There’s always been a tension in politics between the need to inspire and the danger of too much inspiration. Politicians have important positions as responsible community leaders steering massive and complex ships of state, which often requires the ability to bring societies along with them for collective benefit and well-being. Yet politicians are also in the business of creating self-serving enthusiasm, which can lead them to arouse darker emotions within people for personal gain. At present the latter holds sway through much of the world, creating a global reemergence of unrest and instability.
Australia, however, looks to have turned away from these emotions. Five months into a new government and the country’s politics are pleasantly boring. There are, of course, serious issues and significant problems to attend to – and political partisans are always present and combative – but governance itself is now more restrained and composed. The Labor Party shows no sign of generating any great enthusiasm – either positive or negative – but this might just be its key asset.
Prime Minister Anthony Albanese is no skillful orator. His thick ocker accent makes it seem like the act of speaking itself is difficult. He doesn’t brim with ideas or bound with energy. There is little chance of him being seen as an inspirational leader. But he does project a sense of being calm, thoughtful, sincere, and trustworthy – and in an era of increasing political distrust and turbulence these are traits of high value.
The current local success of such traits may also be due to some uniquely Australian characteristics. Australians are naturally inclined to be suspicious of charismatic figures, making it difficult for the personality cults that have taken root in the United States as well as several European countries to gain local traction. Politics is mostly seen as an administrative job – not one of cultivating souls – and therefore someone who projects themselves as grandiose, or the sole holder of superior ideas, is likely to be scorned in terms too profane to publish. The blunt Australian tongue may be an underappreciated democratic safeguard.
Labor has made the calculation that humans are mostly stability-seeking animals. Much of the turbulence that has overrun conservative parties throughout the West recently is due a psychological unease with the pace of change. Their chaotic emotions may only be making things worse for themselves, but it is driven by a desire to find an environment where they can find a sense of security. For governments to be successful and responsible, they need to provide a clear path toward greater social stability – in both their policies and their rhetorical styles.
This approach to security is aligning with current global economic trends. The end of the neoliberal era is partially due to a recognition that economic integration hasn’t worked in its broader objectives to liberalize norm-breaking and destabilizing countries like China and Russia. Australia’s current strategic goal to secure supply chains and a domestic manufacturing capability – especially for renewables – naturally suits a social-democratic party like Labor.
An idea like “friend-shoring” that was recently advanced by Canada’s deputy prime minister, Chrystia Freeland, where supply chains are built around shared values, human rights, and trusted relationships, rather than strict economic efficiency, is one that would find great traction within Labor. There is not just a practicality to this – given that trade with China is often subject to Communist Party whims – but it could also be a way to demonstrate to publics that are currently lacking confidence in liberal democracy that it has networks and capabilities that authoritarian regimes cannot match.
Networks of cooperative pride may provide a sense of meaning from politics that many Western publics are craving. It would be both impossible and unwise to remove feeling entirely from politics. Events like Russia’s invasion of Ukraine should elicit emotional responses, and these responses should drive the practical measures that offer both assistance to those in need and the structures to make such brutality less likely to be repeated. Friend-shoring has the potential to be practical and provide positive inspiration, creating a broader sense of “we” that may counteract narrow and dangerous in-groups that trade in negative emotions.
Politics may be about finding the delicate balance between stability and inspiration. There are ideas that the Labor Party is pursuing – like a referendum to give Indigenous Australians a constitutionally recognized voice to Parliament – that seek to cultivate parts of the nation’s soul, but they are doing so with care and restraint. Making sure that the referendum will pass with overwhelming support is essential to creating this balance.
The continued success of the new Australian government will come from its ability to neutralize cynicism. The protection of liberal democracy does not need to be passionate and stirring; it may instead just need to be temperate and competent. If Australia wishes to be a positive influence in the world, it can do so with subtlety.