8 April 2024

The Fullerton Hotel, Sydney



Now, whether it’s steadily growing support for minor parties and independents here, now routinely a third of the electorate; the presidential re-run now on offer in the US; the likely obliteration of the British Tory government by a nondescript opposition; or the near disintegration of once-well-established parties in Western Europe, clearly more and more people are disillusioned with politics and unimpressed by mainstream political parties. Hence the rise of challengers to the established parties, and the rise of outsiders within them, across the West.

Calling this the “populist moment” is a sign of our dismay; but think about who’s normally tagged “populist”: a politician who’s popular, but of the wrong type. Left “populists” are not the reasonable, rational, pro-business centre-left of Bob Hawke’s time; but the green-left, who aren’t just climate zealots, but increasingly identity-obsessives too. Right “populists” are not the responsible, moderate, small-government centre-right; but make-their-country-great-again conservatives with a social agenda to roll back immigration and fight the culture wars. Perhaps the explanation for this “populist moment” is less that the people have abandoned the mainstream parties, than that the parties’ leaderships are estranged from their voters, or at least large chunks of them.

At least in the West, as economies stagnate and societies polarise, government has got harder, and answers have become more elusive and less readily convincing. It doesn’t help that many mainstream politicians are focus-group-driven operators, more than true believers; with more in common with each other than with the people who vote for them, and with decision-making increasingly in the hands of unaccountable “experts”, as if politics were a science, rather than a robust contest of ideas, to be won by those with the deepest convictions and the best arguments, as in the time of Thatcher and Reagan, and Hawke and Howard.

The liberal reforms of the Thatcher-Reagan era revitalised Anglosphere economies and helped to win the Cold War. But the uni-polar moment and the triumph of liberal capitalism morphed into the era of globalisation, with much lower tariffs, China in the World Trade Organisation, and supply chains outsourced to wherever components were cheapest: often China but also Mexico, Turkey, India, Bangladesh, Vietnam, Indonesia or anywhere whose factories could out-compete those paying Western wages. The result is undeniably a richer world but also a more equal one. Along with the Asian “tigers” that reached Western living standards a generation ago, quite a few other countries now have living standards approaching ours, at least for some of their people, as trips to many once-seen-as-third-world cities demonstrate.

And in a world where people and goods were moving ever more freely, inflation was low and asset prices high. But in the Anglosphere especially, economic growth tended to be driven by immigration rather than productivity. Higher overall GDP masked stagnant GDP per person, with discontent-inducing, migration-driven downward pressure on wages, upward pressure on housing costs, and massive pressure on infrastructure. And while the world at the beginning of 2020 was undoubtedly more free, more fair, more safe, and more rich, for more people than ever before, the Pax Americana that had enabled this peak in human well-being was increasingly fragile, mainly because of the Anglosphere’s relative economic and military decline.

And while the West was comforting itself that history had ended, and enjoying its peace dividend, old foes hadn’t disappeared: apocalyptic, death-to-the-infidels Islam; that had disturbed our complacency twice before – on 9/11 and via Islamic State – but now including a near-nuclear capable Iran and its proxies, capable of convulsing the Middle East, perhaps with October 7 as an opening gambit; a revisionist nuclear power, as-yet unpurged of its militarism, set on restoring the Russia of Peter the Great; communist China, no longer hiding its strength and biding its time, with Marxism-Leninism reinforcing traditional Middle Kingdom exceptionalism, set on avenging a century of humiliation, first by taking Taiwan and then becoming the global hegemon by mid-century; and closer to home, cultural Marxism, that’s turned out to be much better at getting the middle class to revolt in the name of saving the planet, or ending the patriarchy, than it ever was at getting the working class to revolt in the name of equality.

It’s eighty or ninety years since Western countries have faced such internal and external challenges: with the rich getting richer and the poor getting less poor, but the middle class increasingly squeezed; with economies floundering under the high taxes to pay for ever more generous welfare systems, and the red tape needed to achieve ESG goals; with societies strained by the immigration to fill the jobs locals won’t do; and with young people increasingly pessimistic about a future where they can’t afford a home, think they might die in a climate catastrophe, and have been conditioned to see everything through the prism of oppressors and oppressed.

