Brexit’s lessons for Australia

By Sayomi Ariyawansa

Though the advance of the Leave campaign was worrying, from the bubble of Cambridge where I lived at the time, the idea that Britain would actually vote for Brexit seemed unthinkable. Even in the early hours of 24 June 2016, with early vote counts foreshadowing the eventual result, mutual reassurances were made: “Don’t worry. It won’t happen.”

This attitude is perhaps one manifestation of the overall apathy of the Remain campaign to the resurgent nationalism that the Leave campaign marshalled into eventual victory. Indeed, the Lord Ashcroft polls concerning how Britain voted (and why) charts a stark and close connection between nationalism and Brexit: 81 per cent of Leave voters considered multiculturalism a force for ill (while 71 per cent of Remain voters considered it a force for good); 80 per cent of Leave voters considered immigration a force for ill (while 79 per cent of Remain voters considered it a force for good); and, interestingly, 79 per cent of those who considered themselves to be “English” rather than “British” voted for Brexit.

One thing is resoundingly clear about the referendum result: so-called “mainstream” politics in Britain has failed to engage the vast swathe of its citizens who are disaffected by Project Europe and what it is perceived to represent.

Nationalism can be an ugly, hostile phenomenon. The antipathy it generates for immigrants is truly frightening.

But what does any of this mean for Australia? Firstly, we must ourselves be primed for resurgent nationalism, as evident by the recent success of the One Nation party, and its consequences, which potentially include the resurgence of racist attacks as seen in Britain since the referendum. Secondly, and more fundamentally, we must avoid the trap of dismissing this resurgent nationalism as mere irrationality and simple racism alone.

Too often Leave voters were derided as bigoted, provincial simpletons. But research by Lisa McKenzie suggests the picture is far more complicated. She notes, “the referendum debate within working-class communities is not about immigration, despite the rhetoric. It is about precarity and fear,” and she argues that for them “talking about immigration and being afraid of immigration is about the precarity of being working class, when people’s basic needs are no longer secure and they want change.”

Many are facing the impact of zero-hour employment contracts, and perceive themselves to be undercut by nationals from the A8 countries (said to be willing to do more work for less pay). Moreover, amidst the European Union workplace laws, decisions by the European Court of Justice (see Laval and Viking) have clearly placed a primacy on an employer’s right to freedom of enterprise at the expense of workers’ rights. There are valid concerns that the European Union has not led to any convergence in social rights when it comes to labour law, but rather has facilitated a race to the bottom.

The Remain campaign simply failed to engage with these concerns in any meaningful way, instead confining its discussion to loftier economic impacts of leaving the EU that did not resonate with most voters.

The irony, however, is that the abandonment of European Union is no panacea to these legitimate concerns. More likely, things will get worse rather than better. The Leave campaign did not represent any attempt to address the issues raised above, but rather sought a mandate to “return to full-blown Thatcherism … and turn Britain into a neoliberal fantasy island.” Further, this precarity and fear is simply not the product of Britain being a member of the European Union, but rather of a growing and global move towards more fissured workplaces and cost-cutting measures wherever possible.

What Brexit demonstrates is the importance of engaging with the substantive societal problems for which immigrants are scapegoated.

In Australia, these concerns about a race to the bottom are also very much alive, and several reports have demonstrated that precarity in the workplace is on the rise. But it has also been noted that Australian policy-makers have made significant efforts to safeguard foreign workers from exploitation, as it has been recognised that enabling the underpayment and/or abuse of migrant workers will inevitably lead to driving down working conditions for local workers.

Nonetheless, recent investigations into the Australian agricultural industry and certain franchises have demonstrated failures to protect migrant workers, suggesting that there is much more work to be done on this front. Notwithstanding this, the message is about better and more effective employment regulations, rather than stripping them away – and certainly not a retreat to a neoliberal model that would only make these problems worse.

The recent spike in overt racist attacks after the vote for Brexit demonstrates that the resurgence of nationalism can be an ugly, hostile phenomenon. The antipathy it generates for immigrants is truly frightening. The accompanying rejection of multilateralism and regionalism is also short-sighted and deeply problematic. But what Brexit demonstrates is the importance of engaging with the substantive societal problems for which immigrants are scapegoated. Australia must also heed this lesson.


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