From Queensland to the US, the antidote to surging populism is competent government | Peter Lewis | Australia news

Despite our consumption of their culture, addiction to their social media platforms and reliance on their long-term alliance, it’s been striking through 2020 how different we Australians are from our American brethren. And not in a bad way.

Where the US has been overrun by the pandemic, Australia has resisted it. Where the US corporate health system groaned under the stress, Australia’s public system stood up. Where large sections of the US railed against wearing masks, Australians followed the expert advice.

Now, as the US confronts a president prepared to defy democratic rule, conjure conspiracy while beseeching a gun-toting army of MAGA adventurists to stand back and stand by, those differences seem worth naming, if only to ensure we keep them that way.

This week’s Essential report replicated a series of questions the Pew Research Centre asked of US voters in the lead-up to their election: results that speak to a sharp decline of trust in America political institutions.

Within the Pew dataset there were three questions that struck me as being particularly illustrative:

  • Just 20% of Americans trust their government ‘to do what is right” just about always or most of the time, down from high 70s in the early 1960s.

  • Only a slim majority (57%) agree with the proposition “As Americans we can always find ways to solve our problems and get what we want”, signalling a dimming in that sense of exceptionalism that saw triumph in the three great geopolitical showdowns of the 20th century: One, Two and Cold.

  • And a similar number (59%) said they wanted to see their government doing more to solve their (manifest) problems.

We attempted similar, though not identical, formulations of these questions revealing significantly more positive Australian attitudes towards government (as with Pew research, we have removed those who did not offer an opinion).

To what extent do you agree or disagree with the following statements about the Federal Government? (NB as with Pew research, we have removed those who did not offer an opinion)

What’s striking in these findings is the broad level of faith in the mission of government, which sees Australians with a significantly more positive expectation of their elected leaders than Americans. Even the “other” column, typically those who vote One Nation, independent or the other micro-parties from the right, support an expanded role for government.

In Australia, despite the best efforts of the 50-year neo-liberal project to shrink and disappear government from life, there is a resilience manifest in this baseline of good will from the vast majority of citizens.

This is not about patriotism. The use of national flags and boofish chants of “USA” or “Aussie, Aussie, Aussie” are motifs of the populist movements that feed off this grievance. What I am talking about is more a civic trust, pride if you like; which is something I’ve always associated more with the US than any other nation.

But I’ve sensed this civic pride in the Victorian “double doughnut” days and the enduring level of approval of national and state leaders who benefit from the comparison with almost all of the rest of the world (Jacinda-land excepted).

Of course, sharp divisions remain beneath the surface, the slash of interests, the competing philosophies of government, the noise of a democratic process.

But these differences are played out within the political system not against it. What I don’t sense in Australia, at the end of this most remarkable of years, is a desire to tear the whole thing to pieces.

There’s been lots of progressive bloviation about the wheres and whys of populism in recent years; some of which I have been a willing contributor to. We’ve rightly consumed ourselves with panicked dissertations on class and race and disinformation and celebrity and all of it has a place in understanding how people lose faith in their systems of government.

But I’ve begun wondering if we aren’t over-complicating things and if the truth isn’t simpler: that grievance is the natural response to incompetence. And if this is true, then a simple dose of competence is the antidote.

Exhibit A: Queensland, where the Labor government effectively managed the crisis and One Nation registered barely a blip in the recent state election; despite the fears of a nativist backlash the sense of grievance was quelled by competence.

The One Nation vote nearly cut in half to 7.4%. But it wasn’t just that; the angry outsider shtick fell flat for the LNP as well, the crude curfew for Townsville and Cairns couldn’t flip a seat, while Clive Palmer’s disinformation failed to take root.

In contrast, Trumpism surged with the virus: not enough to hold office, but outperforming expectations with seven million extra voters from 2016, who are signed on for a sequel that could last long after their hero leaves the West Wing.

In response to the Trump’s administration’s abject failures to govern, grievance has reigned: law and order panics took hold, angry echo chambers reached a cacophony as the super-spreader surged back into contention on a wave of discontent of his own making.

Like many things Trump, the output may have been more accident than design, but Trump managed to reframe support for himself as a vote against science, a vote against experts telling you what to do; a vote against the reality of a crisis that he had created.

Now, facing a disputed result, a pandemic, racial tensions, an economic crisis, oh, and climate change, the Biden administration’s greatest challenge could well be the most basic: vaccinate grievance with competence and take it from there.

* Peter Lewis is executive director of Essential Media. He will discuss this week’s results with Guardian Australia political editor Katharine Murphy at 1pm on Tuesday


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