods, misinformation, lies, and gaslighting to achieve those ends. Ignore tested evidence from qualified experts. Instead point to “research” from self-interested parties and the conclusions upon which they have based their “facts”.

After being elected, ignore the needs of those you have duped into voting for you. Favour instead super-rich individuals and corporations who do not like being regulated or taxed so they support your aim to stay in power. Stitch up the system in whatever way you can to rig future “elections” in your favour, or abolish elections altogether.

It is familiar stuff – as old as Machiavelli. But it is still alarming. Democracy-supporters should be alert to it and reject the statement that if you bring Hitler in you have lost the argument. Bear in mind that there are degrees and variations of fascism – Putin’s Russia, Orban’s Hungary, Netanyahu’s Israel, bin Salman’s Saudi Arabia, Xi’s China.

Coming back to Australia, despite some excellent elements in our democracy, there are, of course, faults.

At present, Labor and the Coalition are getting about a third of the vote each, yet with rare exception one or other gets a majority the House of Representatives that controls the legislative agenda and yields the executive power that makes appointments in the administration.

At least in Australia the appointment power is constrained, unlike in the US where Donald Trump if re-elected could use it to threaten democracy and the rule of law itself. In Australia, ministers of state must be members of Parliament upon appointment or shortly thereafter. In Australia, heads of statutory authorities, the military, a top diplomats cannot and are not dismissed on a change of government.

It may well be that at the next election the one-third-one-half rule becomes history as more independents and minor-party members cement themselves in – as they tend to do – so that they hold a permanent balance of power in the House. 

Members of Governments with large majorities tend to abuse it, as the past five years of Conservative Governments in the UK (use-by date 4 July 2024) has shown.

They (and Australian MPs) should have taken heed of what are known as the Nolan Principles of Public Life – named after the chair of the parliamentary committee (set up by Conservative Prime Minister John Major) that laid them out in 1995: Selflessness, Integrity, Objectivity, Accountability, Openness, Honesty, and Leadership.

The committee did not think it necessary to add “acting lawfully”. It had not come across Boris Johnson or Donald Trump. And fortunately for us no Australian Prime Minister, not even multi-minister Scott Morrison, has ever been in that league of charlatanism. Be grateful.

Crispin Hull

This article first appeared in The Canberra Times and other Australian media on 2 Jly 2014.

2 thoughts on “In Australia, populism goes up in smoke”

  1. There are two solutions regarding vapes, cigarettes and dugs.
    1. Ban them all outright and lock lock up all who sell them, for life. It worked for the First Australians who used to banish anyone who’s behaviour threatened the tribe.

    2. Or, legalise the lot. put a heavy tax on all produces so that any health problems down track can be paid for by the tax. In other words, those that consume pay for the resulting illnesses. And with each premature the death Australia’s intelligence increases a little bit.

  2. While our High Court and Electoral Commission are indeed notable, I worry about us being at all triumphal, as compared with the US and UK, or indeed those “feckless” Argentinians who’ve sorely tumbled down the wealth ladder.

    We should be looking upwards, to examples like the Scandinavian nations, which don’t have our crazy overpopulation obsession, get a much better national return on their natural resources, and are generally more equal in education and in wealth than Australia.

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