Populists, demagogues and celebrities. Challenges for progressive campaigning in the age of Trump — 2018 Frank Walker memorial lecture

By BRUCE HAWKER | 15 May 2018

If there is a common denominator to the reforms Frank Walker introduced it is that they were aimed at improving the lot of the men, women and children in our society who are least able to defend themselves – the dispossessed and marginalised minorities. The very people who Donald Trump targets, defames and demonises. In all my years in politics, I cannot recall another state politician with such a consistently strong record of empowering the powerless. And this conviction made Frank a difficult person for his own cabinet colleagues to handle.

There weren’t many votes to be garnered introducing the first state-based land rights legislation in Australia. Or repealing laws that had criminalised prostitution and truancy. Nor did he spark a popular chorus of approval when he gave legal protections to young offenders, wards of the state and the mentally and physically infirm. But I would argue that it is these types of ground-breaking reforms which gave that Labor administration a special character. When elected in 1976 it was seen as a youthful, socially progressive government, whose premier, Neville Wran, was prepared to take on vested interests – including corrupt cops.

Mind you, the Wranslide election victories of 1978 and 1981, and the solid win in 1984, were proof that it was also a remarkably popular government. In very large part that was because Neville Wran and his senior group of ministers understood that a mix of both the popular measures and the harder reforms – the ones that Frank usually sponsored – was necessary to satisfy a broad spectrum of voters and Labor values. They were willing to lose some support with the tough changes because they knew they had a deep well of goodwill from which to draw. And it’s telling that so many of Frank’s reforms, controversial as they were back then, have stood the test of time. Land rights, criminal law reform, child welfare, juvenile justice and adult guardianship laws have in large part endured.

Frank always used his position as (Wran’s) Attorney-General to full effect. The Attorney-General, as a matter of course, received early notice of every significant policy proposal – it was the ultimate ‘access all areas’ pass. So I and others would be routinely despatched to represent him on any number of committees – youth and community services, health, education, police and corrective services. His position took us anywhere and everywhere.

On one occasion he despatched Laurie Patton, who is here tonight, and another adviser to Terania Creek in far northern NSW to report on what was happening with the felling of old-growth forests up there. It was looking like becoming an early manifestation of the greenie versus timber worker conflict and threatened to cause serious internal ructions. Based on Laurie’s report, Frank pushed through cabinet a proposal to compensate and retrain displaced timber workers. Not only were those trees spared, but an internal war was avoided. On his resignation, Wran cited saving the rainforests as his greatest achievement.

How was it that in the 1980’s and 90’s Labor at a state and federal level was able to keep Greens supporters and blue collar workers in the tent and yet we can’t do it today? We need to learn from that experience.

The question that keeps me awake at night is how do progressives counter something as appealing as populism, which, in a single tweet, can mutate into something more virulent? One way is just to wait for it to burn itself out – like a bushfire, or disco music. Or we can try to understand it and then go into battle for the support of all those good people who are drawn to it.

Australian populism has to be understood and progressives need to engage with and tailor policy to meet the legitimate (and I emphasise the word legitimate) concerns of people who are drawn to it. In fact, some of what is described as populist when coming from Donald Trump’s mouth cannot be rejected by reference to his uglier prejudices. For example, his stated desire to protect American jobs is a mainstream union issue and has bipartisan support in the United States. And in this country the same concerns operate with respect to Australian jobs. Witness for example, the ACTU and Labor campaigns around 457 visas.

So, we need to go deeper and look to the motives behind populist rhetoric as well as the actual policy prescription. Only by doing that do we get a clearer picture of the phenomenon. And that’s why I commissioned some polling which I will share with you tonight [See here for survey results].

There is no doubt that social media has provided everyone, extreme populists included, with a voice that wasn’t there 20 years ago. One by-product of this incredible phenomenon has been the echo chamber effect created by algorithms that relentlessly direct the reader to stories, whether accurate or not, intended to reinforce existing views and prejudices. I believe legislators here need to follow the European commission’s lead and hold a public inquiry into the impact of social media on public discourse.

Much of my focus tonight has been on the right end of the populist spectrum. But the challenges for progressives don’t just come from the right. As I said earlier, Labor was once able to champion both jobs and environmental concerns.

But since the emergence of the Greens that has changed. There is a real populist appeal for some voters in the purity of their policy prescriptions. Sometimes, of course, that purity leads to unwelcome environmental outcomes – like when they combined in the Senate with Tony Abbott’s Coalition to block the Rudd Government’s carbon trading scheme. And why? Because it didn’t go far enough for them.

Greens have been effective local activists, particularly in the inner city, winning once safe Labor seats. But a small group in the ALP – “Local Labor” – are working to turn that around. I think that Labor can renew its engagement with many of the disconnected voters I’ve identified tonight by turning their attention much more heavily towards local issues.

My final suggestion is that we must always avoid the temptation to ignore, demonise or patronise any part of society. I certainly don’t have all the answers and, like most people, I spend a lot of time in a bubble. And while that can be personally comfortable, it’s a politically dangerous place to be.

POSTSCIPT: This video was recorded a few months before Frank Walker died in 2012.

(This is an edited version of the 2018 NSW Labor Lawyers’ annual Frank Walker Lecture. Frank Walker held a range of portfolios in the Wran and Keating governments, and later became a NSW District Court judge. Bruce Hawker is a leading Labor Party-aligned election campaigner. Bruce worked for Frank Walker before joining the staff of then NSW opposition leader, Bob Carr for whom he served as chief-of-staff in government. He now owns and runs Campaigns and Communications Group. A complete transcript can be found here.)