Populism falters in Australia, threatens Europe

Populism seems to be the latest political term in favour, but it is being applied across the political spectrum.

The unexpected defeat of Labor in the election Australia, after promoting  ‘populist’ type policies (like in dealing with climate change), has been seen as a setback for populism.

Washington Times: A populist surprise down under

Political trends, like the common cold, are contagious. Revolutions are often not confined to one country. The Communist revolution in Russia soon spread across the first half of the 20th century. The rise of fascism occurred in tandem across wide swaths of the world.

The period beginning in our own century might loosely be called the Age of Populism.

Gallup now says 4 in 10 Americans have embraced populism, perhaps not knowing everything about populism. The list of nations that have seen the birth of populist movements is a long one, including the United States, France, the United Kingdom, Italy, Poland, Israel, Hungary, the Philippines, Mexico, India, and Brazil. Ten thousand miles away from America, a populist revolution has exploded in Australia.

Scott Morrison won his first full term as prime minister of Australia, confounding expectations that the country’s voters were ready for a change after six years of tumultuous leadership.

But Australia’s “quiet voters,” as the prime minister called them, had a different idea. Mr. Morrison’s victory — his Liberal party is in fact the small-c conservative party in Australia — took an outright majority in parliament.

Australian voters rallied to the prime minister’s bold, Trump-like message.

I thought that lack of boldness was a feature of Morrison’s campaign, compared to Labor who thought the time was right for left wing populism. Bill Shorten was seen by voters as a threat to middle Australia’s future.

I don’t think that Scott Morrison is generally seen as a populist leader. He won more because he was the least unpopular.

New Zealand contrasts with this, as popular leader Jacinda Ardern is widely praised, even though her government keeps watering down or avoiding dealing with populist policies.

Blomberg editorial: The Populist Threat to Europe’s Future

The European Union is under siege. In elections from Sweden to Spain, right-wing populists continue to gain strength, while support for traditional parties withers. Populist groups expect to make sizable gains in this week’s elections for the European parliament — giving them more power than ever before over the institutions at the heart of the EU.

Europe’s cohesion hangs in the balance. Though the Brexit fiasco has diminished the appeal of leaving the EU, populists remain determined to undermine it from within. They want to halt the momentum of European integration, curtail the authority of Brussels and limit the EU’s ability to force member states to adhere to democratic norms.

European leaders need a coherent strategy for fighting back. That requires they come to grips with the scale of the populist surge and address the legitimate grievances populists have exploited for electoral gain. At the same time, they must resist the urge to placate the demands of agitators on both the right and the left.

But Europe consists of many countries. While operating under the EU umbrella there a a variety of issues in different countries.

The landscape of populism is as diverse and cacophonous as Europe itself — from the yellow-vest protesters in France to the far-right Alternative for Germany to Italy’s anti-establishment Five Star Movement — but common threads help to explain its appeal.

Populist leaders harness public frustration with political elites, who they cast as corrupt and indifferent to the daily struggles of voters. They draw support from citizens with low levels of formal education and those living in regions that have suffered from globalization. And populists play on cultural anxieties, blaming the loss of national identity on immigrants, asylum seekers and the faceless bureaucrats of the EU.

Both right wing and left wing activists think they can tap the support of ordinary citizens, assuming they will support their ideals. This is often flawed thinking.

Political insurgents have also benefited from the erosion of voters’ loyaltiesto traditional parties. In countries with fractured electorates, like Belgium and Sweden, the mere process of forming a government can take months, and sometimes years. As ruling coalitions become more ideologically diverse, their ability to govern effectively declines — which only strengthens the populists’ anti-establishment message.

This isn’t happening here. One of the biggest criticisms in New Zealand is that the two major parties, Labour and National, are barely distinguishable with what the do in government, especially on economic policy.

If pursued at both national and pan-European levels, political and economic reform can restore confidence in mainstream parties and blunt the appeal of populism. That work won’t be easy, nor yield results overnight. But for the sake of Europe’s future, it needs to start now.

That’s as unlikely as what is proposed is idealistic.And it’s vague – the left and the right are trying to pull economic and social reform in different directions, while governments are getting more messed up in the middle – Britain’s attempt at reform via Brexit is a continuing disaster.

Donald Trump promised to ‘drain the swamp’, but hasn’t achieved much, especially what could be called reform. His biggest claim to fame is reshuffling the swamp monsters, and tweeting nonsense.

Australia has just chosen more of the same politically and economically, with no sign of anything looking like reform. Australians voted for the status quo.

