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Cultural backlash and the rise of populism

Race Race Discrimination

Cultural backlash and the rise of populism
Speech to Sydney Ideas, The University of Sydney
19 July 2018

Edited transcript

Thanks very much, Jennifer [Barrett] and thanks Pippa [Norris] for giving us such a compelling overview of what things look like internationally. Listening to that I was wondering how many of you believe that we are seeing a populist cultural backlash in Australia at the moment? Can I see a show of hands?

Well, I think Pippa’s done us a great service in identifying some of the features of what we refer to as populism. The question that she’s posed – which I’ll seek to answer – is, ‘Do we have this playing out in Australia?’ I’ll answer yes.

The way it’s been playing out in Australia is slightly different to how it’s been playing out in Europe. I wouldn’t describe, for example, the populist sentiment we are seeing as being a form of authoritarian populism. In my mind it might be better characterised as a form of nationalist populism.

That’s not to say that the features of public debate that we are detecting at the moment don’t have some of those characteristics that Pippa has identified. Populism is indeed not an ideology – it is not liberalism or socialism. It’s rather a style of politics, it’s an aesthetic. That’s not to belittle it in any way or to underestimate its potency, but it refers more to how you conduct your debates or the manner in which you speak about politics than the claims that you make. You’re speaking on behalf of ‘the people’. And ‘the people’ here is fundamental, because the claim of the populist is that they speak definitively on behalf of ‘the people’ against the establishment or the elite. The elite do not represent ‘the people’.

Now you see this in Australia playing out in the debates that we have around race, culture and free speech at the moment. There is an identity politics that is being waged that draws upon certain ideas of who truly belongs in the Australian nation and who has a right to participate in public debate. Those are some of the characteristics of what I would describe as populist discourse in Australia today.

Let me give you some examples of how it’s been playing out. I think it is there in our parliament, for one. Pauline Hanson is back in parliament and at the last federal election, it wasn’t just her who was elected, there were a number of others who were elected as One Nation senators.

But it goes beyond Parliament, of course. It goes to how we are conducting our disagreements around political debates. Think of whose voices are being legitimated or are being enabled at the moment. It is quite telling.

Many of you would be aware of some so-called ‘alt-right’ commentators and figures from overseas who are currently visiting Australia or who have visited recently. Think of Milo Yiannopoulos, a commentator closely aligned with Breitbart and the ‘alt-right’ in the United States. He was received in our federal parliament by a number of parliamentarians. There was a lot of media reporting that was supportive of his visit as well. We’ve seen this just this week through Lauren Southern, another alt-right commentator.

You think of what we’re seeing as regular features of public discussion today as well. Once, perhaps twice, a week on breakfast television you are seeing Pauline Hanson and others be part of not just the debate, but of the agenda setting of our debate.

And you think of the ideas that are being injected into our public discourse. Think of calls for the banning of the burqa or the niqab; calls for the banning of Muslim immigration. There was even a call recently for the mass internment of Muslims by Jim Molan, a senator. These are just some examples of the kind of discourse that you’re seeing normalised now.

I’ll give you another example. You think of a commentator Prue MacSween who said that if she saw the commentator Yassmin Abdel-Magied on the street she would be inclined to run her over. This is the kind of coarseness of public debate that you are seeing in our politics.

It’s arguable we have not seen this before. There’s always been rough and tumble in our public debates, and I think in our Australian political culture we pride ourselves on speaking plainly and not pulling our punches. But there’s always been some civility around how we do that. This is coming under challenge because of this nationalist, populist style of politics that is gaining some currency.

And it’s gaining currency because of some of the social changes that are happening.

There are some in our society who do feel anger and resentment, who feel left behind by social change whether that’s economic or cultural. The temper is one of anger and resentment, and a sense some have that they may have once been in a certain position in society, that they are now losing that position, that they don’t have a voice and are being stifled and suffocated. Think of the phrases that flow out in our public debate at the moment: this idea that political correctness has ‘gone mad’, that we cannot say what we think anymore, that minorities are getting special treatment and privileges that traditional Australians are not enjoying. Listen to that, you can hear the resentment, you can hear the anger.

For the film buffs you can think of that movie from the 1970s, Network. It’s about this news anchor who goes mad, and his catch-cry is ‘I’m as mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore’. That is the catch-cry of nationalist populism today as well.

Now Australia is different, as I mentioned, from some of the other liberal democracies that are grappling with populist challenges. It’s different, in my view, because Australia has compulsory voting and that is one possible safety valve. If we didn’t have compulsory voting, arguably, we might have a situation where the influence of nationalist populism may be amplified. Because we have compulsory voting, there is a gravitational pull towards the centre.

