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The perils of popularism

This week we originally were going to be discussing Pauline Hanson’s One Nation party and their apparent habit of losing Senators. After all, to lose one Senator is careless, two is a concern and so on. Apart from the Betoota Advocate doing the satire better, they also bring in the relevant point of popularism.

Hanson is “President for life” of the party that enjoys the use of her name and at the beginning of June effectively sacked NSW Senator Brian Burston by requesting him to resign from the party and to hand back his seat in the Senate by letter (at least it wasn’t a SMS message or Facebook post!). Burston’s crime was to support the Abbott/Turnbull Government’s corporate tax cuts, a position originally endorsed by Hanson as well.

Hanson has been a politician for around 25 years. After nearly a year sitting on the Ipswich City Council, she first ran for Federal Parliament in 1996 as the Liberal Candidate for the seat of Oxley in South East Queensland. During the campaign she made some statements that were (at the time) so abhorrent, even Howard’s campaign couldn’t stomach them and disendorsed her shortly before the election date. She sat as an independent and lost her seat in the 1998 election. Also in 1998, Hanson’s One Nation won 13 of the 89 seats in the Queensland Parliament

But what happened after One Nation won all those seats all those years ago set the tone for everything that would follow. Within a year, One Nation was deregistered as a party, its MPs split acrimoniously — one resigned from parliament, some became independents, some established the so-called City Country Alliance — and the great shining moment dissolved into tears before bedtime.

Hanson’s One Nation was also supposed to do exceptionally well in the recent Western Australian and Queensland elections. They didn’t.

The problem with popularism is that you may not ‘pick the mood’ of those you are trying to impress. In the past 25 years Hanson, according to her Wikipedia page, railed at times against extra funding for the disadvantaged in the Ipswich City Council, Chinese immigration, Government assistance for Aboriginal people, the media crusade against her, the Islamic religion, the ‘people’ versus the elite and so on. It’s not the first time Hanson’s quest for popularism has rated a mention on The Political Sword, this article appearing about a year ago when Hanson, who hadn’t been on the front page for a while, decided to weigh into a discussion on children of differing abilities/disabilities sitting in the one classroom. It was one of her less successful attempts at ‘picking the mood’ of the ‘people’ and was widely condemned. Surprisingly enough, this has kept Hanson quiet on this subject ever since.

In March this year the Coalition Government sealed a deal with Hanson’s party to support the corporate tax cuts it hadn’t been able to get through the Senate from the 2017 budget. The price for the support was a pilot apprenticeship package that was to be rolled out to benefit 1000 people across the country. At the end of May, Hanson walked away from the deal citing

The people in general don’t want it. It has not been well received. The Government has not been able to sell the package to the people and they haven’t cut through.

She also presented a new list of demands to be met in return for her support, including

cut in immigration, changes to the Petroleum ¬Resource Rent Tax (PRRT), a gas pipeline connecting Western Australian gas fields with the east coast, as well as “use it or lose it” provisions for gas exploration and development, more support for pensioners, a greater focus on reducing multinational tax avoidance and getting banks “to pay for this royal commission into the banking sector”.

“There has to be a decent PRRT,” Hanson said. “We need a pipeline from the west coast to the east coast. Unless we get electricity prices down in this country, we are going to see the closure of a lot of businesses.”

Those with a more suspicious bent might be able to see the forest in spite of the trees. Bernard Keane from Crikey probably can(paywalled)

The government is correct to hope that Pauline Hanson’s backflip on her backflip on company tax cuts — now opposed again, One Nation’s original position — won’t be her last. Hanson’s reversal isn’t due to any ideological reason or based on evidence — such as, for example, the fact that the Trump corporate tax cuts are flowing almost entirely into share buybacks and dividends — but because of the looming by-elections, and particularly that in Longman.

Longman is based around Caboolture in South East Queensland and there are significant pockets of poverty, social problems and under-employment in the seat. Hanson’s popularist ‘I represent the people’ rhetoric goes down a treat in areas like this. The rationale for her promises are illogical, as there is no chance that Hanson’s One Nation could redress the problems because her party won’t win Government (especially as a result of this byelection).

According to a Reachtel survey published in The Guardian

The Turnbull government’s proposal to cut tax for Australia’s biggest businesses is unpopular in the seat, with only 17% endorsement. A majority of respondents (53.7%) also thought the third phase of the income tax cuts proposed by the Turnbull government in last week’s budget, to flatten the tax rate on incomes between $41,000 and $200,000, was unfair.

Voters were asked whether they supported or opposed tax cuts delivering an average of $530 a year extra for low and middle-income earners in the first four years, and tax cuts for high income earners in seven years’ time.

More Longman voters opposed the measure (47.3%) than supported it (38.3%).

