Democratic Leadership in a Populist Age

May 29, 2023

Democratic Leadership in a Populist Age

Speech by Malcolm Turnbull to the CAPRI Annual Forum in Taipei
29 May 2023

Thank you Shirley Lin, for your characteristically wise and warm introduction and for your vision in establishing the Centre for Asia Pacific Resilience and Innovation - CAPRI. 

And I want to echo Shirley’s thanks to CAPRI’s supporters, advisers and researchers. I believe this think tank can play vitally important role in our region and its location here in Taipei is of enormous significance. Taiwanese perspectives and experience are more important than ever. 

A few years ago, I asked whether liberal democracy was caught between the rise of authoritarian regimes like China and Russia on the one hand and divisive populist politics on the other - battered between the anvil of Xi JinPing and the hammer of Donald Trump.

Since then the challenge of authoritarian governments has gone from menace and bullying to the brutal violence of war - Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine has seen tanks and armies return to the bloodiest battle fields of World II. 

So far, Putin’s war has achieved the exact reverse of all that he had expected. Ukraine did not fold up in a few days - the Ukrainian people’s will to fight has been as tenacious as it has been courageous. NATO was not divided - it is stronger than ever and two neutral nations on Russia’s border, Sweden and Finland, are joining NATO.

The West is more united in defence of democracy than ever, European nations that had lived in fear of the Red Army have seen the reality of Russia’s lumbering military machine and are now rearming. In one year of conflict, Russia’s casualties are more than three times the death toll suffered in the ten years of the Soviet Union’s disastrous war in Afghanistan.

Far from reinstating the old Soviet Empire, Putin has galvanised Ukrainian nationalism and de-Finlandised Finland. The economic costs to Russia have been immense, its best and brightest are fleeing rather than be flung into the front line, and Putin finds himself effectively a client of China. 

The lesson from Ukraine is straightforward; democracies must support each other. If Putin had been able to prevail in Ukraine, not only would the democratic sovereignty of that nation have been snuffed out, but every other authoritarian regime would be encouraged to follow Russia’s example. 

Closer to home, the singular objective of the democracies in the Asia Pacific is to ensure that the strong do not do as they will, that the big fish, in Lee Kwan Yew’s words, do not eat the little fish. 

Our resolute defence of democracy and the right of nations to determine their own destiny free from coercion must never flag or falter. 

However while the external threats to democracy are all too real, in my view the greatest threats are from within. 

It is only a little more than two years ago that we saw a mob storm the US Capitol in an attempt to overthrow the lawful constitutional transfer of power to a new administration. Even today a majority of Republican voters believe, or claim to believe, that Donald Trump won the 2020 election and that Joe Biden’s presidency is illegitimate.

Now for years we have always been amused that this or that percentage of Americans believe Elvis is still alive or the world is flat, but when a large percentage of the population are persuaded to believe such a dangerously consequential lie as that their own government is illegitimate we have a very serious problem.

Disinformation is more widespread than ever. Promised a market place of ideas where the truth would prevail, we are drowning in lies. Governments around the world had to battle with deadly disinformation about vaccines - and deadly is the right word because so many people died from Covid because they had refused to be vaccinated. 

In some cases, including here in Taiwan, foreign actors play a role in the spreading of disinformation - fomenting division, undermining trust in government and institutions. But we should not imagine this problem of disinformation is only an external one. Whether in the US or my country or many other democracies there are more than enough locals who are wicked, or crazy, enough to spread lies.

And they are not simply wild conspiracy theorists furiously typing in their bedrooms late at night. 

In the United States the largest and most influential news network, Fox News, repeated and amplified Trump’s claim that the election had been stolen despite the senior management of that company, including Rupert Murdoch, knowing that those claims were false. In other words they spread lies, knowing they were lies, because they believed they were lies their audience wanted to be told. As a consequence Fox has already had to pay USD787 million in damages to the Dominion Voting machine company, and other claims await resolution.

Politics and public policy operate in an environment, an ecosystem, of which the media is the most important element. Whether it is mainstream curated media, or social media, that is where we find out what is happening, follow debates, exchange ideas - good or bad. 

There is a saying that the politician who complains about the media is like a sailor who complains about the sea.

The media sea in which we operate has changed dramatically in recent years. Twenty years ago, there was no social media and curated, mainstream media, by and large sought to attract a broad audience - so while newspapers would lean left or right if they wanted an audience large enough to support a viable level of advertising revenue they had to be credible to a wide cross section of the community. 

However digital technologies have dramatically reduced the cost of publishing, social media has made all of us publishers with potentially enormous reach, smart phones have meant we possess the capabilities of a television studio in our pocket - in short the media landscape is totally transformed.

The upshot has been that it is now possible to monetise very small audiences and that increasingly people are living in media silos where they are receiving news and information that conforms and reinforces their own prejudices and points of view. 

For years as we discussed media policies we would talk about the risk of monopolies - the more voices the better we would say so the left would balance the right. That’s still a good point, but much less relevant. 

In an American context MSNBC does not balance Fox News because the people who are glued to Fox do not watch MSNBC and vice versa. 

