Turnbull and Corbyn: the rise of anti-politicians?

Does the sudden rise to power of two non-traditional politicians highlight voter dissatisfaction with the choices they are being presented at the ballot box?

Charlie Shandil

Government and governance | Australia, The World

8 October 2015

New world politics no longer marries with old world party-led models, and now we’re getting politicians to match the changing times, argues Charlie Shandil.

An issue arises for democracy when one side of the political fence looks much like the other, and the notion of representation becomes diluted because the citizenry feel they are voting for the same person, no matter which party they opt for.

This has been Australia’s story since the initial ousting of Kevin Rudd in 2010, and has caused a significant disconnect between politicians and the citizenry. Recently however, there has been a change in the wind with Malcolm Turnbull, a grammar educated son of a hotel broker, being promoted as Australia’s 29th Prime Minister – a self-proclaimed ‘Prime Minister of the 21st Century’,

Prior to his political career, the Prime Minister was the managing director and then partner at Goldman Sachs, he was proclaimed as virtually inventing the internet in Australia with his role at OzEmail, and he also held a number of senior positions in internet companies such as WebCentral.  However, while the spotlight is on the government, it is also important to mention the 21st century public service. The Treasury Secretary John Fraser, a man worthy of any top job himself, left the public service as Deputy Secretary of the Treasury in 1993 to eventually become Chairman and CEO of UBS Global Asset Management. Also, Michael Thawley, formerly Australia’s ambassador to the United States before being appointed as Secretary to the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet, was a senior executive at the major United States funds management group, Capital Group. While these two most senior bureaucrats were brought in under the Abbott government, they will now have the opportunity to truly bring in their A-game – a game for the 21st century.

What is being witnessed in this 21st century public administration is a move away from career politicians and public servants, to not just key influencers in their own right, but individuals coming back into the game with the mindset of reform: reforming the perception of politicians, public administrators, and the construct in which they reside. It is with this rise of anti-politicians and anti-bureaucrats that we will start to see a connection between the citizenry and the political construct as it evolves towards a 21st century mindset.

A similar cultural shift away from the norm of politics is occurring in the United Kingdom. Jeremy Corbyn, a son of peace campaigners of the Spanish Civil War and a lifelong socialist activist, has recently been criticised by his fellow Labour folks as incapable of leading the UK Labour Party to victory. However, his anti-austerity cause is finding a receptive audience amongst those searching for an alternative to the current political figureheads.

On 16 August 2015 the former Prime Minister Gordon Brown delivered a speech at the Royal Festival Hall opposing Corbyn and stating that, for the UK Labour Party,

“[T]he best way of realising our high ideals is to show that we have an alternative in government that is credible, that is radical and is electable – is neither a pale imitation of what the Tories offer, nor is it the route to being a party of permanent protest, rather than a party of government”.

The problem with this, however, is that the leadership of former UK Labour Parties have not been an ‘alternative in government’. Rather, they are a supplementary to the current government, or perhaps at best, an extension of. This, however, is not said in partisan banter. If it were the former UK Labour Party in government, one could make the same argument. Thus, the key issue is that no matter which side of politics one opts for, voters end up with much of the same.

At its fundamentals, democratic representation holds three characteristics. First, representation invokes a principle-agent relationship where the representative stands for or acts on behalf of the represented. Second, the representative holds political power which can be exercised responsibly, and where the citizenry has some influence upon how the power is exercised. And third, the citizenry have a right to vote for representatives, thus providing a measure for political equality. However, this approach to standardising democratic representation has not evolved with contemporary democracies, which has led to political institutions becoming disconnected with the citizenry.

According to Dalton (1996), “An essential element of democracy is an involved public”. It is the notion that in order for democracy to function, it requires an active citizenry, where through public deliberation and involvement in politics common goals are defined and implemented. Without public involvement in the process, however, democracy lacks in legitimacy and its ability to carry out its function. Putnam (1995) argues that western countries with voluntary voting have seen a 25 per cent decline in the last thirty years. Similarly, political membership in the UK has seen a 75 per cent decline, and Biezen et al. (2012) estimate that in the last thirty years France, Norway, Sweden, Finland, Switzerland and Ireland have seen a 50 per cent decline in party membership. Similarly, reports on Australian party membership numbers have shown that while in the 1950s ALP and Liberal parties held around 350,000 members, both parties currently have an estimated 50,000 members.

However, while voter turnout and party membership are important issues, the symptom should not be mistaken for the condition. The symptom, in this case, is the active participation in formal politics. While the prevalence of political disengagement is a concern, this issue can be dealt with by surface-level interventions such as compulsory voting or incentive-driven membership.

The condition, however, is the prevalence of an anti-political culture. Contemporary political disaffection is not driven by a sense of apathy towards politics or politicians, but rather by a culture of negativity towards them. In considering the first and second points of representation detailed earlier, anti-politics is driven by the notion that the exercising of power by elected representatives is not representative of the citizenry, which renders representatives incapable of standing for or acting on behalf of the represented.

It is this anti-political culture that Malcolm Turnbull and Jeremy Corbyn are harnessing. They understand that politics is no longer ideologically driven, but rather led by the issues of the present day. New world politics no longer marries with old party-led models, nor does it map to traditional democratic processes or institutions. The traditional political landscape allows for structured debates between the representative and his citizenry, with the caveat that the representative chooses the topic of debate, where it is held and how it is conducted. Today however, citizen-led activism is anarchistic and endemic, with political debates occurring on multiple platforms, at various times, and on an array of issues, without it being led by any one or group of people from any background or specialisation.

While some in the Australian Liberal Party and UK Labour Party may argue that giving rise to anti-politicians such as Turnbull and Corbyn sits outside the principles of their party-led ideologies, this in fact may be a good thing. By being an “anti-politician”, they are by definition dissatisfied with formalised political parties, and thus provide an alternate option for the citizenry from traditional party-aligned mentality. In a time where the concept of representation no longer adheres to the three principles outlined above, the rise of anti-politicians may reintroduce a rigour in representation long forgotten.

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3 Responses

  1. Jason says:

    Turnbull and Corbyn are opposites – one’s an extreme left wing radical and the other is a moderate right wing populist.

  2. Paul H says:

    A good read and a good analysis on how two very different people are using the same mechanisms to drive their agendas.

    Jason – not sure if you were just making a statement, otherwise it appears you missed the point. It’s not that both are ideologically the same or different, it’s that they’re using the people’s dissatisfaction of politics to their advantage. Says it all in the first line – ‘New world politics no longer marries with old world party-led models, and now we’re getting politicians to match the changing times’.

  3. Suresh Shandil says:

    “…….politics is no longer ideologically driven, but rather led by issues of the present day….” Well said.

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