Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Populism, people and geography

In a comment on The New England populist tradition, KVD asked what populism was. The on-line dictionary defines it as appealing to the interests or prejudices of ordinary people. The Wikipedia article is not bad.

If you look at the general definition, populism can take many forms. The Tea Party in the US, for  example, is a populist movement on the right, but one with radical and even libertarian tendencies that appear to combine in an odd way with social conservatism.  In Canada, the New Democratic Party (the Canadian equivalent to the Labor Party and now the official opposition) has deep agrarian and populist roots, but  is far more progressive (to use a code word) on social issues such as gay rights than the Australian Labor Party. 

No political movement is perfect, nor immune from inconsistencies. Each draws from its own bedrock, and has to rationalise and codify its political views in light of its changing base and the people it represents.

The idea of the people is common in most populist parties. Yet what people and when?

In the Australian federal Seat of New England, independent member Tony Windsor regularly surveys his electorate, he represents the people of New England, yet when it came to deciding whether to support Labor or Liberal, he voted  for the Gillard Government even though the majority of his people in his electorate were arguably against the idea. Here he overrode one definition of people, those in his electorate, in the interests of a second group of people, country people and, more broadly still, Mr Windsor's perception of the national interest and the need for national stability. This position was challenged by the National's Barnaby Joyce using populist language. Was Tony inconsistent? No, because his position actually fitted directly into the New England populist tradition with its specific constitutional focus.

In part of that tradition, Parliament as the body representing the people was central, the body that represented people against state oppression. When a person was elected, they acquired responsibilities to that body. They had to put aside narrower interests and consider Parliament as an institution. This view was quite deeply held. When late in his life NSW Country Party leader Mick Bruxner was expelled from the Lower House chamber for a period because he tried to uphold a point of principle, his biographer Don Aitkin records that he was white and shaking. It's a bit hard to believe today when periodic expulsion is just part of the party political game.

Most populist parties, indeed all parties, have their images and rhetoric. Central to these is often the concept of the oppressed and the oppressors. Political correctness and the chattering classes is actually an example of this rhetoric in practice, as is the idea of oppression of the workers.

Populist movements often emerge because their supporters perceive that existing political machines tied up with existing economic and social power structures are interested in power for its own sake and not in the interests of people however defined. This was true in Australia in the first decades of the twentieth century when the country movements saw the new Labor controlled by unions, the then equivalent of the Liberals by the bosses and city capital. 

In the case of the Australian Country Parties, the idea of the virtues of farming and grazing, of an oppressed country and an oppressing city, of the virtues of a country life, were deeply held and not without some justice. Here we have the appeal to one set of people (country people) who are oppressed by metropolitan control.

In the New England political tradition, this found expression in the concept of the oppression of minorities. Those who have power will use it. If the majority always controlled the levers of power, they would abuse that power. In the recent ABC Q&A session in Albury, Tony Windsor commented that country people must organise to exert the total power of their vote. If not, their interests would be overridden. This is the old Country Party argument.

The exact form taken by the emerging country movements varied across Australia.

In Victoria,the emerging country party was dominated by the more radical small farmer vote. Discipline was everything. Parliamentary members must be responsible and bound by Party policy. A pledge was introduced, based on the equivalent in the ALP.

By contrast, the country party in NSW emerged with the slogan no pre-selection or pledge. These were the devices used by the other parties to control. Any member of the party in good standing should be able to run for election. The very concept of machine control was denied, as was the idea of workers vs bosses.

Although this view atrophied with time, so long as there was either multi-member or compulsory preferential voting it maintained its supporters. To the Country (later National) Party political machines with their growing professionalisation and focus on power, the old approach was a waste of resources that risked electoral loss. This was reinforced by the decline in the Party's independence within coalition. Even at the end of the 1950s, founding NSW members such as Drummond and Bruxner held the line to some degree, although by then they were seen as increasingly out of touch to the needs of modern politics.

One of the distinctive features of the Country Party in Northern NSW was the presence of parallel new state agitation.  A second thing was the linking of farmers and graziers.

In Victoria, and to a lesser extent the Riverina and south-western NSW, the wealthier graziers stayed away from the Country Party, preferring the status quo. In Northern NSW they combined. Further, the Country Party gained support among the town elites. Support for new state agitation was strong among some of the leading graziers, stronger still among town elites, including especially the local papers. Country Party support for a Northern NSW New State allowed it to capture a much broader support base. Outside the lower Hunter, the Country Party became the natural party of Government.

The Party was still populist in its language and some of its thinking, but it was noticeably less radical than some of the other country parties. The new state movement had another impact as well, for it forced a focus on constitutional issues and principles. If, as both the Party and New State Movement argued, New England people must always be subject to oppression by the Sydney majority, then self-government for New England was the only answer. Since no political entity in history had willingly given up control over part of its territory, this had to be forced. This required those advocating separation to develop their own theories of Government that could then be argued.

Now we come back to the definition of the people.