Whereas in other countries you’ve got to work hard to get out the vote, to mobilise supporters and make sure that people aren’t at home on voting day, here we have a remarkably high turn-out with our vote. Everyone is expected to vote and required to do so by law. You don’t have that structure that enables populism to mobilise the fringe and have an outsized influence on results.

We have, too, an economy that has been experiencing growth for well over 25 years now. This does make us distinctive from many other countries, but it also points to a need for us to be vigilant and not to be complacent. If we are seeing the rise of populist sentiment even when we are in the third decade of continuous economic growth, with unemployment at five per cent, when house prices are going up, when wealth is increasing overall, imagine what we would be facing if we were to experience an economic downturn. Imagine if people were losing jobs in greater numbers. Imagine if there was economic loss entering the picture.

We are seeing at the moment some signs of a return to race politics. There are groups that are being increasingly singled out in public debates. Just this week, for example, we’ve seen renewed debate about so-called ‘African Gangs’ in Melbourne. To be singling out groups and to be naming groups as prone to criminality is nothing if not an illustration of race politics. It is very dangerous in my view to be creating division in that way. History tells us that that is a recipe for racial disharmony and for division.

We see it playing out as well through what I’ve referred to as the normalisation of coarseness and conflict. What we would have regarded as the fundamental rules of liberal democracy – an assumption of non-discrimination, an assumption of equality regardless of race or religion – is something that we can perhaps not take for granted anymore.

Having said all this, I do believe we are in a relatively strong position to deal with any populist challenge. If you were to look at what the popular sentiment in Europe or in the United States about immigration or multiculturalism, you would see a very clear picture. One in which a clear majority do not feel comfortable about cultural diversity, multiculturalism or mass immigration. But over a sustained time Australia has demonstrated emphatically that it is relaxed and comfortable about our multicultural character and about non-discrimination.

The Scanlon Foundation conducts an annual survey about social attitudes, and it regularly finds that between 83 and 86 per cent of Australians in this nationally representative sample say that they believe multiculturalism is good for the country. Eighty-three to 86 per cent. Now I can’t think of many questions that would garner a response above 80 per cent. When we had the same-sex marriage postal vote, for example, having support of 60 per cent was regarded as definitive. We’ve got an ‘eight’ in front of popular support for multiculturalism.

Support for non-discrimination in immigration is at similar levels. About 80 per cent of Australians believe that our immigration program should not discriminate on the basis of race and religion. And we know too that a similar proportion of people believe that it should remain unlawful to racially vilify others in our society. We’ve had extensive debate as many of you would know about the racial discrimination act and free speech. But we know that about 78 per cent of people believe it should remain unlawful to offend, insult or humiliate someone because of their race in public.

Now this to me is evidence of where the mainstream of Australia lies. And here perhaps is our greatest challenge of the moment as a democracy: to distinguish between the noise and the rancour, and the quiet mainstream or the silent majority.

Now the silent majority is, of course, an idea that is often mobilised by populists against elites or the establishment. But I would posit to you that the silent majority in Australia accept multiculturalism, accept equality and take pride in our achievement as a nation of immigration. It is just that it is not always reflected in our public debates.

Why is it not reflected? Does it have anything to do perhaps with who is in the parliament or who works in our media? Might it have something to do with our media being fragmented at the moment? That they are being pushed harder and harder to grab the attention of audiences? Could this be a reflection of the monetisation of racial hatred by media outlets? Could it reflect the politicisation of race by those who desire partisan gain?

Here I want to conclude by reflecting on how our society must respond to these challenges. It is absolutely vital that our society stands up for its values. If our society believes in equality, fairness and non-discrimination then now is the time for our society to defend those values. And that defence must begin with our political leaders. If they do not defend these values it will be much more difficult to hold the line against the forces of nationalist and extremist populists.

But we can’t delegate this responsibility to leaders alone. Citizens have a responsibility too and citizens can exercise their freedom of speech as well to respond to bigotry and division. Responding to these challenges will require courage. It will require resilience. For too long we have assumed that the majority and the mainstream in our society do not have to work to secure our values. There is no greater illustration of this than the finding of the Lowy Institute that not even an absolute majority of young Australians these days believe that democracy is the most preferable form of government. A clear substantial section of Australia’s population aged between 18 and 29 entertain the idea of benign dictatorship and believe that it might be alright to suspend democracy.

We’ve heard about the structural changes and historic shifts in public attitudes and sentiments but findings like that illustrate, I believe, a fundamental challenge to the assumptions we might have about our society, change, and our values as a liberal democracy.

Dr Tim Soutphommasane, Race Discrimination Commissioner

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