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Australia’s Election Did Not Involve a ‘Populist Wave’

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison with his family after winning the 2019 election in Sydney, Australia, May 18, 2019. (Dean Lewins/AAP Image/via Reuters)

Regular readers will know that I am not a fan of the term ‘populism’.  As I mentioned here in January, over the last three years the term has been turned into one more way to insult the decisions made by the general public in country after country.

In Britain, the “Brexit” vote was derided as a “populist” vote.  The U.S. election of 2016 have repeatedly been described as a victory for “populism.” And in Europe, every time anybody on the political right looks set to achieve any electoral success, this is whipped up as being yet another victory for this amorphous, ill-defined but unarguably dark force.

This has rarely been made clearer than in the New York Times coverage of the results of last week’s Australian elections. This was not a contest between Matteo Salvini and the Left. It was not even a debate about sovereignty. It was merely an election — of the kind Australia tends to have — between a party to the left of center, and one slightly to the right. But the New York Times managed to write it up as follows: “Scott Morrison, Australia’s conservative prime minister, scored a surprise victory in federal elections on Saturday, propelled by a populist wave.”

As I said in January:

Over the last two years it has come to be used as a synonym for “things I personally do not like” and “unpalatable people.” Why is President Macron never described as a populist? He broke the traditional party structures in France, ran a one-man campaign, and had to put together candidates for his party only after he had already secured the presidency. Many of the old definitions of ‘populism’ fit Macron perfectly. But of course he has the “correct” views on a range of international institutions, primarily the EU, which mean that the term doesn’t get used of him.

So while President Macron was not propelled by a “populist wave,” Scott Morrison apparently was. Is there any point in pretending that the term “populism” is now anything more than a way to put scare-quotes around any electoral victory for anybody who happens to be of the political right?

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