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Rise of the Right

By Greg Barns - posted Wednesday, 13 February 2019

In a society underpinned by liberal values, there is no monopoly on truth or wisdom. There is not, as is often the case with the populist right, this idea that simply because there is strong support among 'ordinary Australians' (which is often code for marginal seats) for a particular populist policy (such as harsh treatment of asylum seekers both on- and offshore) or for punitive measures (such as aspects of anti-terror laws or industrial-scale jailing of the marginalised and mentally unwell), then the policy must be right.

Good policy, as in policy aimed at outcomes that enhance the welfare of society and the democratic values underpinning it, is not always policy that is populist. Too often the populist right makes noise through its favoured media outlets, and then what emerges is 'policy on the run' from politicians desperate to curry favour with those they see as representing 'ordinary Australians'.

If we are to blunt the populist right, we must plead with politicians, media and interest groups to consider the long-term consequences for decisions taken today that are antithetical to fairness and decency. As demonstrated by the Stolen Generations and the policy of forced adoption of children born to single mothers in the not-so-distant past, these types of 'popular' policies built on prejudice (and racism in the case of the Stolen Generations) lead to intergenerational suffering and dispossession.


There is no doubt that our society will pay a substantial price, one day in the decades to come, for the cruelty meted out to asylum seekers. That Australia has so readily embraced the populist-right politics of nationalism and xenophobia perpetuated by former prime minister John Howard in the 2001 Tampa incident and beyond will be seen as a great error.

There will be an apology and there will be, as there already has been, massive compensation to pay. The damage done internationally to Australia's reputation as a genuinely liberal and therefore fair society by the pursuit of extraordinary cruelty towards men, women and children in immigration detention centres will take some years to redress, and in the future there will be a prime minister and a government that will say to the international community that it will not happen again.

The issue of immigration, together with that of refugees, is an example of the sort of policy discussion that could look so different, and so much more rational and compassionate, if we utilised the framework of liberal values instead of the populist-right settings on which both coalition parties and the ALP have built their politics since 2001.

A policy discussion based on liberal values would assure Australians that border security does matter yet is not an either/or proposition, that immigration policy has to be informed by values such as fairness, equal treatment, global responsibility, and balancing the interests of sovereignty with the advantages that come to Australia from migration. This would be a policy whereby cruelty and unjustifiable hardship, such as inflicting destitution on asylum seekers, have no place because they are counterproductive and, more importantly, utterly inconsistent with liberal values.

We Australians could also surely have discussions about the emerging issues of gender and sexuality without the hysteria presented by the populist right – a debate informed by the fact that, in a society where liberal values have pride of place, there is an acceptance that cultural mores and norms are not static, that organised religion does not – and should not – exercise disproportionate influence in moral and cultural debates because secular beliefs are equally important for us to heed.

As John Hewson warns us and as Michael Ignatieff bleakly describes, ensuring that Australia does not continue to head down the road taken in parts of Europe and in the USA under President Trump requires leadership by the political class, and this includes the media. Pandering to prejudice and fear, and reinforcing a false sense of danger for those who believe themselves to be threatened existentially by 'The Other', is easy; it is the populist right's modus operandi. But it leads to ever more extreme statements, actions and political gestures.


Perhaps the most important reason to oppose vigorously the rise of the populist right is that it represents a grab for power and an exercise in paternalism. The populist-right tactics of division, conflict and manufactured outrage. The populist right is not interested in dialogue about human rights, discrimination laws and what it calls identity politics. All of these are impediments to the carte blanche it wants to use to exercise freedom of its speech and its ideas.

Freedom of speech and thought is critical to a well-functioning, liberal democracy. But there is a world of difference between, on the one hand, being heard, and, on the other, injecting ideas into discourse in a manner that is respectful of others and is mindful that there is no monopoly on truth or what is deemed to be the best for a society.

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This is an edited extract from Greg Barns’ Rise of the Right, published by Hardie Grant Books, RRP $24.00.

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About the Author

Greg Barns is National President of the Australian Lawyers Alliance.

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