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Progressive Populism Has Transformed Australia Before — It Could Do It Again

In Australian politics today, the neoliberal consensus seems unshakable. But the experience of the Curtin and Whitlam Labor governments shows the potential of progressive populism to deliver social change — a potential we can also glimpse in the recent growth of the Greens.

Greens leader Adam Bandt speaks at Parliament House on December 9, 2020 in Canberra, Australia. (Sam Mooy / Getty Images)

In 2012, twenty-one past winners of the Blue Planet Prize — awarded for research that improves the global environment — released a landmark report. It stated that “in the face of an absolutely unprecedented emergency, society has no choice but to take dramatic action to avert a collapse of civilization.”

A year later, the deputy director of the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research, Kevin Anderson, went one step further, arguing that “revolutionary change to the political and economic hegemony” would be needed to prevent the planet warming by more than 2°C.

More recently, in 2019, scientists from fifty nations demanded “bold and drastic” changes to the economy, including a shift away from GDP growth toward “sustaining ecosystems and improving human well-being.” This year, a paper coauthored by seventeen scientists called for “fundamental changes to global capitalism, education, and equality, which include inter alia the abolition of perpetual economic growth.”

The need for radical change couldn’t be clearer. But devising a strategy to achieve such change isn’t so straightforward. To shed light on the question, it’s worth revisiting two examples of progressive populism from Australia’s history — the 1940 and 1972 electoral campaigns led by Labor’s John Curtin and Gough Whitlam, respectively.

Defining Progressive Populism

In her 2019 essay “The Old is Dying and the New Cannot Be Born,” Nancy Fraser outlines a useful definition of progressive populism. For Fraser, the key is combining an “inclusive politics of recognition,” guaranteeing respect and esteem for marginalized social groups, with a “pro-working family politics of distribution” that pushes toward economic redistribution and emphasizes social class.

To provide a more concrete illustration of what this means, Fraser points to the two Democratic primary campaigns of Bernie Sanders. In her view, he achieved this mix between recognition and redistribution by fighting for “criminal justice reform plus Medicare for all, reproductive justice plus free college tuition; LGBTQ+ rights plus breaking up the big banks.”

For Fraser, progressive populism requires a significant role for “revived and reimagined labor unions — as well as for political parties and social movements.” Ideally, it’s a strategy that can constitute the working class as a political force, allowing it to become “the leading force in an alliance that also includes substantial segments of youth, the middle class, and the professional-managerial stratum.” As Fraser argues:

Only by joining a robustly egalitarian politics of distribution to a substantively inclusive, class-sensitive politics of recognition can we build a counterhegemonic bloc capable of leading us beyond the current crisis to a better world.

Progressive Populism in Australia

There are two strong precedents for such left populism in Australia’s history. Two of the nation’s most transformative Labor prime ministers, John Curtin and Gough Whitlam, succeeded by building a political program combining recognition and redistribution.

Writing in Thesis Eleven back in 1983, Professor Rob Watts argued that John Curtin’s wartime leadership, first in opposition and then as prime minister from October 1941 to his death in July 1945, was characterized by a “democratic populism which underpinned nearly six years of equality and sacrifice rhetoric.” While criticizing simplistic narratives that overstate Curtin’s reform agenda, Watts acknowledges the effectiveness of his democratic populist strategy: “It was well-intentioned, it was persuasive, and it activated great policies and brought Curtin unimagined fame as a wartime leader.”

For example, in an election policy speech in August 1940, Curtin insisted that “economic freedom must be made real by giving security and a rising standard of living to all.” Curtin remained committed to economic security once in office, making full employment and the establishment of the welfare state two of the major priorities of his government.

Curtin and his party blended these redistributive elements with a politics of recognition manifested in initiatives such as the Women’s Employment Board, which increased wages for some women during the war. Other reforms extended maternity allowances, increased welfare benefits for Aboriginal Australians, and extended pension eligibility for some populations of migrant workers.

By appealing to all Australians through a material politics of redistribution as well as an extension of recognition to previously excluded social groups, Curtin led Labor to its greatest ever victory at the 1943 election. The ALP won 58.2 percent of the two-party preferred vote and two-thirds of seats in the House of Representatives, with a 17-seat swing.

Gough Whitlam’s 1972 “It’s Time” electoral campaign also had a progressive populist focus on fairer economic distribution and recognition that, backed by social movements, swept away twenty-three years of conservative rule. In his election speech, Whitlam set out three programmatic aims: “to promote equality, to involve the Australian people in the decision-making processes of our land, and to liberate the talents and uplift the horizons of the Australian people.”

Whitlam opposed the “we” of the people to the corruption of the establishment, saying “we ought to be angry at the way our so-called leaders have kept us in the dark — parliament itself as much as the people, to hide their own incapacity and ignorance.” Whitlam concluded with an optimistic populist appeal:

I need the help of the Australian people; and, given that, I do not for a moment believe that we should set limits on what we can achieve, together, for our country, our people, our future.

It wasn’t hollow rhetoric, either. There was a genuinely egalitarian politics of distribution to Whitlam’s program centered around “cities, schools and hospitals.” He followed through with a blizzard of reforms that led to real, material gains for workers. The 1973 budget doubled spending on housing, tripled investments in urban development, and quadrupled spending on education.

