Who are the people? For politicians and political parties “the people” aren’t just human beings, or the citizens of a country. Instead the people are always a specific – often imagined – group seen to be an authentic representation of the country. The contest over who gets to truly represent the values and interests of the country is the core conflict of political legitimacy. The central idea is that those who vote for us are the real people, and those who don’t are to be held in suspicion.
Australia’s Liberal Party has a history of using variations of this concept to claim political legitimacy. The party’s founder, Robert Menzies, spoke of the “forgotten people” — the Australian middle class. They didn’t have the wealth of the country’s elite, nor the organization of the country’s working class, who were invested in the trade union movement and the Labor Party. Menzies claimed that this group was “the backbone” of Australian society.
In the 1990s, John Howard sought to broaden the Liberal Party’s appeal by seeking to attract the working class with his appeals to “the battlers” – people who may not have a lot in life, but they work hard for what they do have. Howard’s strategy was the vanguard in Australia of a larger Western political realignment under which conservative parties have come to romanticize the working class. Although the success of the concept for Howard was due to a cultural quirk in Australia where everyone, regardless of their wealth, considers themselves to be “a battler.”
After the 2019 election, Scott Morrison claimed that he spoke for “the quiet Australians” – an idea that moved the framing of the people out of the material world and into the post-material one. The quiet Australians were those who did not hold progressives opinions, and who had values and beliefs that were in tension with the perceived dominant culture. Morrison’s framing was one which has become common within conservative politics throughout the West – a belief that political power is unable to compete with cultural power.
The Liberal Party’s new leader, Peter Dutton, has now come full circle, claiming that the Liberal Party once again represents “the forgotten Australians ” throughout the country’s suburbs. This is an odd admission for someone who had been a senior minister for the past nine years, but again speaks to the idea that although the Liberal Party was in government, they still lacked control over the way Australian society was being shaped.
Highlighting this sentiment, in recent days Liberal Party Senator Hollie Hughes claimed that climate change — one of the major drivers of the party’s recent election loss — was actually a “luxury issue” for Australian voters. Here the Liberals have seized upon an idea identified by Rob Henderson, a PhD candidate at the University of Cambridge, known as “luxury beliefs.” Henderson describes this idea as opinions that confer social status on the holder, but social costs on those who don’t hold the same opinions. Henderson’s theory is that nowadays displays of opinions have replaced displays of wealth as the marker of who is an “elite.”
This is a seemingly clever ploy, given that the Liberal Party now holds only two of the ten wealthiest electorates in the country – down from all ten in 2016. This has freed the Liberals to reframe themselves as a party of neither luxury goods nor luxury beliefs, but instead the party of genuine battlers, quietly getting on with their lives, forgotten by those now in both cultural and political power.
However, it is doubtful that those who have recently lost their homes and livelihoods to bushfires and floods would consider climate change a “luxury belief.” And it is an astonishing deaf ear for the party to convey the issue in this way. The lesson for the Liberal Party from last month’s election should have been that the broader Australian public — the people, if you will — take climate change seriously, and have punished the party for failing to come to terms with its reality.
Yet here lies the danger for the Liberal Party, and for the wider Australian polity – that the party doubles down on its romanticized vision of who it represents, as well as its imagined enemies, and feels that these psychological rewards are greater than the actual rewards of winning elections; that the party sees itself as a permanent opposition, ensconced in a fantasy of “real Australians” that bears little resemblance to the country’s actual makeup, or the concerns of its emerging adults.
Australia’s compulsory voting makes “us vs them” tactics difficult to execute. The bulk of the Australian public are not as invested in the culture wars as the political class is, and the transnational nature of modern ideological preoccupations also means the political class is often mired in ideas that do not have significant local traction. This means that if the Liberal Party wants to find its way back to government its safest bet would be to abandon the attempt to define an “authentic” class of Australians, and instead simply see people as people.