Brexit Is A Mark Against Scaremongering, Not Democracy

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The heated referendum shows that the messages of hope or fear peddled by our politicians matter greatly, writes Ben Eltham.

As the news from Britain washes over Australia, we southerners cannot help but wonder what it all means.

For Britain, this is a political event of unparalleled significance. It has already triggered the resignation of Prime Minister David Cameron, and wild financial market gyrations. Both the Conservative and Labour parties are in crisis, while the presumptive winners of the vote in the Leave lobby seem astonished at their victory. Whatever happens, Angela Merkel and the leaders of the European Union will drive a cruel bargain with their exiting member. As Germany’s treasurer Wolfgang Schauble said several weeks ago, “out is out.”

In the process, the British referendum has stirred up all manner of dormant tensions. Scotland may press to block the exit, or even for another referendum to leave the United Kingdom. Racial violence has broken out in many parts of England. Progressives and younger voters are struggling to understand what happens next.

But just what it all means for Australia, just four days from a federal election, is anyone’s guess. From the great distance of our vantage point, it is clear that a decision of world-historical importance has been made. But whether it will impact on our own election, and how, remains to be seen.

The consensus in the political classes, and among many in the media, is that Brexit will scare voters into staying with the Coalition – that the renewed uncertainty will convince many to “stick to the plan”, in the words of the Coalition’s campaign slogan.

That could well be true, come Saturday night. But, as the British result showed, anyone who truly claims to know the minds of voters is at best brave, and at worst delusional.

It is possible to construct an argument that Brexit makes no impact on voting preference. Australians are a savvy bunch, and well capable of distinguishing international from local issues. Indeed, you might even posit that Brexit could embolden some voters to go with independents and minor parties, in emulation of English (but not Scottish) citizens who sought to punish the perceived neoliberalism of the London elites.

Former Member for New England, Tony Windsor has today announced he will re-contest his old seat. (IMAGE: Screencap from ABC News 24).
Former Member for New England, Tony Windsor has today announced he will re-contest his old seat. (IMAGE: Screencap from ABC News 24).

There is certainly a mood running against the major parties in this election. A recent Essential poll showed that roughly a quarter of voters will vote for the Greens, independents, or Nick Xenophon. Support for Xenophon in South Australia is running high. The wily Senator looks set to harvest as many as four Senate seats, and has an excellent chance of levering the lower house seat of Mayo into his column.

Nor has there been any appreciable movement in opinion polls between the two major parties. Nearly every major poll shows the Coalition and Labor locked up at 50-50 (or 49-51 to Labor) on a two-party preferred basis. Rough parity will not be enough to deliver Labor victory. But it could be enough to deliver a hung Parliament, as the ALP and the cross-benchers pick up Coalition seats.

Both major parties have scrambled to interpret British events in their favour. Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull has claimed that Brexit highlights the need for stability, which can be guaranteed by re-electing his government. “The shockwaves in the past 48 hours from Britain’s vote to exit the European Union are a sharp reminder of the volatility in the global economy,” he said on Sunday. “At a time of uncertainty, the last thing we need is a parliament in disarray.”

But Labor has a Brexit argument too. The anti-Europe vote is a vote against inequality, Bill Shorten claimed at the National Press Club today. “It comes from a sense of inequality,” he argued. “From people feeling marginalised, forgotten, alienated, left behind by global change. It’s a deep-seeded sense that political promises are wasted words.”

Shorten may be right. Or he may not be. From half a world away, it’s hard to know. The evidence in Britain would suggest that the marginalised and alienated are voting for right-wing parties like UKIP, rather than embracing social democratic parties like British Labour.

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Indeed, the election may well be decided on Saturday night by how many of the disenchanted and alienated the Australian Labor Party can win over to its cause. A strong campaign by Shorten and his team has unquestionably united Labor’s base, particularly in its reservoirs of support in safe Labor seats. But whether this support translates to swinging voters and marginal seats is the critical question. Sources in the Labor campaign are determined, but not particularly optimistic.

One of the most depressing reactions here in Australia to the British vote has been the widespread desire among commentators and progressive voters to blame the British electorate for racism, xenophobia or ignorance. For some voters, such doleful justifications may have been important. But for many, the decision to leave the European Union was a deliberate and legitimate preference.

It’s true that the referendum has been remarkably divisive in Britain. All sorts of social chasms have been exposed: between old and young, city and country, London and the rest of England … most of all, between the winners of economic liberalisation and free trade, and the losers of neoliberal reform in the deindustrialised towns and cities in England’s north.

All of these divisions were exacerbated by a breathtakingly cynical Leave campaign. Exit campaigners such as Michael Gove, Boris Johnson, and Nigel Farage seem to have been utterly unprepared for the consequences of their unexpected victory. Their irresponsibility has been profound.

But many have let their distaste for the verdict of voters slide into hostility to the institution of democracy itself. As Jeff Sparrow argued in a perceptive piece in Overland this weekend, “a remarkable number of progressives directed their anger not at anti-immigrant demagogues and opportunist politicians but against the voters themselves and the very idea of a referendum in which they might express their will.”

Right wing Senator Cory Bernardi.
Right wing Senator Cory Bernardi.

Similar arguments have been made here against the need for a plebiscite on marriage equality. We can agree that the Coalition’s promise of a plebiscite is astonishingly craven: a deal struck by Malcolm Turnbull with hard right Liberals in order to become Prime Minister. Turnbull has also admitted that any plebiscite decision would not be binding on Liberal parliamentarians, meaning they could ignore the will of the people should the plebiscite vote in favour of same-sex marriage. It also seems likely that reactionary pressure groups will employ anti-gay propaganda and hate speech as an integral part of their plebiscite campaign.

None of these are good reasons for shelving a vote on same-sex marriage. As Sparrow points out, the majority of Australians favour marriage reform, and have done so now for a number of years. The problem here is not the mechanism of a popular vote on a controversial social issue: it is the irresponsibility and mendacity of politicians exploiting populist prejudice for political gain. That’s a problem as old as democracy itself.

In any democracy, the road to a better society is long and fraught. It is not always possible for the forces of optimism and generosity to overmatch anger and fear. The solution to this problem is not less democracy, but more. Disdain for the results of a free and fair election is a counsel of despair.

In 2016, it is the Coalition that has tried to campaign on fear and anxiety – of economic decline, border insecurity, or the loathing of refugees. In contrast, and despite the claims that Labor is running a scare on Mediocre, both the ALP and the Greens have run surprisingly positive and optimistic campaigns, whatever their manifest internecine frictions.

The different timbres of the major party campaigns will have important consequences, whoever wins on Saturday night.

The moral tenor of an election campaign does shape the way voters perceive an incoming government. A party can ride to victory on hope and enthusiasm, or it can limp back into office on a wave of indifference.

If Labor does unexpectedly win government after Saturday, Bill Shorten will come to office with a well-developed policy platform, and a message of optimism and egalitarianism.

By contrast, if Malcolm Turnbull falls over the line, he will have little to offer voters except further budget cuts and the pipe-dream of an economic upswing. “Sticking with the plan” will not seem very palatable if the economy runs into trouble. And Turnbull will still lead a divided party, with little political capital left to spend.

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Ben Eltham

Ben Eltham is New Matilda's National Affairs Correspondent.

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