Saturday, 25 June 2016

Conversations with your Drunk Uncle - The Meaning of Brexit for Australia


There's a large lot to swallow for political types in yesterday's Brexit vote. A lot more again for people of the left and people of Labo(u)r. But I worry we're going to wind up focussing on the wrong things again, and I worry more that we're not going to have many more chances to learn the lessons.

Because to me, the one, salutory lesson from yesterday's vote was clear: 

Had the Syrian refugee crisis not peaked when it did, Britain would not have voted to leave the EU.


This was, as much as many campaigners on either side attempted to make it not, a vote entirely about the issue of immigration. So Farage's "Rising Tide" poster was one of the key moments of the campaign. Because it was one of the few moments where one felt like the discussion was anywhere near the genuine locomotive issues for most people.

And the real message of that poster was "Turkish muslims are coming to swamp us when they too join the EU." It was perfect because it played into feelings of the EU as a kind of structure "out of control" and misaligned with traditional European national identities. But it also clearly posited "you wanna see another repeat of all these Syrians ..." dovetailing perfectly into anti-muslim sentiment, working class fears over job insecurity, and a sense that EU membership effectively means ceding control of one's national borders.

Europe is Burning, Australia Smoulders

Chatting online with European friends lately, one cannot emphasise how severely the totally unprecedented levels of Syrian refugees the continent has accomodated has led EVEN THE MOST ARDENT MUTICULTURALISTS amongst them to wonder aloud whether we've gone too far. The change has been too profound, the potential risks to our broader social fabric are seen as too great, and too real. In short, ALL the sorts of anxieties that we are all too prepared to call racism when workers exhibit them are now being voiced aloud by liberal left elites all across the continent.

And this resonates with us particularly here in Australia, where immigration and the broader multiculturalist project have become a zone from which politicans have sought to build personal agendas, where they have come to be seen as a kind of political "pet project" of the political elites that working people blame for the broader economic insecurities they are feeling.
"This was not a vote on the undeniable lack of accountability and transparency of the European Union. Above all else, it was about immigration, which has become the prism through which millions of people see everyday problems ... Young remainers living in major urban centres tend to feel limited hostility towards immigration; it could hardly be more different for older working-class leavers in many northern cities and smaller towns."
-Owen Jones, The Guardian 

Every inner city hippie type who opposes "stopping the boats" needs to heed this message, and stop listening with condescention to the people delivering it. Your outrage against "racist" immigration policies and "dog whistling" is only convenient to you because it turns your opponent's argument into a unidimensional charicature.


Because if you're fighting racists then you've already won the argument, right? Well that only works at Uni in debating club. Try retrofitting that into a world where you need to win over actual living, breathing, sentient beings before you can win ANYTHING and it's simply yourself and your own argument that wind up losing.

We're mapping a whole raft of different phenomena here, but one of the crucial ones for Labor people in Australia is that we URGENTLY need to start showing that we understand the economic frustrations, but more importantly we need to give people a much better sense that we have an actual plan capable of addressing them.

Who owns "globalisation"? The left turns up to protest it vehemently. The populist right pillory it as ceding control of nationhood and economic independence, and millions of people worldwide suspect it's a process that directly threatens their best interests. There was a time when Labor would have done anything to attach itself to a mast of that size, but that it would be reticent to do so today tells you how badly our political culture has declined. Any Keating-scale headline policy would be eschewed by modern federal Labor as too ambitious, and Keating's experience would be cited.

But did we ever bother going through what Keating actually got wrong in how he sold his agenda before we declared big agendas "too difficult". For this author, no, and not by a very long way.

Modern Australians - Keating's Illegitimate Offspring

Everyone remembers but nobody understands the meaning of Keating's "banana republic" speech. It was a specific call to "open the economy up, or become yesterday's backwater". And it was an absolutely essential prescription. If you don't remember growing up in Australia in the early 80s, you won't properly remember a time when "Australian" meant "like the rest of the world, but a bit shitter", when the "cultural cringe" was a real phenomenon induced in you every time "Australian-ness" was ever invoked on a global stage.

That backward, insular Australia died in public policy terms at the end of Keating's political vorpal sword, but he totally failed to bring the people most impacted by those policies to see and understand their benefits. By the time he'd gotten around to "the recession we had to have" - and that was really just another (worse) way of phrasing the banana republic speech - nobody was listening to the policy headlines because they were too busy bearing its negative impacts.

We need to spend some actual time talking to people about why an open, not a closed, economy is crucial for Australia to prosper - being a huge landmass with a tiny domestic economy in global terms, it's not a difficult argument to make. Your kids will have a better future in a more open Australia.

But we very urgently need to understand that for so long as workers feel that their current job insecurity is the coin used to purchase that future then they are not going to sign on to the vision. And they are going to take every opportunity to blacken the eyes of the "political classes" untill we show some sign that we appreciate this.

Calling people racists who are afraid that we've ceded control of our immigration policy is completely misguided. Because failing to understand what's actually going on that comprehensively almost always ensures you'll seek out the least effective response. You're most certainly going to respond with the least persuasive discourse for your actual target audience.

Explaining to people how this is neither true, nor the source of their insecurity should be the easiest thing in the world if political classes took their role as PERSUADORS seriously. Instead our political cultures seek out great "revelators" and autodidacts, our internal party processes do everything BUT reward persuasion and argument as a skill. Why the hell would you need either of THOSE qualities to secure an ALP safe seat preselection? All you need is the tap from George Seitz ...

We urgently need to change this tune, because there are as many people in Australia as in the UK looking for something more substantial than just putting Pauline Hanson back in Parliament to bash us about the head with. Who can say for sure they'll never have a wrecker's moment on a Brexit scale?

And who would declare they entirely blame them?