17 Jan 2017

Andrew Beer, Dean, Research & Innovation at UniSA Business School , Australia

Chair of the Regional Studies Association


Regions in the ‘Post Truth’ Era – Protest, Protectionism

and the Lost Social Contract

Recently, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) reported that confidence in the nation’s democracy was at a record low as voters have become both disenfranchised and disillusioned with the major political parties.  This news item drew upon the most recent findings of an Australian National University (ANU) study into public trust and confidence in the political process and concluded that more voters than ever in the history of the study – which dates back to 1969 –don’t trust their political leaders and believe they are too interested in promoting their own wellbeing and interests.  There is, of course, significant evidence to support this perception, and on the day I draft this blog Australia’s Health Minister is being called to account for purchasing an apartment on the Gold Coast while on a tax-payer funded business trip. 
Of course, this isn’t a story unique to Australia.  The vote in the UK to exit the European Union and the election of President Trump in the United States has commonly been attributed to a public backlash against conventional policies and politics.  Many commentators have labelled this development as a return to ‘populism’ – as if the need for popular support for politicians and policy in a democracy is somehow both shocking and wrong.  
In Australia alternative political parties and independent Parliamentarians have been growing in number and influence since the mid 1990s, and while much of the focus has been on the emergence of parties with a broadly ‘right’ agenda – the Pauline Hanson One Nation Party, the Liberal Democrats, Family First, the Motorist’s Party and the Fishers and Shooters Party[1] - others make claim to the political ‘centre’ – the Nick Xenophon Party – or the left – the Australian Greens.  
Globally commentators have argued that we live in an era characterised as being ‘the end of conviction politics’, with traditional political cleavages – such as the differences between capital and labour – displaced by an apparent consensus amongst the major political parties on economic and social policy.  The opening up of global markets, the embrace of market mechanisms for determining social and economic outcomes, and the apparently free movement of individuals and households across previously inviolate national borders results in a political landscape where the major political parties struggle to differentiate themselves.  As an Australian political scientist commented many years ago, the choice between the Australian Labor Party and the Liberal Coalition parties often comes down to a choice between Tweedledum and Tweedledee.  The development of career politicians and an all-too-evident political class further reinforces this perception.  It is little wonder that success comes to ‘maverick’ politicians who vow to ‘drain the swamp’.
For an academic and researcher it is distressing to discover that the term ‘post truth’ was dubbed by some media outlets as the word of 2016.  Those of us who have worked for many years focussed on establishing an evidence base on what does, and does not, work in terms of policy, and in creating logical bases for the establishment of major initiatives have been shocked to learn that none of that matters. What counts is ‘the vibe’, the perception that individuals have about their world and their place within it, and no analysis showing that immigration adds to a nation’s wealth or creates additional jobs will shift their opposition to new arrivals within their country. 
Political commentary is interesting in itself, but how does it relate to regions and regional studies? Critically, regions lie at the centre of these political moments.  Anyone who has viewed a map of voting patterns for the US presidential election would be aware that while the east and west coast states largely voted Democrat, the nation’s heartland – centred on, but not limited to, the mid West was overwhelmingly captured by Trump.  In the UK, London voted strongly to remain engaged with the EU, while rural and predominantly northern England was pro Brexit.  The Scots, of course, remain committed Euro-philes.  In Australia, right wing politicians from populist parties are largely drawn from the nation’s non-metropolitan regions, especially those areas adversely affected by economic globalisation. 
And here is the core of the challenge – global economic growth over the past two decades has been driven by both technological change and the globalisation of the economy. There have been winners from this process – with China lifting more than 200 million citizens out of abject poverty since 1990 – but also losers, often located in the traditional manufacturing and agricultural centres of the developed world.  It is the voters from these regions who are reminding us all that popularity is an essential component of political success in democracies.  Many urban centres have benefited from globalisation, but the ‘Triumph of the Cities’ may turn out to be a pyrrhic victory, with new political realities set to challenge their upward trajectory.
Television interviews with voters on the street often capture the sense that individuals struggle to express their views and needs, but know that what is currently on offer does not serve them well.  In their minds, anything different from the status quo would be better.  Many have held onto the belief that there is a ‘social contract’ between themselves and their government that will protect their quality of life and insulate them – to a degree – from unwanted change.  In all likelihood they have never heard of the term social contract, but they know it in their bones.  
So what are we likely to see in the era of ‘post truth’ politics and how will it exert an impact on regions across the globe?  First, and perhaps most importantly, we are almost certainly going to witness a disjuncture in global growth trends.  President Trump has been elected on a protectionist platform, and is already using the most powerful force known to humanity – his Twitter account – to bludgeon multi national corporations to not invest in the developing world and instead ‘reshore’ jobs in the US.  As one set of trade barriers is raised, others will follow and in all likelihood growth patterns will revert to those of the 1970s and 1980s.  At the global scale less developed countries will be badly affected as the growth pathway for exiting poverty will be closed off.  Second, we may see a return to government policy settings from previous decades.  Regional planning – which has languished over the past three decades -  may be called upon as global market forces lose some part of their influence and as national and territorial governments seek to maximise ‘public interest’ outcomes.  Third, the financialisation of the global economy may well slow if checks on the flow of goods and labour are matched by the reintroduction of more stringent financial controls.  This would have a significant impact on many cities whose economies are dependent on financial services.
We can only conclude that we live in interesting times.  The globalisation of the economy has generated social and economic shocks in many regions which have found expression in the world of formal politics.  These processes have been gathering pace over some time, but in 2016 we saw the full impact of their significance for the global economy unveiled for the first time.  In the medium term we will need to carefully watch how conventional political forces respond and reshape themselves in the light of these new challenges.

[1] These names haven’t been invented for the purpose of this blog – all of these parties currently have one or more members sitting in an Australian Parliament.  The Pauline Hanson One Nation Party currently boasts four Senators (subject to internal disputes as well as a High Court decision around the eligibility for election of a bankrupt with criminal convictions recorded against his name).