For many journalists, the meaning of the term populism is a matter of personal taste. “My preferred definition is that it’s a style of politics offering unworkably simple solutions to complex problems,” writes the Sydney Morning Herald’s political editor, Peter Hartcher.
A more objective approach draws on historical precedents. Journalist and historian Thomas Frank charts the course of populism from its inception in Kansas in 1891 to the present in his excellent recent book, People Without Power: The War on Populism and the Fight for Democracy.
Frank details the key demands of the original People’s Party populists who coined the term, noting the ways in which Franklin D. Roosevelt later took up this tradition in building the New Deal Coalition. He also links it to Martin Luther King Jr in the latter stages of the Civil Rights Movement and, more recently, Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.
According to Frank, the populist tradition should be seen as a “multiracial coalition of working people coming together for economic democracy.” In essence, it’s a form of movement politics that advocates for the economic rights of the masses while targeting the corruption of the establishment. Even if it’s not explicitly leftist, on this reading, genuine populism at least has leftist content.
Frank counterposes this to the “phony populism of the Right,” characterized by cynical politicians who use anti-elitist rhetoric as a cover for tax cuts for the rich and attacks on workers. Margaret Thatcher, Ronald Reagan, and Donald Trump are quintessential examples.
It’s not hard to see where Scott Morrison, lover of Rugby league, hater of unions, fits in this schema. But if we leave it there, we risk misunderstanding the important differences between Morrison’s “populism” and that of his contemporaries.
Thatcher or Trump?
During the first few years of Morrison’s prime ministership, it was commonplace to describe him as “Trump-lite,” “Trump’s mini-me,” the “Aussie Trump.” And to be sure, there were noteworthy similarities.
Trump described Mexican immigrants as “criminals, drug dealers, rapists,” while Morrison cautioned that we must bar sick refugees from the country because “they may be a pedophile, they may be a rapist, they may be a murderer.” Trump railed against the globalist elite; Morrison warned against “negative globalism.” Trump dismissed expert knowledge on climate science, and Morrison downplayed the link between climate change and bushfires — meanwhile, half the country burned.
However, there are reasons to think “ScoMo” may be a more durable political brand than Trump’s. His populism pilfers far more from Margaret Thatcher and John Howard — and without the right counterforce, he could drift for years on the inertia of the politics they inaugurated.
An incisive 1984 essay by sociologist Stuart Hall, “The Great Moving Right Show,” helps us understand Morrison’s populism by cutting to the heart of Thatcher’s. For Hall, Thatcher weaponized “the vocabulary of ‘the nation’ and ‘people’ against ‘class’ and ‘unions.’” She combined “the resonant themes of basic Toryism (nation, family, duty, authority, standards, tradition) with the aggressive themes of a revived neo-liberalism (self-interest, competitive individualism, anti-statism).” And she argued that it was time to “put people’s destinies back into their own hands.”
Morrison won the 2019 election with an almost textbook copy of this script. He argued that Labor wanted to sow division and foment class war, while the Liberals were providing Australians with the services they needed. He recited from the same individualist songbook: “I don’t think the Government knows better than you do about where your money should go. That’s why I believe in lower taxes for everybody.”
In her 2018 book For a Left Populism, political theorist Chantal Mouffe summarized Thatcher’s populism this way:
It consisted of drawing a political frontier between, on the one side, the “forces of the establishment,” identified with the oppressive state bureaucrats, the trade unions, and those who benefited from state handouts, and, on the other, the industrious “people” who were the victims of the various bureaucratic forces and their different allies.
Again, Morrison’s 2019 campaign was a play-by-play rerun. Analysis by professor Carol Johnson described his strategy as one of “mobilizing the people against big government by depicting himself as an ordinary bloke trying to stop Labor from ripping off and spending taxpayers’ money.” The prime minister’s slogan, “A fair go for those who have a go,” implied that Labor would be spending money on less worthy welfare recipients at the expense of hardworking “quiet Australians.”
Lest you think the more generous exigencies of Morrison’s pandemic stimulus spending have revealed a change of direction, just remember Josh Frydenberg’s midyear comments, citing Thatcher and Reagan as his inspiration. Or think of the final sitting week of the year, during which the Coalition passed cashless debit card legislation and tabled the Industrial Relations Omnibus bill, described by unions as the “worst since WorkChoices.”
John Howard 2.0
While credit for inspiring the ugliest neoliberal architecture since Barangaroo goes to Thatcher, John Howard was the one who designed Morrison’s brand. The prime minister himself credits Howard as his political mentor — they speak every week or two, and sometimes “just a bit more often than that.”
Political scientist Dr Rae Wear identified Howard’s two-pronged strategy. He paired populist rhetoric, appealing to “Howard’s battlers,” with a populist policy that rejected out-of-touch, inner-city elites and targeted marginalized or outsider groups — for example, a ban on same-sex marriage in 2004.
Howard cast himself as a prime minister who would “serve the interests of all the Australian people” and as “a quintessential Australian . . . an average Australian bloke.” Although not always convincing, he emphasized his love of cricket, walked the streets in his Wallabies tracksuit, and railed against the International Rugby Board’s ban on Aussies singing Waltzing Matilda prior to matches: “Nations determine their culture, not other people.”
Similarly, Morrison recently dismissed his exclusion from the December 12 Climate Ambition Summit 2020, saying “the only people I answer to in this place is the Australian people, and our Government stands to serve the Australian people.” He praises the “common-sense, resilience and ingenuity of the Australian people” and offered this practical advice mid-pandemic: “So long as Australians keep being Australians, we’ll get through this together.”
