Big Ben tolls a warning for Australia
3 Feb 2020|

Brexit! Brexit? Brexit!&#£?

Here is proof of an old Yiddish curse: ‘May you get what you wish for.’

Britain has got its wish: it left the European Union on 31 January.

The hard part starts now. Exit done, Britain must find new entrances.

Rejecting Europe’s version of globalisation and free trade, Britain must now embrace globalisation and free trade. Retaking its ‘sovereignty’, Britain must now negotiate with the sovereignty of others. Out of political turmoil, Britain must remake its politics.

Seeking to escape the austerity mindset of the past decade, Britain faces hard economic choices and the tough truth told by trade flows.

Discarding open borders with Europe, Britain must rethink the meaning of its borders, and what that might bring for Ireland and Scotland.

Choosing its history over its geography, Britain must rethink its history and deal with the demands and blessings of its geography.

As The Economist editorialised:

Britain’s future is full of uncertainty. No longer part of one of the great global blocs, it has to find a new role in the world. Pulled apart by the tensions within the union, its nations need to find a new accommodation. Shaken by the bitter arguments over Brexit, it has to mend its frayed social contract.

Here are my forecasts for Britain bereft by Brexit and the shredding of its traditional grand strategy:

  • Britain will be a weaker international power, with less diplomatic and strategic influence and a smaller role in what Europe does and how Europe acts.
  • With new and permanent barriers on its biggest market, Britain will be relatively poorer than if it had stayed in Europe.
  • The ‘special relationship’ with the US will be less special and less important. A poorer nation with a fainter voice in Europe will have a weaker voice in Washington.

Australia once called Britain the ‘mother country’. Let’s hope the madness is not hereditary. Brexit offers Australia cautionary lessons.

For a view of those cautions, turn to two of our finest: the journalist and author George Megalogenis and Sam Roggeveen, director of the Lowy Institute’s international security program. George provides the foreword for Sam’s new book, Our very own Brexit: Australia’s hollow politics, and where it could lead us.

Both of these public intellectuals are Australians courtesy of the post-war migration waves that make Oz one of the great multicultural nations.

Roggeveen and Megalogenis bring their own lives to discuss the twin perils of an Australian Brexit: stop migration and turn away from our Asian future.

As Megalogenis writes, the Roggeveen warning to the Oz political class is the risk of following Britain and Donald Trump’s America down ‘the dead end of nativism’. The trouble is, Megalogenis notes, nativism has worked at the ballot box, even though the consequences can be catastrophic:

The election of Trump on a platform of bellicose nativism and Britain’s vote to leave the European Union are unmistakable declarations of retreat from a phase of globalisation that favours Asia over the North Atlantic. The challenge for Australia is to separate sympathy for our allies from a pragmatic assessment of our national interest as a rich nation in Asia. This phase of globalisation plays to our natural advantages of mining, education and mass migration.

The open model works for Australia just as it works for Asia.

While not predicting an Oz Brexit, Roggeveen contemplates a scenario produced by Australia’s hollowed-out politics. The worst-case future is a rupture in the multicultural/immigration consensus of the Oz polity.

Our Brexit referendum is a general election that’s a vote on Australia’s future population. One side of politics argues for more immigration; the other erects the ‘no vacancy’ sign.

The question to the voters could sound simple: should Australia have 25 million or 50 million people?

The figures are from the Productivity Commission’s 2016 migrant intake report. With zero migration, Australia’s population in 2060 would be 27 million—similar to today’s 25.5 million, but it’d be an Oz that’s aged and grey. If migration kept to its long-term average, the population in 2060 would be 40 million. If migration grew at the higher average of the past decade, the 2060 population would be 50 million.

Our Brexit choice would be a vote on Australia’s multicultural and increasingly Asian identity. For Roggeveen, embracing immigration would be the nation deciding ‘to remain powerful enough to look after itself in the toughest and most competitive international environment we have ever faced’.

The question would be about much more than 25 million versus 50 million: the population choice is about the sort of people we are and will be.

Roggeveen writes that our national interest is in becoming a larger Australia that inevitably looks less European and more Asian. Here’s his conclusion and his lesson for Oz:

Brexit did not happen because British voters were clamouring for the United Kingdom to cut its ties with Europe; it happened because the political class was too weak to resolve its internal differences and had to call on a disengaged public to mediate. Australia’s future too may hang on the manoeuvrings of a handful of deeply unpopular politicians from parties that are largely isolated from Australian life, and a bored public so detached from the nation’s politics that it fails to grasp the stakes of the desperate wager these politicians are making.

Brexit shows what happens when poor leaders ask their people a simple question about a complex issue. Stupid question can turn into stupid answer.

The Brexit answer became, ‘Stop the world, I want to get off.’

Britain has got off. Now it has to find ways to get on with the world.