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Our Very Own Brexit: Response to reviewers

The major parties struggle to attract members so are prone to crazy ideas in a bid to claw back voters (Photo: Stefan Postles/Getty Images)
The major parties struggle to attract members so are prone to crazy ideas in a bid to claw back voters (Photo: Stefan Postles/Getty Images)
Published 13 Dec 2019 11:00   2 Comments

Based on the reactions which Our Very Own Brexit has provoked here on The Interpreter, in the media, and on the book-launch circuit, I have two regrets about the “Australian Brexit” scenario that forms the centrepiece of the book.

The first is actually less a regret than a creeping doubt: I have begun to wonder if the title of the book is not quite the masterstroke of provocative marketing that I had congratulated myself on. That’s because the actual Brexit, the one still tearing Britain apart, is now so insanely complicated that even dedicated followers of politics are switching off and saying “Wake me when it’s over”.

My second regret is that the book wasn’t clearer about the fact that, if the Australian Brexit scenario I describe in the book ever took place, it would be because our political parties are in decline, not because of a widespread right-wing populist movement. Actually, that’s a lie. I’m confident that I made this point abundantly clear, yet both Greg Sheridan at The Australian and Peter Hartcher at the Sydney Morning Herald (twice) misread this key point.

What sets the Trump election and the Brexit referendum apart is not that they represent the rise of “extremism”, because the evidence for that claim is a bit thin. Rather, what marks both of them out is that they represent the rejection of political elites.

I’m not mad at them. Both produce more writing in a week than I can summon in a good month. They’re entitled to make mistakes, and in any case correcting them gave me an opportunity to plug the book on Twitter and now humble-brag to Interpreter readers about the high-powered columnists quoting my work.

The best compliment I can pay Nicholas Gruen’s thoughtful review is that I wish I could have stolen a few of his lines, especially his definition of a “Brexit moment”: “some action that the overwhelming bulk of the political class regard(s) in their heart of hearts as crazy”.

The political class, however, is not always right. So although I have been attracted to Gruen’s “citizen jury” idea since he introduced me to it some years ago, I’m not sure he is selling the idea when he aligns it so closely with causes that our political elites would endorse (e.g. welcoming of immigrants and refugees; against Brexit). The problem I identified in the book is that the party-political class in Western democracies has become a separate caste with few connections to a social or economic base; Brexit shows what happens when the policy preferences shared by that caste runs too far ahead of the public.

The solution to that problem cannot simply be to re-engineer our politics so that it becomes easier to entrench the preferred policies of the elite. If we’re going to take citizen juries seriously, we will have to allow for the possibility that from time to time they will come up with proposals that won’t align with the elite consensus.

Albury, NSW (Photo: denisbin/Flickr)

Moreover, for the foreseeable future there is simply no escaping the fact that (1) our system places political parties at its centre, and (2) our major parties are in systemic decline. Citizen juries are a noble idea, but they cannot change this basic fact. Both Gruen and John West in his review rightly chide me for failing to come up with solutions to this two-part problem. Perhaps the best I can suggest is to look at the way American, British, and European party politics is now evolving. Old political parties are either giving way to new ones (e.g. Germany’s declining duopoly versus the rising Greens and the populist AfD), or reinventing themselves as the GOP has done under Trump and as the Tory party is doing under Boris Johnson by becoming an explicitly pro-Brexit force with increasing appeal to the working class.

Mind you, neither the new parties nor the redefined old ones can count on a stable social and economic base the way that their industrial-age equivalents did. As Judith Brett says in her review, involvement in politics is becoming more intermittent and issue-based, which means old parties are likely to give way to movements based either around a specific issue or a charismatic leader. They probably won’t last as long as the old parties have.

If that all seems unlikely for Australia, where our duopoly has been so stable, consider the fact that our two big parties are both creatures of the Cold War and of an industrial era that has been swept away by globalisation. The Liberal and Labor parties are now shells of these former movements. As they decline, they become less stable and more vulnerable to extremist factions and minor parties – it was fear of his own Eurosceptics and the rise of Nigel Farage’s UKIP that persuaded David Cameron to hold the fateful 2016 Brexit referendum.

Brett says that, thanks to compulsory voting, Australia is unlikely to face an equivalent scenario of the kind I describe in Our Very Own Brexit. But even though compulsory voting tends to discourage appeals to the political extremes, it is not preventing the erosion of the major party base – a record 25% of us placed our primary vote with an independent or minor party at the 2019 election.

It is the decline of the parties that is destabilising our politics and which could trigger the scenario I set out, not a rise in political extremism. Yes, elections are won in the middle here, and our large immigrant population makes it hard to imagine that Australia would ever vote for a total stop to our immigration program, which is the scenario in the book.