At the 1967 plebiscite on New England self-government, both the Country and Liberal Parties were officially neutral. Both parties had representatives from different parts of NSW, many of whom were concerned that statehood for New England would leave the ALP in NSW in a strengthened position. However, individual parliamentarians were allowed to campaign for the yes case. 

By contrast, the NSW Labor Party strongly opposed a yes vote and used Party discipline to enforce that position. Statehood, the Party argued, would permanently disadvantage the working people and industrial interests of the lower Hunter, leaving them in a minority in a new Country Party dominated state. This is, of course, another variant of the oppression of the minority argument.

  Now we have three different versions of "the people" in play; the people of NSW, the people of New England and the people of the lower Hunter!

The arguments used by the New State Movement to try to counter the Labor attack drew directly from the New England populist tradition.

NSW lacked the geographic coherence and common interests to form a natural unity. This was what the Movement called the geographic basis of Government. As a consequence, the people of New England had been directly disadvantaged and would continue to be disadvantaged by inclusion in NSW. Oppression of the New England minority was inevitable.

The people of Newcastle and the coal fields had been largely ignored by Sydney. They had more in common with those further north than they did in Sydney. Should a New England state fail to deliver, fail to take into account their interests, then the Hunter would be entitled to seek self-government in its own right.

This post is not an argument for or against new states, although my own sympathies are clear. Rather, it is an attempt to illustrate issues using New England in part as a case study. Because of the particular circumstances of geography and history, and these are always critical to the form taken by populist movements of all types, New England populism has been by far the longest running and most clearly articulated of all of Australia's populist movements.         



Winton Bates said...

It seems to me that regional populism is most influential when voters in the regions perceive there is not much difference between the major parties.

Over the last few months there seems to be a rather different kind of conservative populism emerging which cuts across all regions. The main issue seems to be opposition to a carbon tax and the idea that Labor can't be trusted.

If voters perceive there is a big difference between the Coalition and Labor going into the next election, then the regional independents might find it hard to hold on to their seats.

Anonymous said...

Hi Jim

Thanks for this expansion on your earlier comments - and I include in that your much earlier linked articles. I did not ask 'what populism was', I asked what 'YOU might mean by that term' (my added emphasis).

I am more than comfortable with the words you quote in your first para: appealing to the interests or prejudices of ordinary people; but it seems to me that this of itself makes no statement whatever as to political inclination? Thus is not really useful as any sort of shorthand 'label' for a political alignment.

If I was forced to use 'populism' in a political context I think I would say it is basically an elitist term applied by all sides of politics to the presumed unthinking masses supporting my opponents - of whatever flavour.

You add a geographic term to this - New England - and I do understand and appreciate your point about the geographic nature of common interests.

Please understand that I am not refuting your right to this terminology, or indeed disagreeing with your expanded explanations, here and earlier. I'm just stating that I find the term 'New England populism' a little difficult to understand without further explanation.

Apart from that, I thank you for taking the time and for treating my question seriously.


Jim Belshaw said...

On your first point, Winton, I'sm not sure that's true, When New Engalnd populism emerged, the two main parties were seen as very different indeed. It's just that neither was seen as releavnt.

On the second, I don't think that Mr Abbott is actually a popularist. It comes back to the definition of populism. Attempting to play to popular opinion and ignite popular concern is not, of itself, populist. All parties do that. Populism centres on the people however defined. Mr Abbott's core views do not centre on this.

On the last, I don't think that Tony Windsor (and assuming that he runds again) will actually have a problem because he has a coherent position that he can explain and that actually appeals to his electorate and that stands in its own right. Rob is in more trouble because he is all over the place.

Anonymous said...


I would like to add that I agree with Winton Bates' last para - had not had time to consider this before my earlier posting.


Jim Belshaw said...

Dvaid, I would say that both you and Winton are locked into the current two party/left-right model.

I didn't grow up in that world. I don't think that way.

If power comes from the people, if the role of Government is to address the needs of the people, then you have to ask what does this mean. What do we mean by people? What do we mean by needs? How do we reconcile the conflicts between groups?

The New England populist model attempted to address these issues.

Neither Gillard nor Abbott are populists in any real sense of the word.

Anonymous said...

Fair enough Jim - except for the fact that I did not use 'left' or 'right' or mention Ms Gillard or Mr Abbott. In fact the closest I got was to refer to 'alignment' and 'inclination'.

I think I still struggle with the term populist when used in a political context; only because it does not ring any bells for me as to the beliefs of its adherents.

If it means (in a political sense) government addressing the needs of the people, maybe it is a replacement of 'democracy' pure and simple?

Whatever; thank you for pursuing my interest.


Jim Belshaw said...

In a sense, David, you have put your finger on the problem with the word. Because populism takes so many forms, it is hard to pin down. Populism is best described in terms of some of its features.

Thinking about Tony Abbott, his claim that the Government must not introduce a carbon tax because it does not have a mandate is populist. By implication, he is saying that Governments must not act without a specific mandate from the people. Yet that claim would conflict with a central tenet in New England populism about the role of Parliaments in a general sense. It is confusing.