Thursday, 16 February 2017
A few reflections, because all around the world politics is rapidly being overturned. Brexit was a fringe idea until it happened. Donald Trump running for president was so absurd that it featured in an episode of The Simpsons in 2000, yet last month he took the oath of office. Across the world far Right and far Left parties are gaining traction and in some places extremists are actually winning government. I firmly believe that most Australians are sensible, so the idea that extremists or populists—whether Greens, racists or religious theoconservatives—could actually win power here must worry us deeply, yet it cannot be ruled out.
I can understand that many people may feel driven to vote against the establishment. More and more people in our community feel their economic security and livelihood is under threat. People are afraid that their children will not have the same opportunities that they have had, and they are angry. More than two-thirds of Australians believe the economy is rigged for the rich and powerful. Australia may hold a world record for the longest run of continuous economic growth, but people feel that they are slipping behind—and they are absolutely right. Last month Oxfam found that: the top one per cent in Australia now have more than 22 per cent of our total wealth, the one per cent own more wealth than the bottom 70 per cent, the two richest Australians own more wealth than the poorest 20 per cent, and for more than 23 years income growth for the top 10 per cent was more than for the bottom 50 per cent. And the outrageous data on public companies and multinationals paying no tax in Australia is well known.
Inequality is stark, growing and indefensible, and real unfairness is driving real anger. History teaches us that when people get this frustrated, when people feel this strongly that their government is not working for them and that their country is not working for them, dangerous ideas take root and grow. If you look around the globe, with the possible exception of Merkel in Germany, the world is not well served by the calibre of current leaders—quite the opposite. Small-minded, often nasty, introspective pygmies is what we have. If we do not heed the lessons of last century, if we are not to give away reason and succumb to populism and if we risk that slide that we have seen before to authoritarianism and Fascism, then this is a time that calls for genuine engagement and principled leadership to stand up to what is wrong.
A brief word on One Nation. My firm view is that supporters of One Nation are not mainly driven by racism. Indeed, Lindsay Tanner said almost 20 years ago when Hanson first appeared: 'Do not call her supporters rednecks and racists because most people are reasonable and many views do not seem so out there if you stop and think about the lived experience of people who are falling behind, especially if fed an information diet of drama from tabloids and shock jocks and fake news on the internet.'
Of course One Nation is in substance a fraud. Senator Hanson as an outsider is a joke. She has made her living from public election funding. Her business model feeds off resentment and fosters division. Their so-called policies are irrational nonsense. They are a self-serving distraction. Stopping trade, opting out of the global community and economy, building walls, rejecting science and new ideas, keeping out foreigners and kicking out anyone with a funny name or a different religion is not going to create jobs or a fairer society.
Of course all populists do feed off real grievances. The listening, conversation and dialogue can be unpleasant for those in power but real democracy is messy and it involves conflicts between people with different perspectives, ideas and values. I agree actually with some of those railing against excessive political correctness when ideas, words and constructs are branded as unacceptable and wrong, because all it does is drive those thoughts and values underground, and censorship causes resentment. I also think that an overemphasis on identity politics—we will focus on this group or that group and somehow carve up the electorate or society into little groups and assemble a coalition—is wrong. If it comes at the expense of manifest economic unfairness, it drives people nuts.
These conditions should suit the left of politics but only if we focus firmly on inequality and economic issues and are not afraid to fight for middle-class aspirations and for working people. The worst thing we can do is business as usual. In talking about inequality we get accused of inciting a class war by those opposite yet the real class war is being led by the government in its defence of the very rich and their perks, which has always been the primary purpose of the Liberal Party.