At the same time as competition for the attention of viewers becomes more intense, both mainstream media channels and social media platforms seek to increase engagement by riling people up - so much news today is “angertainment” - and this is delivered both by the algorithms that determine your feed on YouTube or Twitter or Facebook and by the producers of many news channels.

The consequence is that society becomes more divided, more angry, less capable of resolving issues at the centre. 

Now every democracy is different, but I think the US is the best, and best known, example of this problem. There is no question that today that country, the democracy on whose stability all of us rely, is more divided than it has ever been since the Civil War nearly 160 years ago. 

In politics disunity is death - or as Lincoln said “A house divided against itself cannot stand.”

So what is to be done? How do we make our democracies resilient in the face of this challenge?

We have to stand up for truth and call out lies for what they are. 

There used to be received wisdom in politics that you should not respond to wild and outrageous claims lest you give them oxygen - greater salience. In the viral world of social media that is no longer the case. I learnt this the hard way in the 2016 election when we lost a number of seats due to a ludicrous lie put about my opponents that my government was going to “sell Medicare” which is the agency that funds primary health care. The claim was pushed on digital channels to older, less educated voters in marginal seats and it worked. 

So the answer is when lies are told, they have to be corrected and rebutted with great energy and speed. Our Electoral Commission in Australia has been very active doing that to counteract various lies and conspiracy theories designed to undermine faith in our electoral system. They use every digital channel and act immediately - quite unlike the usual stately government response - but it worked. 

Similar dynamic approaches worked with respect to disinformation about Covid and vaccines.

But this cannot be left to governments alone to do it. Responsible media organisations which believe in reporting the facts should call out those who do not. We all have to be active in fending off lies and disinformation. 

It’s not easy. I have recently done a series on podcasts on Defending Democracy and in one of them I interviewed the courageous Philippines Nobel prize winning journalist Maria Ressa who founded Rappler which has run a very dynamic fact checking operation. But she notes that lies get a lot more clicks than the correction - however that's no reason to stop pushing back

Trump’s adviser Steve Bannon once said that his tactic was “to flood the zone with shit” by which he meant pump out so many lies and disinformation that people became confused and losing trust in government and established authorities became susceptible to the latest conspiracy theory. Well the answer to that, as Theresa May, observed to me recently is “to flood the zone with facts.” 

Trust can be built, and it is on a foundation of truth. Truth and transparency build trust.

Advertisers also have responsibility - if a news or social media platform is peddling lies and disinformation, don’t advertise on it. And if you are a consumer and a particular company is advertising on a television channel that is peddling lies, tell them you won’t buy their products. One particularly extreme and misogynistic radio commentator in Australia lost his job because advertisers did not want to be associated with him.

Finally institutions and electoral systems really matter. 

In my view politics in a democracy is most effective when the debate, or the contest, is conducted at the centre. That is where most of the people are, and it also means cooperation and compromise are most likely to be achieved.

The media environment has increasingly pushed politics in many democracies to the extremes - again the US is the best (or worst) example. It is not helped by their voting system which entrenches the two big parties so that in most cases the contest that determines whether someone is elected to congress is not the general election but the party primary.

We have largely avoided that problem in Australia because for a century we have had three distinct features in our electoral system

In our parliamentary system, electorate boundaries are drawn by an independent electoral commission - there is no gerrymandering.

Second we have compulsory voting. All Australians over 18 have to be on the electoral roll and have to vote. So our turnout is typically about 93%. That means candidates do not have to run off to the extreme to rile up their base to get them to vote. 

Thirdly we have preferential, or ranked choice, voting. So if there are four candidates you have to number them 1 through to 4. This makes it much easier for independents to win. 

And this was the most interesting feature of the last election. My party, the Liberal Party, is (despite its name) the centre right party - equivalent of the Conservatives in the UK. After I left the leadership in 2018, many people felt that the Party moved too far to the right, especially on climate where my successor Mr Morrison was seen to be much less committed to taking action to reduce emissions than I had been.

As a result of this in many hitherto safe Liberal electorates, including my old seat Wentworth in Sydney’s eastern suburbs, small “l” liberal independents ran on platforms featuring stronger climate action among other progressive issues.

These independents now hold 9 seats in a parliament of 151, all of them are women, and all of the seats had been super safe Liberal seats. Once successful in our system independents are very hard to dislodge.

They were able to win because of the voting system. Typically the incumbent Liberal candidate’s primary vote dropped from over 50% to around 40%, the independent won a primary vote of 30% and then won on the preferences from Labor, the Greens and other parties. 

In other words, the electoral system meant that traditional Liberal voters dissatisfied with their party had a centrist option - and of course it sent the most unmistakeable message that running off to the extremes may fire up some of your political base, or your friends in the media, but can be electorally deadly.

Our institutions, designed so long ago, proved to be resilient in these stressful times. And resilience matters -  whether it is defending democracy, the environment or public health.

And as resilience matters, so CAPRI matters. The more we understand our common challenges, compare our respective responses and work up better ones, the more able we will be to deal with the accelerating challenges we face in these times, times when the pace and scale of change is greater than ever.

And it is fitting that we are having these discussions here in Taiwan - the embodiment of CAPRI’s mission - resilience and innovation in the Asia Pacific.

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