TALKING POINT: POPULISM DOES NOT HAVE TO BE A DIRTY WORD - Opinion Piece, Hobart Mercury, Wednesday 10 September 2018

With all the scandal of predatory and unethical behaviour that has been disclosed through the Banking Royal Commission on everyday Australians, it’s worth asking, how did this happen? How did we get to a point where putting ordinary people first, their economic interests and their shared values has been forgotten?

But that is exactly what has happened as a result of decades of neoliberal economics.

The distribution of wealth out of this free-market fundamentalism has seen the rise of the super-rich at the expense of average Australians. Under free market economics, the gap between rich and poor has deepened. An Oxfam study highlighted the fact that globally just 8 people own the same amount of wealth as the 3.6 billion least wealthy people. Critics of neoliberalism now include former leaders who once embraced the virtues of the free market including Paul Keating and Kevin Rudd, both of whom have been scathing of the neoliberal project.

In response to the Global Financial Crisis Kevin Rudd declared that “the great neoliberal experiment of the past 30 years has failed”.

All of this has led David McKnight, author of Populism Now, to argue that populism is not a dirty word. In fact, there is a desperate need for progressive populism. David argues that the Left of politics needs to reclaim populism as a means of rebuilding the common good.

Yet for a lot of people populism is seen as “pandering to people’s baser instincts, exemplified in Donald Trump’s presidency and the Brexit groundswell”.

David argues that populist leaders seek out cheap popularity by posing as the outsider or the underdog. Yet surely it’s more the fact that this global populist rise has come about from disillusionment with politics as we know it. And that politics has its roots in the virtues of the free market and small government, aka neoliberalism.

The response — a radical approach that turns neoliberalism on its head. A disruption that puts the intrinsic worth of each individual at the core and places our shared humanity at the centre. Governing of not just the economy but society.

Progressive populism is not just an idea embraced by the likes of Jeremy Corbyn and Bernie Sanders. The Australian Labor Party for years has focused on taxation and how its avoidance by the global wealthy elite has eroded our democracy. It has argued the stupidity of the then Turnbull government’s proposal to slash corporate tax, giving even more money to the big end of town at the expense of ordinary workers.

And then there was the strong call for a banking royal commission to reveal the true extent of the predatory practices of fraud, forgery and cheating of the Big Four banks on thousands of individuals. These examples of alternatives to neoliberalism show there is a better way, a way where our shared values and the things in our common interest, administering the common good, are at the fore.

That’s not to say Australia is not at risk of a resurgence of Right-wing populism. That’s why it is so important that a progressive populist agenda addresses the genuine concerns of economic issues in our community without resorting to a xenophobic blame game.

But mobilising people to respond to such fear has to be a core component. The Women’s March on Washington in response to US President Donald Trump’s election victory filtered into marches around the world, including in Australian cities, and showed how people can and will respond to Right-wing populism. Climate change rallies have similarly mobilised people. But there is no room for complacency.

Now is the time to respond to the needs of our common identity and our common good.

That is what progressive populism is about and why it is certainly not a dirty word. In the words of David McKnight, “A progressive populist approach aims to unite Australians in the broadest possible new movement — one that will provide the necessary people power to avert the worst kinds of changes in the future.”

This piece was first published by the Hobart Mercury on Wednesday, 10 October, 2018. Senator Singh will be in conversation with author David McKnight from 5.30pm tomorrow (Thursday) at Fullers Bookshop, Hobart.