As our closest political cousin, with both federal and Westminster systems, Canadian politics should receive far more attention in the Australian then it does. The results of the Canadian election this week received a decent amount of media coverage, but the importance of this increased attention should be on the ideas involved, not just the result (or how hot Justin Trudeau is). There are major lessons to be learned by both Australian politicians and our media alike.
Canadian Liberal Party leader Justin Trudeau’s victory speech was one of hope, optimism, grand positivity and extreme grace (especially towards outgoing PM Stephen Harper). The kind of speech that would sound very odd to Australian ears (his switching between English and French aside).
With the Canadian Liberal Party having moved from the third party status with 36 seats to an absolute majority of 184 seats, political strategists from around the world will be studying this Canadian election campaign intensely to understand how such a dramatic victory was achieved.
The fact that Trudeau’s strategy was to trust the public’s better angels, and fundamentally reject the negative attack politics so common within western democracies, needs to be acknowledged as a major factor in his party’s success.
Since becoming Australian Prime Minister, Malcolm Turnbull has attempted to change the tone of Australian politics towards a more inclusive one of positivity and hope. Yet he still carries the weight of a party stacked with bitter curmudgeons to whom such concepts are seen as “weak”.
This is one of the great failings of Australian politics, in that we do not have a consistent philosophically liberal party like Canada does. One that can promote a faith in humanity to be both economically and socially free.
Both conservative and modern progressive perspectives would view this faith in humanity as naïve, as both have a deeply negative view of humanity embedded within their DNA.
For conservatives it is a suspicion towards society’s ability to handle difference (to be polite about it), and for modern progressives it is the perpetual belief in the manipulation and subjugation of the weak by the powerful. Yet both these perspective simply reinforce their own worldviews by incessantly promoting them.
In 1936 English economist John Maynard Keynes wrote in his book The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money about a term he called the “Animal Spirits”. Here he described the instincts, propensities and emotions that greatly influence and guide human behaviour, and in particular economic activity. When negativity about a situation becomes pronounced, it will inevitably snowball. The GFC was a great example of these Animal Spirits snowballing to everyone’s detriment.
This idea has since been expanded to include the concept of “social trust”. This is the trust and cooperation within a society that allows it to flourish. A society can function with greater harmony when those in powerful positions are promoting positive agendas and not succumbing to negative rhetoric which will snowball like Keynes described.
These Animal Spirits are responsible for creating the negative, evidence-free, nasty and highly expensive position we currently have toward asylum seekers. But this can be undone with excellent political communication. Unfortunately we are lacking MPs (and media outlets) with the skills that Trudeau displayed in the previous weeks. But hopefully this will change. We need to have hope that it will change in order for it to change.
Trudeau’s insistence during the Canadian election campaign that Canada’s multicultural diversity is its major strength was not only attempt to win votes from the country’s various diverse communities, but also a desire to promote within society a greater cross-cultural social understanding and interaction between each community.
While this remains something that is rarely heard within an Australian context, to his credit, Bill Shorten did attempt to promote this idea a week ago on the much ignored National Unity Day. Unfortunately, the media didn’t pick up the ball, bar Nick Cater in The Australian, who completely dismissed the idea with an awful, fearmongering piece titled “Nightmare Behind The Diversity Dream”.
We may believe that with our frequent internal party coups in Australia, it would be difficult to reform our negative political culture to one inspired by this week’s Canadian election result.
Yet, Malcolm Turnbull, since becoming Prime Minister is certainly making an effort to change our combative culture. While not having yet won an election as a party leader, Turnbull’s current legitimacy is due his gravitas and recognised competency to deserve the job.
There has always been a sense within the public that his Prime Ministership was inevitable. It just took a series of party machinations for it to occur. There are very few other Australian MPs who can hold such esteem (Labor’s Chris Bowen and Andrew Leigh will reach this position within a few years where they too will be deemed “the right person for the job”).
Yet, as previously mentioned, Turnbull is hamstrung by the team he has and the highly conservative culture within the Australian Liberal Party. Here it becomes difficult for him to completely change the Australian political culture, our “animal spirits”, to replicate that of someone like Justin Trudeau. I have previously advocated a split in the Liberal Party in order to rectify this culture.
However, there is one problem with this, as without the voices within our Liberal Party of what we call “moderate Liberals”, or what I would call “actual liberals”, we run the risk of creating a highly insular and aggressive Conservative Party within Australia.
That said, if my thesis holds, this party would (hopefully) find little traction with the public, and would only elect a small number of negative and fearful MPs.
The success of the Conservative party in Canada over the past decade has partly been due to a campaign to woo Canada’s ethnic minorities over the party, and shed its image as “the nasty party”. The main architect of this, Jason Kenney, seems to be the front-runner to replace Stephen Harper as the Tory leader.
Turnbull aside, it’s difficult to imagine anyone within the Australian Liberal Party going to the grand efforts of Kenney to make the Conservative Party appealing outside its traditional base (the linked piece is a must-read). The Abbott government in particular governed solely for its base, without any interest in appealing to groups aside of it.
Unfortunately, the loudest voices in our society are always the most negative. It is, afterall, the business model of the media to promote such an perspective on life. No news channel or newspaper would ever broadcast that “98% of humanity cooperated with great enthusiasm and success today”.
This constantly skews our perspective towards our society and the world, and perpetuates our negative approach to our political conversations. But as we have seen in Canada this week, this negativity can be broken, optimism can be be highly successful. Hopefully, our political elites, and the general public here in Australia, will take heed of this lesson.