New Zealand is continuing largely the same, with even modest tax reform and social reform both being rejected by the government this year.

Populism is more popular in social media than in politics, but it is amplified by small minorities who keep getting disappointed by voters and governments.

A simplistic label like populism doesn’t fit the real world, which is far more diverse than simplistic reforms can deal with.

Leave a comment


  1. Casey Jones

     /  23rd May 2019

    A lot of your confusion here seems to be that you think the word “popular” and “populist” mean the same thing. They really don’t. Suggest you spend half an hour or so on Wikipedia.

    • I suggest that what is being called populist or populism is quite varied compared to academic definitions. As are the current political situations.

      • Kitty Catkin

         /  23rd May 2019

        Populism can indeed be popular, Casey. Look at the braying sychophants at NZ First meetings when Winston Peters is speaking.

        To most people now, populism means doing what he does by appealing to people’s prejudices and offering them what they want, I imagine; its shade of meaning has changed.

  2. Strong For Life

     /  23rd May 2019

    This is the Oxford Dictionary definition of “populist”: Populist (noun) – a member or adherent of a political party seeking to represent the interests of ordinary people.
    Populist (adj) – relating to or characteristic of a populist or populists.

    I think most, if not all, MP represent the interests of their party first before the interests of ordinary people, whatever they are?

    • Kitty Catkin

       /  23rd May 2019

      It is generally used in the sense of people pleasing; Winston Peters uses populism.

      I suspect that it’s too late to reclaim its true meaning.

      • Kitty Catkin

         /  23rd May 2019

        I hope that MPs represent their voters. The people who vote them in do so because they agree with the party views.

        Nothing would induce me to vote Green now, although I did long ago.

  3. David

     /  23rd May 2019

    Polling for the Democratic presidential primary points exactly the same way, Biden is seen as a traditional Democrat and his poll ratings are huge even though he is a white middle aged man. The other candidates are trying to out left each other and appeal to the twittersphere and what the media want to talk about, turns out once again folk just like things pretty much the way they are.
    Ardern has learned from Clark and Key that its cost free to annoy your radical base wanting wholesale change when the country is ticking along and one of the best places on earth to live. The only thing Ardern has to actually do is keep her union backers happy with some juicy payrises, throw some cash at NZ First and allow Peters to be personally paternalistic.

  4. Alan Wilkinson

     /  23rd May 2019

    Populist appears to mean anti-establishment in current usage but with a condemnatory edge. Just a way of dismissing opposing views.

  5. Tom Hunter

     /  23rd May 2019

    The unexpected defeat of Labor in the election Australia, after promoting ‘populist’ type policies ….

    This is a complete inversion of the term; “Populist” was never meant as being “popular”, even if that’s what the polls showed: and isn’t that completely refuted by the actual “popular” election vote anyway?

    “Populism” has always been a denigrating word used for politicians like Winston Peters who, it was felt, appealed to the basest, most ignorant emotions of the mob: stuff that was “popular” not in terms of opinion polls, which have often missed populist revolts, and not built up or created by academic, media and political efforts, as is the case with AGW, but was popular among people on the basis of simple emotional connection with eachother.

    Efforts to combat AGW are popular? Well, Labor’s loss in Queensland was precisely because of a “populist” backlash among many voters who felt – rightly or wrongly – that their livelihoods were going to be crushed in pursuit of those efforts.

    Similarly, Brexit happened because millions of voters felt the EU was depriving them of their communities, irrespective of how popular all that juicy trade with the EU was with the London crowd.

    And then there’s Trump and the MidWestern group so often derided as “The Rust Belt” – paradoxically often by Republican predecessors as they pushed for Free Trade deals like NAFTA. So Trump’s precursor on this – Pat Buchanan – was long derided as a “populist” as he argued that free trade would destroy these communities and more besides; he was appealing to non-intellectual, non-academic, emotional and cultural beliefs in American industry and commerce and protected, he believed, by tarriffs. And of course in that regard there were many US unionists and Democrats who believed the same. They too were dismissed as “populists” in the 1980’s.

  6. harryk

     /  23rd May 2019

    Populism isn’t faltering in Australia. Over the past few years politicians of the Right, and their media of choice ie Murdoch, have deliberately targeted and stigmatised ethnicity,race,religious issues and asylum seekers for electoral advantage. They won the election. This makes it likely they’ll continue the same tactics. The ALP shares blame for this, having deserted the blue collar regional base, some of the people most vulnerable to this dogwhistling.


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