Morrison identifies himself as an ordinary Aussie bloke — just your average daggy suburban Dad who builds cubby houses for the girls, coops for the chickens, and Christmas Island prisons for Tamil families.
The Race Card
Howard also employed ruthlessly effective wedge politics, as Dr Wear explained, by “targeting unpopular or stigmatized social issues or groups as a way of defining ‘mainstream politics’ and linking political opponents to their support of these issues or groups.” This was a “carefully thought-out and implemented strategy designed to attract traditional working-class support away from Labor.”
Howard won election after election by borrowing the talking points of One Nation leader Pauline Hanson on freedom of expression, immigration, Aboriginal affairs, border protection, refugees, social welfare, and nationalism, not only successfully incorporating One Nation’s support base, but also muting the opposition. Labor saw the Liberal attempt to set inner-city voters against the suburban working class and refused to be wedged. But this led them to back significant parts of Howard’s agenda, or at least, constantly give ground.
This whole sorry cycle is best represented by the 2001 “Tampa” election, when the government began to “turn back the boats,” by refusing entry to Australian waters to the Tampa, a Norwegian freighter carrying 433 rescued refugees. Howard deployed special forces to enforce this decision.
Subsequently, another boat arrived, designated Suspected Illegal Entry Vessel 10 (SEIV-X). On October 19, 2001, it sank, with 350 of its 400 passengers drowning. Howard survived the scandal by accusing the drowned asylum seekers of having thrown their children overboard, in order to force Australian rescue ships to bring them to the mainland.
This tragedy was the direct upshot of Howard’s campaign promise that “we will decide who comes to this country and the circumstances in which they come,” itself copied directly from Pauline Hanson’s inaugural parliamentary speech, when she said: “If I can invite who I want into my home, then I should have a right to have a say in who comes to my country.” In response, then-ALP leader Kim Beazley told parliament that “in these circumstances, this country and this parliament do not need a carping opposition”.
In the absence of an opposition, Howard’s wedge politics worked. In 1998, Labor had a 20 percent lead among working-class voters. By 2004, it was neck and neck.
Having inherited Howard’s base and lacking any ideas of his own, it’s hardly surprising that Morrison’s prime ministership has been little more than a lukewarm version of the Howard years: day after day, Morrison serves up the same old bain-marie populist wedges.
Today, the Coalition rotates through Howard’s populist talking points like some kind of horrific speed-dating night for desperate Young Liberals. Monday is freedom of expression night (featuring Israel Folau and the religious freedom bill), followed by immigration on Tuesday (capping migration) and Aboriginal affairs on Wednesday (“there was no slavery in Australia”).
Thursday and Friday are for border protection and anti-refugee racism — repealing the Medevac laws, reopening Christmas Island detention center, and accusing refugees of stealing our public housing — while on Saturday, it’s all about slashing welfare. The week ends with “Straya Day Sunday,” by punishing Byron Shire council for moving Australia Day festivities — don’t forget the special dress codes for citizenship ceremonies.
When it comes to strategy, Morrison is no Machiavelli. These bits, recycled from the 1990s and 2000s, are increasingly tired and ill-suited to the times. The 2008 crash and this year’s pandemic have confirmed for Australians the fundamental importance of government spending. The appalling handling of these crises by international right-wing populists like Bolsonaro, Johnson, and Trump has, for many, deeply discredited the neoliberal populist project.
Yes, Morrison’s recycled neoliberal populism got him across the line at the 2019 election against the incoherent messaging of the least popular Labor leader on record. But Morrison’s popularity plummeted during Australia’s Black Summer — it didn’t help when he justified a trip to Waikiki with the line “I don’t hold a hose, mate.”
Morrison’s ratings did recover during the pandemic — if anything though, this demonstrates the popularity of emergency policies like free childcare, increased welfare payments, and the JobSeeker wage subsidy. Although the latter hid a neoliberal sting in its tail, it was the opposite of austerity economics. And at any rate, state governments, mostly Labor-led, also experienced a significant boost in their popularity.
As the immediate threat of COVID-19 recedes, the mismatch between Morrison’s nostalgic political strategy and the existential needs of our era has already started to create an abundance of opportunities that a functional opposition could exploit. But this is hardly an apt description of Anthony Albanese’s Labor Party.
According to Thomas Frank, the ALP was once so inspired by US progressive populism that its leaders considered calling themselves the People’s Party. Today, it’s hard to imagine a less populist approach than Labor’s. Under Adam Bandt, the Greens are much more impressive. But they are largely ignored in mainstream political discourse — and without a mass activist base, they will have difficulty making themselves heard.
And yet, the twin ecological and economic crises demand a new, transformative political project. There are two Australian precedents for this in the twentieth century: between the 1930s and 1940s, the defeat of Nazism and a resurgent labor movement, as well as the precedent of FDR’s New Deal, persuaded the Curtin and Chifley Labor governments to build a national economy and welfare state that shaped the next forty years. That paradigm was every bit as dominant as the neoliberal one inaugurated in the 1980s by Labor’s Bob Hawke.
John Howard consolidated neoliberalism in the 1990s, completing the subordination of our politics to business interests, with extractive capital firmly at the front. Far from being an antipodean GOP with a mini-Trump at the head, the Liberal Party and Morrison are remnants of that era. But that doesn’t mean the Liberals and their business backers will give way to a new one without a fight.