But to me, what sets the Trump election and the Brexit referendum apart is not that they represent the rise of “extremism”, because the evidence for that claim is a bit thin. Rather, what marks them out is that they are a protest against a political elite to which they feel no connection. Australian voters are yet to do the same, probably because our elites have performed better. But the level of voter dissatisfaction with the major parties, and their disenchantment with politics generally, suggests it is just a matter of time.

We’ve already had Our Very Own Brexit

Sydney Opera House (Photo: Martin Snicer/Flickr)
Sydney Opera House (Photo: Martin Snicer/Flickr)
Published 6 Dec 2019 13:00   2 Comments

In what we now see in retrospect as something of a political “golden age” – say from the early 20th century through to the 1980s or so – political parties were the institution through which the political aspirations of different sections of the community were articulated and conveyed to the commanding heights of government. Millions of members joined those parties, which were embedded in the community alongside churches, unions, and business associations. 

Yet as Sam Roggeveen has described in Our Very Own Brexit, “hollowing out” has now inverted that process. Senior officers of the parties now comprise a political caste, the majority of whom secured their parliamentary position within their party’s career structure with scant achievements elsewhere.

Each party manages their “brand”, and politics has become a Punch and Judy show. We barrack for our side if we have one – or our point of view in innumerable improvised or staged culture-war skirmishes. We cheer and boo, tweet and retweet. 

The governance that emerges from this is an uncanny mix of stasis and instability. Stasis because, at least when seeking their votes, each party hews to a small target strategy on policy while probing for ways to misrepresent and catastrophise their opponents’ policies and purposes. Instability because “we the people” so hate it all.

Scott Morrison performs in parliament (Photo: Michael Masters/Getty Images)

We tell ourselves that the pollies are only in it for themselves. There’s truth in that. But also evasion. They’re victims too. The lead players in the show could be living much more prosperous, happy lives out of the madhouse. We fancy we deserve better than this as we sit in the stalls munching our popcorn. Indeed we do. Yet our clicks and our tweets – above all our votes – drive the whole system. Ultimately we decide who represents us and the terms on which they do. 

The most significant achievement of Australian voters’ emphatic decision at the 2013 election was the abolition of carbon pricing, which had taken a decade of political struggle to be absorbed into the apparent political security of bipartisan consensus.

Whenever a political party offers a skerrick of leadership – whenever they depart, however cautiously, from their traditional “small target” or “comms” strategies of relentless manipulation and tendentious evasion, they’re easy meat for the scare campaigns and outrage machines of their party political and ideological opponents. 

Roggeveen’s definition of what constitutes “a Brexit” for his purposes is situated within his own, and the Lowy Institute’s focus on Australia’s external relations. I would characterise the UK’s Brexit moment and the US’s Trump moment more generally as the point at which the electorate perpetrated some action that the overwhelming bulk of the political class regarded in their heart of hearts as crazy. 

If that’s your definition, then just as Australia led the world in various aspects of economic policy – such as income-contingent loans, community strategies on AIDS, and the strengthening and targeting of welfare – our rendezvous with political crazy predates its moment elsewhere in the Anglosphere by three years.

For the most significant achievement of Australian voters’ emphatic decision at the 2013 election was the abolition of carbon pricing, which had taken a decade of political struggle to be absorbed into the apparent political security of bipartisan consensus. It’s demise has plunged our energy sector into crisis and dysfunction. And it’s rarely noted by the commentariat (why am I not surprised?), but it’s also costing our budget more than $10 billion annually and rising. 

Of course simply painting the picture Roggeveen does is useful. Yet if he has any ideas about how we might fight our way out of this frightening situation, he’s not telling. Perhaps like so many others, he wants more “leadership”. Perhaps we need a hero – someone with immense political talents who, having clambered up the greasy pole, still wants to achieve something and retains the authority over their party, the parliament, and the community to achieve it.

But how likely is that in a political culture that almost never lets an act of leadership go unpunished?  

Street art in Fitzroy, Melbourne “East Timor” (Photo: Melbourne Street Art Avantgarde/Flickr)

The one thing that gives me some hope is the existence of another democratic tradition which lies dormant in our political culture for centuries but remains healthy as a pillar of our legal system. Those empanelled on a jury represent us, not by flattering us to win our vote, but more simply by being chosen from among us.

The makeup of a jury is more substantively representative than parliament, with far more of the young, the old, and the less well-healed. Selection by lot was a central mechanism through which the ancient Athenians secured the great political principle they called “isegoria” or equality of speech. It has been driven to extinction in the great political hollowing out. 

We’ve learned to distrust those competing for our votes, and those with different ideologies. But when we meet together in citizens’ juries, our trust in each other comes flooding back. For instance, when around 250 Texan citizens chosen at random deliberated in 1996 on various questions including whether they should pay between $2 and $5 more for electricity to increase renewables’ market share. With 52% agreeing before deliberation, 84% agreed afterwards, with such exercises making a material contribution to Texas – under Governor George W. Bush – leading many other states and installing 1,000 megawatts of renewable energy generation. 