It looks like Keane is correct and the backflip on the tax cuts is not surprising as it would be hard for a popularist to be claiming to ‘represent the people’ while supporting tax cuts to large corporations, some of whom are currently attempting to justify habitual practices that disadvantage wage earners and small business to increase their large profits.

That’s the problem with popularism. You have to read the mood of those you are claiming to represent and at times you’ll get it wrong, causing either damage to your reputation with your followers or damage to the larger community. You could make the point that all political leaders seek popularity at one point or other, otherwise how do they become firstly the leader and secondly how do they get the opportunity to lead a government? The big difference is that popularists don’t seem to understand or care that they can’t be popular all the time across the entire population.

Robert Mugabe in Rhodesia is a great example.

Trained as a teacher, he spent 11 years as a political prisoner under Ian Smith’s Rhodesian government. He rose to lead the Zimbabwe African National Union movement and was one of the key negotiators in the 1979 Lancaster House Agreement, which led to the creation of a fully democratic Zimbabwe. Elected prime minister and later president, he embraced conciliation with the country’s white minority but sidelined his rivals through politics and force. Beginning in 2000, he encouraged the takeovers of white-owned commercial farms, leading to economic collapse and runaway inflation.

It’s not for us in Australia to determine if the takeover of white-owned farms was warranted or the politics behind the actions, however the same article suggests that the takeovers, while obviously popular with Mugabe’s followers, were of dubious legality and were detrimental to most Rhodesians.

In 2000 Mugabe organized a referendum on a new Zimbabwean constitution that would expand the powers of the presidency and allow the government to seize white-owned land. Groups opposed to the constitution formed the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), which successfully campaigned for a “no” vote in the referendum.

That same year, groups of individuals calling themselves “war veterans”—though many were not old enough to have been part of Zimbabwe’s independence struggle—began invading white-owned farms. Violence caused many of Zimbabwe’s whites to flee the country. Zimbabwe’s commercial farming collapsed, triggering years of hyperinflation and food shortages that created a nation of impoverished billionaires.

Republican Party US President Donald Trump is also a popularist. He recently decided to impose

tariffs on aluminium and steel imports, saying the new measures are meant to counter unfair trade practices that hurt American workers and industries and threaten national security.

The tariffs, which Trump had already telegraphed last week, will help protect the U.S. steel and aluminium industries, the White House said. Trump is imposing a 25 percent tariff on steel and a 10 percent levy on aluminium imports.

For now, the tariffs don’t apply to Canada or Mexico, which a White House release said, Trump “recognizes … present a special case” while discussions continue with those countries to resolve U.S. concerns.

Ultimately, the US didn’t resolve the concerns it had with Mexico, Canada or the European Union. The European Union (who are now victims of this tariff war) are proposing selective retaliatory tariffs on US products that are primarily produced in states that are seen to be leaning towards the Republicans. These products include bourbon, Levi jeans and Harley Davidson motorcycles.

The EU took the United States to the World Trade Organization to challenge the legality of the new tariffs and the Trump administration’s national-security justification. Brussels has submitted an eight-page list to the international trade body, covering goods it would hit with retaliatory measures.

The list includes U.S. exports running the gamut from big motorcycles like Harley’s, built on the home turf of U.S. House of Representatives Speaker Paul Ryan, to “canoes”, “manicure or pedicure preparations” and even “sinks and washbasins, of stainless steel” — the proverbial kitchen sink.

“We support free and fair trade and hope for a quick resolution to this issue,” Harley said in a statement.

“We believe a punitive, retaliatory tariff on Harley-Davidson motorcycles in any of our major markets would have a significant impact on our sales, our dealers, our suppliers and our customers in those markets,” the statement said.

Trump, like Hanson, is going to have real difficulties in retaining his popularist image while being seen as responsible for the imposition of policy that directly disadvantages his support base.

Hanson obviously decided that Burston is expendable (and hopes the rest of us have no recollection of her statements in March being completely at odds to her statements in May and June). Mugabe apparently drove his country into the ground and Trump will have to be performing technically difficult verbal gymnastics to avoid his support base joining the dots between tariffs on steel being connected to reduced demand for US made products.

Abraham Lincoln (also a Republican President — but in another time) is reputed to have said

You can fool all the people some of the time, and some of the people all the time, but you cannot fool all the people all the time.

Unfortunately Lincoln was correct. Some will follow the popularist leader to the bitter end such as those that followed the Reverend Jim Jones to Jonestown in Africa and ‘drank the kool-aid’. The rest of us need to question the motives and sincerity of the popularist — because drinking the kool-aid can be hazardous to your health and the welfare of those you really care about.

What do you think?

This article by 2353NM was originally published on The Political Sword.

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2 comments

  1. johno

    Would a higher tax on Kool aid bring down consumption.

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