So, is it any wonder that mainstream parties are struggling to adapt and that voters are susceptible to political quackery? Even so, our challenge is not to lament the world, but to rediscover the intellectual and moral clarity, to change-it-for-the-better: a task that grows more urgent by the day, especially as the external challenges could explode at any moment.

What’s needed, from both sides, is a new and better political programme, a programme for each side that doesn’t shirk hard issues; that seeks to address them in ways that are consistent with each sides’ instincts and beliefs; preferably that doesn’t badly split either party; and certainly that’s capable of being accepted by a sceptical electorate.

But while the centre left and the centre right devise their different approaches to delivering, say, cost-effective health care to an ageing population; restoring academic rigour to education at every level; creating sustainable immigration that adds to economic strength and social cohesion; restoring sustainable budget management that reconciles voters’ demand for services with their willingness to pay for them; swiftly adding to our armed forces the capability to help our allies across the globe, while being able to strike hard at a malign superpower, alone if needs be; and somehow taming the Wild West social media space without unduly curbing free speech, there are three fundamentals that need to be resolved.

First, and it’s at the heart of so much public policy, is the belief that, without urgent action to address climate change, normal life could become almost impossible. Or the belief that climate catastrophism is now so widely engrained that credible policy has to cater for it. In fact, it’s less climate change that’s threatening to make normal life impossible, but the policy to deal with it.

Quite apart from the fact that the climate has been different at different times in the earth’s past without any human involvement, these one-sided efforts to reduce human CO2 emissions are not only futile but are leaving the West both weakened (because manufacturing is migrating to countries that aren’t ruled by the climate cult); and impoverished (because creating back-up for wind and solar power is prohibitively expensive or hasn’t yet been proven at scale).

With current technology, it’s simply impossible to have the trifecta of making the electricity we all need 24/7 cheap, clean and reliable. It could be cheap and reliable if we keep using coal and gas; it could be clean and reliable if we used nuclear power; and it could be cheap and clean if we only used renewables – but that would mean living life in spurts, when the power’s on, while the wind’s blowing and the sun’s shining.

We need to face up to these truths, as the federal opposition is now trying to do, by proposing to end the nuclear ban. As indeed, does the South Australian premier and the AWU on the other side of politics. Because there’s no chance of a stronger economy and better living standards with the current energy policy insanity of running our power system primarily to reduce emissions.

Second, there’s identity politics, that the centre-left is succumbing to and the centre-right is often pandering to, in all its various guises: from the ubiquitous acknowledgements of country at official events (as if the country belongs to some of us more than it belongs to all of us), to the absurd proposition that people’s gender is simply what they say it is. Sure, JK Rowling has had the guts to call out the gender folly, and the federal opposition successfully opposed the Voice referendum that would have entrenched race-based separatism in our constitution. But there has to be a clear acceptance by both mainstream parties that distinctions based on characteristics people can’t change are wrong; and that efforts to right historic injustice end up meaning that people who themselves have done no wrong are atoning to people who themselves have not been wronged. By all means, let’s address present disadvantage, but visiting the supposed sins of distant generations on today’s people is just asking for trouble.

Third, and finally, there’s this sense that the least racist and most colour-blind countries on earth are somehow tainted: America by slavery; Britain by colonialism; and Australia by settlement itself, even though pre-settlement Australia resembled a Hobbesian state of nature. Whatever imperfections there might be, and however they might be addressed, there has to be an acceptance – by both mainstream parties – that modern Australia with its indigenous heritage, its British foundation, and its immigrant character is a country to be proud of.

It’s because too many key people in both the mainstream parties are ambivalent on questions which aren’t so much matters of left or right, but of fact or fiction, and right or wrong. That the electorate is disillusioned, and tempted to vote for people who seem better at facing up to unpalatable truths; or indeed, more sincere in their commitment to fantasy.

But I still think there’s a majority of Australians who could be persuaded to vote for a party that’s passionate for freedom, passionate for small business and the family, and passionate above all for our country – as long as they can find one.

In a democracy, it’s said, people ultimately get the governments they deserve. But if voters can’t really blame their discontents on the politicians that they voted in, politicians can hardly blame the people when they don’t vote for them. If the people fail to vote the “correct” way, that’s hardly their fault, but that of politicians who lacked a plausible response to their values and their concerns. So oppose “populism” by all means; but if it’s the elected populists that’s your worry, isn’t that mistrusting democracy itself which we should never do?