The evidence suggests that similar methods would have demonstrated a contrast between the opinion of the people, and their considered opinion on Brexit. In late 2017, 50 Britons randomly selected to exemplify the referendum’s 52:48 Brexit vote swung to 40:60 against after deliberation, with not one of them swinging the other way. Something similar happened in a deliberative poll in 2010.

And yes, what evidence we have suggests that this mechanism offers a useful means of tackling Roggeveen’s specific concerns. Just three months ago America in One Room brought together a “state-of-the-art scientific sample” of 523 Americans for a weekend’s deliberation in small groups on five critical policy areas. As the organisers reported:

There were dramatic changes of opinion. The most polarizing proposals, whether from the left or the right, generally lost support, and a number of more centrist proposals moved to the foreground.

And for those seeking to avoid our very own Brexit, there’s good reason to take heart. The deliberations elicited a more welcoming position on both legal and illegal immigration, mostly due to a softening from the right. Deliberation reduced support for cutting refugee intake from 37% to 22% with Republicans’ support dropping from 66% to 34%. Republican support for increasing skilled immigration rose from 50% to 71% (and overall support from 60% to 80%). Republicans also shifted from 31% supporting low-skilled immigration for industries that need it to 66%, with overall support for this policy rising from 53% to 77%.

Jury of 8

My conclusion from all this is that if we’re to avoid our next Brexit, according to my definition, we need to bring citizens’ assemblies into our existing constitution as a check and balance. But existing politicians who’ve worked hard won’t let go of any power they’ve acquired lightly. The beauty of this agenda is that huge strides can be made from outside the system. 

A privately funded but independently governed standing citizens’ assembly could surface the considered opinion of the people alongside all those polls that currently measure their unconsidered opinion. And the evidence suggests that swings taking place in such a body would affect voters and, in consequence, their elected representatives. I doubt the abolition of carbon pricing would have made it through the Senate once a citizens’ assembly had twigged to the unseriousness of what was to replace it.

Given that and the fact that the Lowy Institute is one of Australia’s best-funded think tanks, I’d like to see it take the lead. It could do so with a citizens’ assembly such as America in One Room focused on immigration.

Though we have a decade’s experience of advisory citizens’ juries which is very promising, we’ve barely begun to fill out the repertoire of political institutions according to this alternative way of representing the people. But it’s possible to reimagine virtually every political institution to which electoral representation has given rise according to the alternative logic of isegoria or equality of speech.

The Lowy Institute could fund a standing citizens’ assembly on immigration. It could announce its intention to fund a citizens’ assembly whenever any Australian government was considering any combat deployment of Australian troops abroad. It could fund a joint citizen’s assembly of (say) 25 Australians and 25 East Timorese to deliberate together on the relations between our two countries. Despite the tiny size of Timor-Leste, such an exercise could have a powerful demonstration effect.

Some enterprising philanthropists might replicate the experiment somewhere where it really could change the course of global history. They might convene a citizens’ assembly of Chinese and American citizens to deliberate in the first instance, on the impasse the two countries find themselves at on trade. But that could be a precedent for numerous similar exercises on subjects about which Roggeveen is anxious. And he’s far from alone.   

It’s not hard to identify problems we’d have to take into account in pursuing some of these courses. I’d rather have seen a citizens’ assembly on Timor-Leste a decade ago. And the Chinese Communist Party might be able to exercise a stronger influence on the Chinese representatives than America’s government could exercise on its own. But such obstacles are always encountered where we explore new territory. They almost never render us powerless. This one could be ameliorated, though not completely solved, by secret balloting. 

Personally I can’t see a happy future for any of us if we don’t set our minds and our hearts on evolving institutions that are a little more hospitable to what Abraham Lincoln so sublimely summoned up just by naming them: the better angels of our nature.

Hollowed out, but not unhinged

Party loyalty is not what it once was (Photo: Chris Hood/Flickr)
Party loyalty is not what it once was (Photo: Chris Hood/Flickr)
Published 3 Dec 2019 08:00   1 Comments

Sam Roggeveen has written a lively essay on the current state of Australian federal politics, centred on the hypothetical scenario that one of the two major parties takes an anti-immigration policy to an election, overturning Australia’s post-war bipartisan commitment to immigration to gain political advantage. Such an election would be a referendum on continuing population growth, and bring to a halt our cultural diversification and our integration into Asia, which is now the largest source of permanent new settlers.

It sounds unlikely, but as Roggeveen argues, both Brexit and the election of Donald Trump were unlikely, rogue events that have overturned political assumptions. His scenario is not a prediction, he stresses, but a plausible, worst-case scenario arising from the current state of our political parties.

