A May 2018 survey of 527 people by the Online Research Unit, commissioned by long-time Labor strategist, Bruce Hawker, revealed growing disaffection with the two major Australian parties and a rise in populism that according to The Age, “mirrors trends in Europe and the rise of Donald Trump in the US…” Only 28 per cent of respondents believed Australia was “heading in the right direction” but far more disturbingly, 30 per cent agreed that they were prepared to weaken democracy if this could “get things done”. However, somewhat reassuringly, 47 per cent disagreed.

But what of the 30 per cent who agreed? What is their perspective based on? How and why do they believe encroaching on democratic values would ipso facto enhance their lives for the better? Hawker cited that “Those looking for stronger leadership sought politicians who would ‘act like adults and not like primary school children’”, but what do they subsume about “stronger” leadership? What implicit attitudes, behaviours and moreover, policies and laws are enshrined in their concept of strength?

Fairfax Media international editor, Peter Hartcher, wrote in The Age on May 15, 2018, that “The rise of the “strongman” political leader continues to gather force, part of the trend to authoritarianism across the world.” In his article, he quotes the survey proposition to respondents that “Australia needs a strong leader who will govern for everyone” and nine out of ten people agreed. Hartcher comments this is “startling” as it is “double the proportion who wanted more spending on healthcare, for instance.” He goes on to posit that “Perhaps an Aussie Trump, Duterte (The Philippines) or Orban (Hungary) is not such a remote possibility after all.”

I can only ponder is it? Reading about authoritarian trends in countries such as The Philippines and Hungary, they are but two of a plethora of nations who have embraced what I believe is totalitarian rule engendered through fraudulent and corrupt elections and abysmally ignorant people with unrealistic and naïve aspirations easily deluded by an apparent visage of strength masquerading as a caring and compassionate commitment to its populace. Be it communist or fascist in its implementation of policies, laws and behaviours, the leaders of these countries espouse convincing rhetoric that sounds reasonable, even rational, but closer analysis of their oratory often reveals a sham scenario with fake facts and self-aggrandisement at its core.

The tragedy is that increasing numbers of people in Asia, America, the UK, Eastern and Western Europe, Africa and South America, are duped into believing it. Their willingness to accept an image of strength as authentic is quietly horrifying based on ignorance not just about realpolitik, but the psychology of extremism and democracy itself. Sadly, this ignorance is creeping into Australia and becoming more pervasive as the Hawker survey illustrates.

Hartcher quotes Sydney University political scientist, John Keane, who is undertaking a project on what he calls the “new despotism” and claims “strongman” leaders in democracies, though I can only wonder why he even calls them such, “share …urges and many…behaviours” of despotic regimes. Is it all shades of grey and about what’s relative?

I’ve written heaps before about some of these issues but I write now because it is even more imperative that political education that involves learning how totalitarian countries operate and what democracy actually encompasses, is made compulsory at senior level in secondary schools across Australia. As voting is compulsory, people MUST learn to perceive the difference between “supposed” strength, usually based on oppression, persecution and imprisonment of opponents among other things, and real strength which permits genuine dissent, criticism and conflict about proposed policies and laws. This to me is the moral integrity of democracy, where ordinary people can speak out about what they believe is inimical or antipathetic to their agenda. This learning presupposes firstly, appreciating there IS indeed a difference between supposed strength and strength that’s sincere and understanding how it manifests in practice. Secondly, it demands possessing psychological insights, some at least, into authoritarian behaviours that should be highlighted in political education.

One of the most obvious manifestations of authoritarian and/or totalitarian government control is how a country’s media operates, clearly evident in China, Russia, and North Korea among others, but is increasingly censored in a large number of nations across the world. Keane suggests that many of these authoritarian leaders are not in tin pot regimes with crude manipulation of the press and heavy-handed censorship. They are more modern and more subtle in their management of information and sentiment: “state of the art censorship”, he calls it.

Hartcher says Keane believes authoritarians saturate social media with their own interpretations of events, as well as feeding into traditional media outlets, creating simulated debates that serve their own purposes. “They allow spaces for dissent, especially on the internet, because it serves as an early warning detector for trouble coming.” The salient truth is that the Australian traditional media, as I personally experienced it from my first few weeks as a cadet journalist in Melbourne fifty years ago, and even more so currently where my opinions and views are apparently unacceptable, exercises censorship, at times more blatantly than others. I have received, if I even get a response, lucid lies as reasons for the rejection of my articles, while my letters are just presumably deleted. Despite this media not being state-controlled or owned, all the outlets ostensibly present dissent and different views, but within very specific political perspectives that while not mirroring the exact agenda of the proprietors and commentators, are not that contentious. Just one example is about Israel and the Palestinians as I have written what I considered balanced appraisals of my experience living in Israel, both in an article and in a letter to The Australian. Suffice to say neither were published because I find the present Israeli government as reprehensible as some of the Palestinians, albeit both violent and perpetrating madness, acknowledging at the same time how complex the issue is. Other articles have been more innocuous but similarly not published. The politics of the traditional media in this country certainly practises censorship, though I would not call it “state of art”; it’s very obvious as I am undoubtedly regarded negatively, even maliciously, by many in the media.

It is a sad state of affairs that permeates this country in many aspects and I can only hope that political education in all its complexity and confusion becomes part of a compulsory curriculum before populism presides in our parliament.