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Major parties must resist popular opinion

Turnbull Shorten
It’s time the major parties resisted the temptation to score easy wins by pandering to the mob. Photo: AAP
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Whether you think Australian bankers are the Devil incarnate or not, it’s been almost impossible to miss their appearance in front of a parliamentary committee this week.

Bank-bashing appears to have become our new favourite past-time, with no less than five live blogs in the mainstream media breathlessly following the hearings, documenting each utterance and interpreting the bankers’ awkward silences.

The media’s blanket coverage of the event is testament to the public’s keen interest in the banks being brought to account, not only for a lengthy list of misdemeanours but also their generally heartless treatment of customers.

The Labor Opposition has expertly whipped up and then tapped into this disenchantment, creating the widespread perception that only a royal commission into the banks will deliver the justice now being demanded by seemingly anyone with a grudge against a financial institution.

Frustratingly for the Greens, who first raised the idea, the “need” for a banking royal commission has successfully been claimed by the Opposition and is now seen to be part of their “integrity” branding.

Bill Shorten
The Greens first raised the idea for a banking royal commission. Photo: Getty

Such is the power of populism.

Widespread public support for an issue or action can be like a wave that lifts and carries a party or politician balanced on its crest to electoral success.

‘The most popular view is not necessarily the right one’

A recent opinion poll found nearly two thirds of respondents believed Pauline Hanson is “speaking for a lot of ordinary Australians”.

And it’s a courageous political party that runs with the pack on one issue, only to reject the majority on another.

Yet this is what the Opposition is doing with the plebiscite on marriage equality.

Just as Labor created the perception that the public interest could only be served once bankers’ heads were being paraded in the town square on pikes, the Coalition played into the same sense of voter entitlement by creating the expectation that we should have a say on other people being allowed to get married.

In neither case is the best solution the most popular one – mob rule has a patchy record when it comes to dealing with issues that can’t be solved by lynch mob.

Labor and the Coalition have nevertheless deferred to the majority view because they see a political advantage in it.

It’s not even difficult to imagine a scenario where Labor went with the majority and supported a plebiscite on gay marriage, particularly if there hadn’t been enough supportive MPs in the Parliament and a national vote was the only way to change the law.

The populist approach and the right one are perhaps different. Photo: ABC

Taking the popular option instead of the right one is obviously a tempting choice – given the tremendous political rewards on offer – but voters can turn quickly against populist politicians and parties that resist the majority view.

Labor may not have had this experience with marriage equality, but it certainly has with border protection.

In fact the ALP has been all but beaten into acquiescence with the Coalition’s asylum seeker policies for fear of unleashing the wrath of the Australian majority.

These are the voters who believe immigration is too high, there should be a ban on Muslim immigration, and Australia is either taking the right approach or is being too soft on asylum seekers.

The contrast between a populist approach and the right one is perhaps the starkest with this example.

Pauline Hanson - Hinch
The rise of populist “outsider” escalate public expectation that the majority view should prevail. Photo: AAP

With the rise of populist “outsider” politicians such as Pauline Hanson, there will be an escalation of public expectation that the majority view should prevail.

The leaders of the major parties will have to resist that wave, arguing what is best for the nation rather than what is popular.

That’s going to be a difficult sell when both leaders are among the most blatant populists.

It’s time they resisted the temptation to score easy wins by pandering to the mob.

Paula Matthewson was media adviser to John Howard in the early 1990s and then worked for almost 25 years in communication, political and industry advocacy roles. She is now a freelance writer and communication strategist. Paula has been tweeting and blogging about politics, the media and social media since 2009 under the pen name @Drag0nista.

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