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Understanding populism: how leaders can better sell economic reform

As populism and extremism become the new norm, Dr Anika Gauja discusses lessons our leaders can learn from this global shift, and how to utilise this knowledge to forward political and economic agendas.

Economic policies are seldom an easy sell. Think of the government's continued attempts to get the cross-bench to help pass its unpopular corporate tax cuts.

Economic issues matter to Australians. Issues such as housing affordability and inter-generational inequality are prominent in both traditional and social media channels. But we also know Australians are turning away from major political parties.

Our leaders must acknowledge that there is a widespread, global climate of disillusionment with traditional politics.

This does not mean, however, that citizens are apathetic, or uninterested in change. People and organisations are finding new ways to engage with politics. To better connect with them, policymakers need to change their expectations of how people should participate in the process of reform.

The issue for Australian leaders is persuasively communicating longer term policy visions in a way individuals and communities can relate to.

My chapter in the CEDA’s (Committee for Economic Development of Australia) 2017 Economic and Political Overview outlines some of the most salient recent shifts in Australian politics. Based on this, I offer some recommendations as to how our leaders can better engage people in economic reform.

Learning from populism

Creating a successful pathway to reform involves understanding how we interact with our political environment. For leaders and policy makers, this means paying attention to how the political landscape is changing.

Across the democratic world, 2016 was a year of unprecedented political upheaval. Regarded as harbingers of a new era of populist style politics, Brexit and the election of US President Donald Trump represented seismic shifts in the established political order in the UK and US.

While populism is considered a threat to democracy, there are lessons our leaders can learn from the experience of populism in other countries:

1. Populism highlights some of the most pressing concerns facing individuals and societies. However, it struggles to provide meaningful policy solutions. There is still space, and indeed a pressing need, for policy making based on evidence and sound consultation. But policymakers should not ignore the underlying causes of the issues raised.

2. The rise of populism is not inevitable: it depends on how much airtime our leaders are prepared to give it. Stemming the flow of populist politics involves recognising that populist parties thrive if the media pays attention to them, and if established parties and politicians engage in debate with them.

3. The appeal of populist leaders and parties illustrates the need to identify and articulate economic reform in terms of the immediate challenges and life experiences of individuals and communities.

Understanding how we do politics is changing

Research into Australian elections and political participation shows that citizens are moving away from the established political parties. They are turning to other organisations to channel their participation and take more direct forms of political action.

Engagement on the basis of ideology is being replaced by engagement in issue-based politics. This is facilitated by continuously evolving communications technologies.

Policy makers need to move away from the perception that disaffection with traditional political institutions amounts to apathy. Instead, they should see these changes as creating several opportunities for successful economic reform.

Citizens are no longer as attached to the established political parties and broad ideological cues. Those looking to build support for economic reform have a unique opportunity to engage and mobilise citizens directly, online and offline, and involving diverse coalitions of interests.

Communication techniques that take a vision and personalise it to relate directly to issues affecting individuals, businesses and communities are most effective in creating interest and support.

Reform also needs to involve younger people, who engage in politics differently. Understanding the issues that matter to young Australians and how they communicate their political ideas and preferences is key to successful reform.

Elections make governments, but don’t necessarily create mandates

Voter behaviour suggests elections and election campaigns are not necessarily the best vehicles for creating a mandate for economic reform.

We know that voters tend to vote for their preferred party rather than evaluate economic policies. We also know that the importance of economic issues declines when the economy is in good health, creating challenges for establishing an economic reform agenda when everything appears otherwise well.

Voters expect strong and disciplined political parties. But their vote choice depends on the extent to which they believe the government can exert some measure of control over the economy.

In terms of the lessons for economic reform, Australian voters’ attitudes to economic issues indicate that:

  • Parties and government need to be strong and disciplined in communicating their policy visions;
  • Reform will only be successful where leaders and policy-makers can demonstrate that they actually have the capacity to act; and
  • Partisan attachments and the role of the major parties in influencing vote choice are declining. This presents a significant opportunity to construct economic reforms as a series of salient policy issues that transcend partisan politics.

This list of recommendations is not exhaustive. But it does illustrate that with new challenges also come new opportunities.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article here.

About the authors

Anika Gauja

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Dr Anika Gauja, Associate Professor, Department of Government and International Relations, Sydney University

Anika Gauja is an Associate Professor in the Department of Government and International Relations. Her research focuses on representative democracy and political participation, particularly the changing nature of political parties and how they respond to citizen demands for participation and representation. At Sydney University she teaches courses on Australian politics, comparative democratic politics, political parties and political analysis.

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