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Being popular is not the same as leadership

Fatima Measham |  03 May 2016


What does it mean to be populist? Labor has perhaps surprisingly set the economic terms of the election, and it is evident in some components of the Coalition budget released this week.

Malcolm TurnbullIt belies the initial response from the federal government and some pundits, which has been to bill the Shorten agenda as populism.

It's an interesting charge. An April poll found that a majority of voters regard Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull as out of touch with ordinary people. Reinforcing that contrast — Labor as in touch with the masses — would only put the Liberals at a disadvantage.

The reality of course is that no two popular things are alike. The cruel components of our immigration detention system are there because most Australians want them there, both parties would argue. Yet they have put off legalising same-sex marriage even though it has significant support, poll after poll.

Such inconsistency suggests that other things are at play. Political cowardice, perhaps, or the sort of intellectual timidity that takes dissent as a prompt for moral detours.

In democracies, public sentiment is meant to be taken seriously. Describing something as populist is a refusal to engage with the sentiment, including its source and complications, usually because we find it so disagreeable.

The subtext is: people are wrong about the things they care about. They are not being rational or realistic. It is a brave thing to say these days about support for a royal commission into banks, softening public attitudes toward detention-bound children, or fait accompli around climate change responses.

The problem with dismissing policy as populist is that the whole point of elections is to be popular. But it also keeps discourse superficial and polarised — policies reduced to public mood rings, which change colour according to temperature.


"People don't tend to make up their anxieties. For those on the bottom rung, the lack of change keeps memory long. They see collusion everywhere against them."


It keeps politicians from engaging honestly with other imperatives; such as whether unpopular decisions carry much greater legal and ethical weight than the alternative. What damage could have been averted, for example, if our leaders had chosen 15 years ago to respond to the material insecurities that keep Australians hostile toward asylum seekers? What if they had dug deeper, reached higher? Justin Trudeau, in the way he has reset Canadian immigration policy, suggests that they could have.

In other words, populism without leadership is just opportunism, and it can backfire. Our democratic traditions are supposed to have a civilising effect on our fears and resentments. We need only observe the United States primaries and Philippine elections to understand what catharsis looks like, and what it erodes.

Yet Tony Abbott is still trying to convince us that the 2014 budget was 'fundamentally fair'. In his view, it was profoundly unpopular because the public was just not in the mood. Are they in a better mood now? Despite their hardening interest in fairness, Treasurer Scott Morrison has pegged the 'average' wage at $20,000 more than the actual figure. The vast majority of Australians will not benefit from any budget tinkering around bracket creep.

People don't tend to make up their anxieties. For those on the bottom rung, the lack of change keeps memory long. They see collusion everywhere against them. This means that they are no longer willing to absolve politicians from leadership.

As it turns out, 'populist' things are nothing more than the expectations of the governed. According to Essential polling, what Australians want from government does not change: 'better schools, more money in health, the NDIS up and running, workable cities and most of all decent, steady jobs'.

Would responsiveness to such concerns be populist? If only we could be that lucky.


Fatima MeashamFatima Measham is a Eureka Street consulting editor. She tweets @foomeister and blogs at This is Complicated.

Malcolm Turnbull image: Shutterstock



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Submitted comments

Very astute fourth paragraph Fatima. Politics, first and foremost, is about power. And power can lead to arrogance and corruption. Turnbull's popularity has waned and he has only himself to blame. Leadership should be about 'leading' not 'responding' and this takes courage and good old-fashioned humility. Sigh.

Pam 03 May 2016

HiFatima, Nice points but it is worth noting that the term populism has a history, which is important primarily because so much Australian political language has been taken from the USA, where populism is regarded as a bad thing by most people with college education. The charge of populism in the US generally amounts to accusing someone of not being serious, that is of playing at politics. It is also seen as carrying the risk of arousing the masses, something the Federalist Papers warn strongly against. Also your interpretation of democracy is too neat and tidy. True, democracy means government by the people, but it also involves complex arrangements - elected 'representtives', public service organisations, etc - to keep the people out of the direct work of government, in other words, arrangements to avoid populism.

barry hindess 04 May 2016

I like your line of argument. It seems to me that it is not only compassion that our Government ministers appear to lack but above all courage. For it takes real courage for a Prime Minister to argue a case for change of previous policy on grounds that it was immoral and unworthy of support. Many would counter such a suggestion by stating that politics is the art of the possible and that one should not expect a PM to commit political suicide. And that is the nub of the problem with political leadership in Australia. It is too often lead by the results of polls rather than by the challenge put to the electorate to rise to their most noble aspirations.

Ern Azzopardi 05 May 2016

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