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'Choosing Openness' misdiagnoses the problem

The crisis Andrew Leigh detects in Australia is not societal, it is almost purely political.

'Choosing Openness' misdiagnoses the problem
Published 10 Oct 2017   Follow @SamRoggeveen

So far the commentary on Andrew Leigh's Choosing Openness has come largely from an economic perspective, but Andrew Leigh is a politician, and his book (the opening chapter in particular) makes some important arguments about the state of politics in Australia and in other democracies. Moreover, many of the comments made in the Interpreter debate-series on Choosing Openness suggest at least implicit agreement with Leigh's political argument. This deserves attention.

At the core of the book is the premise that 'openness' in its three key dimensions - free trade, a generous and liberal migration program, and a relatively open foreign-investment regime - is under threat from populism, which Leigh defines as 'the idea that politics is a conflict between the pure mass of people and a small vile elite'.

The present wave of populism is right-wing, writes Leigh, and is marked by four key characteristics: slow growth in living standards; rapid social changes; shrewd populist leaders; and a loss of faith in mainstream centrist political parties. Leigh also writes about the place of religious and racial bigotry in the modern populist movement though, wisely, he does not place too much weight on it. As he points out, racism in the US has generally diminished over the last half-century, and it can be safely said that this is true of Australia and other Western democracies too. Moreover, the idea that Donald Trump's election in the US indicates a substantial rise in xenophobia has to contend with the fact of Obama's presidency. No doubt there is plenty of racism in the US, but why assume it is growing when this is the same nation that elected a black, liberal Democrat with the middle name Hussein as its president, and then returned him to office?

My comments focus only on the last of the four factors nominated by Leigh: the loss of faith in centrist political parties. Rather than being a subset of the larger problem of populism, I would give this factor more independent weight; in fact, a case can be made that the decline of mainstream parties is the major drama of our times in Western politics, one that threatens to overwhelm the economic agenda Leigh lays out in Choosing Openness.

Leigh refers at various points in his book to a backlash against openness and a rise in populism, and on one level these claims are not controversial. Despite the fact that far-right parties did not do quite as well as was feared in the recent French and Dutch elections, non-mainstream parties with populist characteristics are clearly on the rise in terms of their voting share and parliamentary representation in many European countries. The same might be said of the US and Australia. But whether the rise of populist parties reflects a rise in populist sentiment is less clear. In fact, a solid case has been made that levels of populist sentiment in Europe are actually pretty static. It’s just that populist parties are better organised than they used to be.

Moreover, what has really changed in Europe, and indeed around the Western world, is the power of established political parties, parties that used to co-opt or suppress populist sentiment. All over the Western world, traditional political parties, formed in the era of large-scale unionism and widespread religious observance, are declining because they no longer represent a definable social and economic base. In Australia, the decline in unionism is the major factor. Union membership has been dropping for decades, thanks largely to the steady transformation of the Australian economy away from blue-collar jobs. The Labor Party, of course, was formed expressely to represent the interests of unions, so it is no surprise that its membership, and its share of the primary vote, has dropped steadily also. It is perhaps more surprising that the Liberal Party's membership and primary vote should also have gone backwards over the last few decades, yet that is the case too. After all, you would think that the decline of the Labor Party might encourage Liberal supporters to double down. But then again, the Liberal Party was formed largely to oppose the Labor Party and the union movement, so perhaps Liberal supporters slowly left the field of battle when they felt the war was won.

In any case, what matters is that, if this version of recent history is roughly correct, then far from representing a rising social force, populist parties are merely the beneficiaries of the decline of mainstream parties. The big old parties used to be powerful enough to contain populist sentiment, but no longer. In turn, that means support for populist parties could be quite fragile, because just like the shrinking mainstream parties, the populists don’t represent a large social and economic base either.

The critiques of Choosing Openness published on The Interpreter so far have also raised some related fears. Richard Holden, for instance, shares Andrew Leigh's concerns about the new media ecosystem which 'allows us to choose our news and our facts, and provides fertile ground for conspiracy theories'. But while it is true that the shrinking of the mainstream media reduces the sense of common ground on which differences can be debated, it is also true that the sheer size of political debate has grown thanks to the internet and social media. Moreover, although humans have always tended to favour sources which reinforce their prejudices rather than challenge them, the internet makes it a great deal easier to get access to contrary views. In fact, although the idea that social-media consumers now inhabit 'echo chambers' has become firmly entrenched in the public debate, there is good reason to doubt the facts behind that claim.

John Edwards warns that 'the biggest threat to openness is from antipathy to uncontrolled migration', and points to worrying election results in Germany and Australia. But rather than seeing the German result through the lens of 'rising populism', we can also view it as a result of the broader trend against mainstream parties. As Marcus Colla wrote on The Interpreter after the German election, among those who voted for far-right parties, 'ideology is only a distant consideration. More important is a growing sense of alienation from government and from traditional politics more generally'. The same is true in the Netherlands, where the once powerful Labour Party lost 29 seats in the 2017 election. In France, neither of the major-party candidates made the presidential run-off election. And in the US, both major parties are so weak that one was completely taken over by an insurgent who was Republican in name only, while the other ran a candidate who almost lost her party's nomination to Bernie Sanders (who was not even a Democrat) and then lost the general election to a man who on all objective criteria was fatally weak. As for Australia, the re-emergence of Pauline Hanson does not necessarily signal a turn away from open migration. We only need to look at the statistics presented in Chapter 3 of Choosing Openness to see that we have always been conflicted about migration, yet our long-term policy settings favouring large-scale migration have continued.

Choosing Openness is an optimistic, can-do book. But consistent with the broader political mood in Australia, there is an undercurrent of deep concern about the trajectory of Australian society. My argument is that many of these concerns are overstated. Yes, there is plenty wrong with this country that desperately needs to be fixed, but there is no new crisis of populism from which Australian society needs to be extricated. If this is right, then it is undoubtedly good news. But for mainstream politicians such as Andrew Leigh, it may be all the comfort they can take from a seemingly irreversible decline of their parties.

Andrew Leigh's book, though its focus is on the future, is in many ways a defence of the reforms of the Hawke-Keating era. Among politicians on both sides, and among a significant cohort of Australian economists, there is a certain mythology around that period of political history and the characters which dominated it. There is perhaps even a desire to emulate the policy heroism of that time. But although it would be wrong to minimise the challenges facing Australia or imply that we can be complacent about the structure of our economy and major policy settings, I would suggest that any desire to 'rescue' Australia from the ravages of populism by appealing to the better angels of 'openness' is misplaced, because if there is a crisis in Australia today it is not societal, it is almost purely political.

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