Bob Brown

Bob Brown proved to be very adept at the art of minority politics. Photo: Alex Ellinghausen

Is it a case of Bob Brown to Bob Katter?  

A spectre is haunting Australia – the spectre of populism but too few of the powers of modern Australia are standing up against its menace. It's just too tempting to play along.

Make no mistake about its strengths – a simple catchcry ("the people versus the system"), a plausible account of Australian history ("national development versus globalisation"), and a plethora of local issues and groups charging its batteries. It's a social movement with many faces but one target – liberalism in all its forms, political, social and economic.

There are, of course variations on a theme. Right wing populists tend to focus on social and political liberalism as the enemies but those to the left are more concerned with economic liberalism and development-at-all-costs politics. At the grass roots there is often a good deal of overlap between the two.

In many ways it's all about protectionism – protecting society and its culture from human rights libertarianism and protecting the economy and its workers from the free market. It took a particularly regressive form as "Hansonism" in the late 1990s.

Today it's more sophisticated but no less populist under the leadership of Bob Katter. It has a good base within the Coalition and its left version is well represented by the Greens and parts of the union movement.

The emergence of third forces in Australian politics tells us a good deal about social change. In the 1950s Labor split over religion and socialism and the Democratic Labor Party (the DLP) emerged as an effective prop to Australian conservatism. It pushed the centre of politics to the right.

In the 1970s and 80s the DLP withered on the vine and a plethora of movements supporting human rights and social equality took Australia to the left with the Democrats the new third force.

By the late 1990s it was the turn of the Greens. They became the national leaders for a range of environmental and human rights groups impatient with the compromises being made by the major parties. In 2010 they took centre stage when they formalised an agreement with the Gillard Government. This may be their high point, particularly given the retirement of Bob Brown.

From DLP to Democrats to Greens tells you a lot about how Australian society and the politics associated with it has changed since the end of the Cold War. However, it wasn't just a case of sociology – Bob Santamaria, Don Chipp and Bob Brown proved to be very adept at the art of minority politics. They weren't just good politicians they were very good. It's now Bob Katter's turn to prove his mettle.

What about the situation today? There is still plenty of energy in the movement for liberty and equality (for example the campaign for same-sex marriage) and for environmental sustainability (for example the campaigns against coal seam gas). However, the numbers seem to be shifting in the direction of right-wing populism and I don't believe Bob Katter is just a Queensland phenomenon.

It was always going to be difficult for Labor to consolidate its alternative approach when it won in 2007. John Howard had taken national politics to the right by compromising liberalism in favour of populism. Most notably, however, the workplace was the exception to this rule and the union/Labor campaign against Work Choices proved decisive.

That is all history now. The problem is, in and since its annus horribilis in 2010, Labor has created confusion and uncertainty right at the time when it needed strength and consistency if it was to reverse the tide.

However, when all things are considered Australian voters might reflect on the observation that we are no longer in the more "relaxed and comfortable" 1990's and too many compromises with political, economic and environmental rationality-and that appears to where we are heading-may bring psychic satisfaction in the short term but at the expense of security in the future.

We are the lucky country but we are not that lucky.