Opinion: building back better isn’t a leftist agenda, it’s one for the quiet Australians

By Harry Guinness

June 23, 2020

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It is a given that COVID-19 has threatened the health of Australians and our economy but it is no exaggeration that COVID-19 also threatens the quality of our liberal democracy.  COVID-19 has taken employment and savings away from those who need it most and increased the appeal of divisive politics. It has also highlighted fault lines in our system – old vs young, casual vs permanent, union vs employer etc. We are also witnessing a renewed focus on racial inequality, brought to the fore by chaos unfolding on US streets, which plays out domestically through the unreconciled divide between Indigenous and mainstream Australia.  In this context we should note that one global virus — coronavirus — can quickly lead to another: a brand of politics and ideology that encourages division while failing to help the people it preaches to serve. Let’s call this ‘negative populism’.

Negative populism isn’t mis-informed, it is a response to grievances with the system

COVID-era negative populism is epitomised by drum-beating from some commentators over the need to ignore medical advice and re-open the economy at expense of lives. Trump has done just that in response to polling that suggests Republican voters now fear the economic consequences of lockdown more than the virus itself. It is a tactic aimed squarely at his Democratic rivals, but the negative effects of which are most likely to be borne by the nation’s poorest.

The problem with negative populism then, is not that it is ‘ill-informed’ or ‘anti-democratic’; in fact, it is by definition the opposite — “a political approach that strives to appeal to ordinary people”. Unfortunately, negative populism tends to lead to more problems than solutions, particularly for those who need them most. It is characterised by the preference for knee-jerk politicking to appease the disenfranchised over genuine reform to respond to their demands.

Australia’s political and economic systems are not broken like other Western nations’ are

Australia has done well to avoid the underlying social and political conditions that are the fuel of negative populism. Working class voters in Australia may feel more politically empowered and economically well-off than their American counterparts who have suffered four decades of negative wage growth. Australia is generally a more equal society than many, and Australians generally need not resort to protest politics because they trust the quality and responsiveness of the institutions on which our democracy is built. Of course, decades-long reduction in trust in politicians and increasingly brazen corruption within the political class, exemplified by sports rorts scandal, continue to erode the quality and standing of our political institutions.  This decline in the value of our ‘social contract’ should be cause for alarm in this time of social and economic upheaval.

When it comes to economic security, Australia is in a stronger position than most to defend against divisive politics. Following 28 years of consecutive economic growth, Australians are, on average, almost incomparably well off. Economic prosperity is the bedrock of broader and more meaningful wellbeing and this is a record that Australians should rightly be proud of. Of course, no economy distributes the benefits of growth equally and no society is without its tensions. Indeed, COVID-19 has exacerbated social and economic divisions that pre-existed the crisis and that will continue to do more to divide people at home and abroad.

However, many people are dissatisfied with the status-quo

COVID-19 has highlighted the lingering dissatisfaction of mainstream Australians with various forms of intergenerational inequality. Stagnant wage growth in Australia was flagged by the Reserve Bank well before the onset of the coronavirus crisis. This is a test for aspirational Australians who are the traditional base of Australia’s political right. The well documented housing affordability crisis in Australia, with the house price to income ratio hovering around 100, will not be solved by a 10% drop in prices.

Less documented is the reduction of young people’s capacity to enter the workforce with confidence, and derive a decent living. Young people may also feel left behind in our economy with fewer than 75% of recent Australian graduates able to find work, down from 85% before the 2008 financial crisis. These facts are amplified by the general sense that young people have paid a disproportionate cost of COVID-19 lockdowns which have largely protected older Australians. Young people may also feel that their future economic wellbeing continues to be hampered by the higher proportion of older Australians who take climate change less seriously. In the time of COVID-19, these and other grievances will be heightened and may flare the embers of negative populist sentiment.

We must then turn our attention to COVID-19 recovery fully aware of the many fault lines in our current system of governance. Clearly, drawing the same ideological battle-lines is unlikely to lead to an adequate response to the various conditions to which they have been the unknowing accomplice. Post-COVID politics then must go beyond the politics of the past.  Our democratic institutions must learn to listen and respond to the many who have grievances with the quality of our institutions and their capacity to serve the interest of all Australians.

Harry Guinness is CEO and Founder of the Blueprint Institute

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