The Whitlam government passed a stunning 508 bills in just over a thousand days in office. These included acts providing for universal health care, free tertiary education, national standards of equal pay, and four weeks’ annual leave. He significantly increased spending on social security benefits and pensions, as well as on regional employment and services.

Just as with Curtin, recognition also formed part of Whitlam’s reform agenda. His government passed the Racial Discrimination Act, took steps toward granting Aboriginal people land rights, and introduced a single mothers’ benefit and no-fault divorce while championing the decriminalization of homosexuality.

Though Whitlam was not much of a protester himself, it’s unsurprising that his rise to office came off the back of burgeoning movements: women’s and gay liberation, Aboriginal land rights, environmental and antiwar, as well as surging trade unions. Union density and strike rates experienced historic highs in the 1960s and early ’70s, with the strike rate peaking in 1974. These movements were crucial to Whitlam’s success and to ensuring that he delivered change once in office.

A Progressive Populist Revival?

There are also important signs of a revival in progressive populism in Australia — only today, it is playing out within the Greens, particularly in Queensland (QLD). In recent years, the QLD Greens have successfully combined populist positioning, a platform offering material gains for ordinary people, and movement building. At the 2019 election, local campaigns in the seats of Griffith, Brisbane, and Ryan achieved significant swings even though the Greens vote was stagnating at a national level.

This success rested on a platform that emphasized free childcare, more public housing, publicly owned renewable energy, and free dental care (CHED for short). At the March 2020 Brisbane City Council election, Greens councilor Jonathan Sri’s core campaign messages emphasized “standing up against political corruption” and “giving residents more control over council decision-making.” He was reelected with a 12.4 percent primary vote swing.

State strategist for the QLD Greens Max Chandler-Mather and South Brisbane campaign manager Liam Flenady explained that a strong ground campaign was crucial to their 2019 success. At the October 2020 state election, it paid off again, with the QLD Greens recording substantial swings in Cooper, Greenslopes, and McConnel. The campaign returned Greens MP Michael Berkman with a 14 percent swing in Maiwar, while Amy MacMahon won the seat of South Brisbane away from Labor’s Jackie Trad.

Chandler-Mather, recently preselected as the Greens’ federal candidate for Griffith, has said the party will continue using this strategy: “Politics is about reaching out to people about the issues that affect their daily lives and what they care about and making policies that address those issues.”

When Victorian left-winger Adam Bandt took over the federal leadership of the Greens in February 2020, the whole party began to shift toward a left populist strategy. In October 2020, Bandt reflected on Greens successes in New Zealand and the ACT:

The Greens are on the rise because we put people ahead of big corporations. We’re pushing back against the establishment parties’ failed trickle-down economic policies and tax cuts for millionaires. We are fighting for direct investment in public schools, hospitals, public housing and public services to create jobs and a better life for everyone.

This year, Bandt’s February speech to the Greens national conference focused on inequality, stressing that ordinary people had suffered while “billionaires and big corporations are making out like bandits.” While the Greens have always been strong on the politics of recognition, their recent left populist turn suggests a greater emphasis on redistribution and movement building.

A People’s Green New Deal

The Greens recently announced their support for a 6 percent billionaire tax — a further encouraging step toward an economically redistributive approach. The obvious problem is, however, that the Greens have set a ten-to-fifteen-year timeline to transform into the kind of mass party that could take power. That may be realistic, but what about the IPCC’s 2030 deadline for “far-reaching and unprecedented changes in all aspects of society”?

This raises the question of the Australian Labor Party (ALP) and its future orientation. Even if the Greens continue to grow, without Labor, it’s hard to see how a progressive populist government could be formed in Australia.

Some may retort that the ALP is a lost cause. Labor opposes the call from the Greens for a federal Independent Commission Against Corruption and political donations reform. The ALP received more money than the Liberals in 2019–20 from oil and gas giant Woodside Energy, the nation’s most generous fossil fuel donor. And it’s still firmly wedded to the Bob Hawke–Paul Keating legacy of neoliberal policymaking.

However, it would be a mistake to leave the discussion there. After all, it was Gough Whitlam, a politician who came from the ALP’s right wing, who enacted the most significant progressive political shift in Australia since Curtin, under pressure from unions and strong social movements. And those who view the ALP as a hopelessly corrupt force have not outlined a realistic alternative path for a movement that can win office before the climate crisis spins out of control.

In a recent interview, national ALP president Wayne Swan addressed the question of working with the Greens. Swan suggested that the two parties should be united on two points: “doing something fundamental about the increasing inequality in our society and dealing with fundamental climate change.” The Greens and others on the Australian left should be looking for ways to test the rhetoric of ALP politicians against concrete proposals for action.

This is where the Green New Deal (GND) comes in. The Greens have framed their antipodean GND as a plan to tackle Australia’s climate, jobs, and inequality crises simultaneously. It is a “government-led plan of investment and action to help create new industries and grow a clean economy and a caring society,” which, by making corporations pay their fair share of tax, would fund the provision of universal services.

By combining populist rhetoric with a compelling narrative about social benefits for the vast majority of Australians, the GND proposal might just be able to unite Australian progressives and defeat Scott Morrison’s corrupt, oligarchic government. If backed by a resurgent union movement and social movements, an Australian GND could inaugurate a new era in politics — one that, echoing Whitlam’s 1972 speech, will break through the “limits on what we can achieve, together, for our country, our people, our future.”