Populist Bubbles Can Be Burst

James Pawluk, of Australia’s McKell Institute explains how, far from allowing them to defeat Labor, Victorian Liberals’ decision to play the politics of hate and division lead to their overwhelming defeat; leaving lessons for progressives everywhere.

Magnanimity in defeat is one of the great traditions in Australian politics, with many party leaders seemingly saving the best oratory performances of their careers for their concession speech.

The recent election in the country’s second largest state of Victoria, which saw Daniel Andrews’ Labor Government returned for a second term with an increased majority was no exception. Defeated Liberal Party leader Matthew Guy dispensed with the negativity and fear that were the hallmarks of his campaign to pay tribute to his opponent’s achievement.

So, in an unprecedented wave of collective magnanimity, leading conservative figures were tripping over one another to lavish praise on Labor’s “strong and positive campaign”.

What they really meant but couldn’t quite bring themselves to say, publicly at least, was that they had completely misjudged the electorate with their own spiteful and low-rent campaign that relied upon peddling fear and, dare I say it, even hate.

Now, there is no doubt Labor had a positive agenda centred around creating jobs, investing in infrastructure and accompanied by a social agenda, particularly on tackling family violence, that allows Premier Andrews to claim the mantle as the most progressive government in the nation.  But to suggest the Australian Labor Party (ALP) didn’t run a negative campaign as well would be disingenuous.

​The ALP absolutely went negative and did so in largely personal manner.  Painting Mr Guy as an untrustworthy and mean-spirited politician and smearing him by association with the climate-sceptic misogynists that had just brought down conservative federal Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull in their quest to drag the governing Liberal Party further to the right, and the nation along with it.

To his credit, new Victorian Liberal leader Michael O’Brien, elected after his party’s crushing defeat, seems prepared to learn from the result using his first official press conference distancing himself from climate-scepticism.  Meanwhile, a number of Liberals that represent Victoria in the Canberra national parliament  are highlighting the urgency for their party to become more representative of the wider community, women and migrant communities in particular.

But their more conservative colleagues, who find closer affinity with the likes of Boris Johnson or President Trump abroad, have preferred to declare the result a local aberration and seem determined to double down on their local version of the ‘alt-right’ playbook as we head in to next year’s general election.

So, unsurprisingly we cannot rely on the proponents of fear and hate to admit failure and lay down their swords.  Therefore, what matters most is to identify what can be learned from this election to help federal Labor and its progressive cousins around the world keep conservative populism at bay.

Three key lessons most spring to mind.

The first is discipline.  This result was never in the bag.  Published opinion polls just days out voting had the major parties neck-and-neck with 40% of the vote and Labor expected to scrape across the line on preferences; whereas on election night they scored an 8% lead over the Liberals in the primary vote.  This context saw Labor operatives run what has been credited by many stalwarts as one of the most disciplined campaigns in recent times.  And it’s why despite his party’s long lead in the polls, federal Labor leader Bill Shorten remains laser-focused on stamping out complacency before it even appears and maintaining party discipline and unity. It’s a reminder discipline isn’t an option but a necessity.

Second is boldness.  Victorian Labor’s aforementioned positive policy agenda was not without risk.  The expanded infrastructure investments necessitated a significant increase in government borrowing which the Liberals sought to weaponise by dressing it up as economic vandalism.  This was a tactic that had indeed worked in the past, but fell flat this time because the state’s infrastructure gap was seen by Victorians as the most pressing problem and they judged the incumbent government as the most effective at addressing it; precisely because it had been prepared to take the risk of being labelled ‘tax and spend’ to properly address the number one issue in the state.

The third and final take-away is broad-based relevance. Something that works in both directions.

On the one hand, the negative policies the conservatives chose to focus on put them at odds with many voters. Their hardline stand, more redolent of the US radical right, put them firmly out of the Australian mainstream.

Take Exhibit A.  In the same year as a national vote on marriage equality that received overwhelming public support, Mr Guy’s Liberals were promising to abandon Victoria’s highly successful Safe Schools program that helps ensure vulnerable LGBT+ kids have a safe environment to grow and learn.

Or Exhibit B.  A law and order campaign which sought to seize upon the crime problems in some local neighbourhoods to scare voters. This tactic included the heartless demonisation of ethnic communities and an attempt to paint it as a city-wide epidemic that was way out of proportion with the problem itself.

While these issues might be the perfect fodder for the distribution vehicles of modern populism, social media, the tabloid press and cable TV pundit, they failed to take hold in the electorate itself because they simply didn’t reflect the environment most Victorian parents want for their children at school nor the lived experience of how safe most voters actually feel when they venture out after dark.​

But bursting the ‘fake news bubble’ took more than the conservatives themselves being out of touch with the voters they are seeking to woo.  Particularly when you look at how and where the individual votes shifted.

The conservative parties (the Liberals operate in coalition with the rural based Nationals) suffered the largest swings in their heartland seats, some of magnitudes big enough to deliver Labor members of parliament for the first time ever.  And this at a time when Labor has become increasingly adept at targeting its ground campaign at the individual electors it thinks it can shift in electorates it thinks it can win.

Winning votes you’re not chasing in seats you’re not targeting, can’t happen without a policy agenda that has broad-based appeal or at the very least isn’t so narrowly directed at your party’s own base as to alienate everyone else.​

Or put another way, one of the main reasons Victorian Labor was able to so convincingly pierce the conservative fake news bubble was that they hadn’t trapped themselves in a bubble of their own.



About the author

James Pawluck is Executive Director of the McKell Institute, and a former Ministerial advisor to multiple Australian cabinet ministers.



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