A minor party might succeed with an anti-immigration policy, but neither major party could afford the electoral risk.

Our two major parties have become “hollowed out”, Roggeveen argues, untethered from their traditional social bases in class-based interests. Party membership and party loyalty have declined, leaving a more volatile and skittish electorate potentially vulnerable to the anti-immigration siren song of a party desperate to gain electoral advantage.

There are two parts to this argument. The first is that the parties have become hollowed out; the second that it is plausible that one of the major parties break the bipartisan support for the migration program.

First, the evidence is clear for the decline in rusted-on party loyalty. However, Roggeveen does not, to my mind, have a sufficiently nuanced understanding of the reasons for this decline and writes as if it is mainly the result of a deficient political class.

In the early 20th century, when our current party system took shape, it made social and economic sense to have two parties based on two class blocks. Working and middle class, employee and employer, labour and capital – these spoke both to people’s everyday experience and sense of themselves and to competing economic interests. This is no longer the case. More than a hundred years later, Australia’s society and its economy are much more complex.

In developing their policies, parties have to broker compromises among various competing interests, and this undertaking is much harder today. To take a stark example: the problem Labor has in developing policies responsive both to its traditional union base and to the middle-class social democrats who flocked to the party with Gough Whitlam. Compared with the early 20th century, lines of class division have blurred, and new lines of difference have been politicised: gender, race, ethnicity, attitude to nature, and, after the fading of sectarianism, religion again. If the parties are failing, it is in part because the task of uniting disparate constituencies is harder.

One response has been the election of independents and the rise of smaller parties such as the Greens and One Nation. These could be taken as signs of dysfunction – their emergence the result of the failures of the major parties. Or they could be seen as functional responses to increasing complexity, bringing the interests of variously constituted minorities into the parliament and fostering compromise policy solutions.

On the decline in party membership, it is also worth noting that this is part of a larger social change in which people do not commit to local organisational membership in the ways they once did. This is why organisations such as Get Up are successful. Involvement is intermittent and issue-based, suited to the way many people now organise their lives.

Second, I do not find it plausible that one of the major parties would break the bipartisan consensus on immigration. A minor party might succeed with an anti-immigration policy, but neither major party could afford the electoral risk. The 2016 Census reported that 49% of the Australian population was either foreign-born or had at least one foreign-born parent. Not all of these people will be on the electoral roll, but all who are citizens will be, and once on the roll, they will have to vote.

Because of compulsory voting, Australian parties do not need highly emotional and divisive policies to get out the vote, and to support them carries considerable risks. Both Brexit and the election of Trump occurred in polities with voluntary voting, where it makes electoral sense to risk courting an alienated minority. There is no doubt there is a nativist faction in Australia that would support a stop to immigration, but Australian elections are won and lost in the middle, which is occupied by increasing numbers of foreign-born voters and their children.

Also holding the major parties to their consensus on immigration is its contribution to the economy. Australia’s recent sluggish economic growth would be even slower were it not for migration. The housing and retail sectors in particular would be sharply affected by its halt. Our two major political parties may be untethered from their historical social bases, but they are not unhinged from contemporary economic reality.

Shock therapy: why Australia needs a political jolt

A hard look at the state of politics in Australia might avoid our own “black swan” event (Photo: Vandan Patel/unsplash)
A hard look at the state of politics in Australia might avoid our own “black swan” event (Photo: Vandan Patel/unsplash)
Published 26 Nov 2019 06:00   0 Comments

In recent years, the world has witnessed a number of “black swan” events – surprises with massive implications for the particular countries involved and also the international system. The global financial crisis, Brexit, and the election of Donald Trump to the US presidency are the most prominent ones.

Australia could also be vulnerable to a black swan event, with damaging implications, according to the Lowy Institute’s Sam Roggeveen, in his recent paper Our Very Own Brexit. Roggeveen posits a scenario where “one of the two major political parties overturns Australia’s bipartisan compact on immigration by advocating for an indefinite stop to Australia’s immigration program, and takes that position to an election”.

This would amount to a de facto referendum on Australian population growth. Roggeveen is quick to stress that this is not a prediction, but “a plausible worst-case scenario”. And as in the case of Brexit, the Australian public could give “the wrong answer”. As they did in the 1999 republic referendum, Australians might “take the opportunity to lodge a protest vote against a political elite they increasingly distrust”.

Awareness and open discussion can only be helpful in managing risks, and hopefully fixing some of the problems in Australian politics.

It is a provocative idea, one I have discussed with a number of colleagues who, regrettably, mostly seem to see Roggeveen’s analysis as scaremongering in a country which has now returned to political stability and which is proudly multicultural. The basis of this criticism appears to be a fear that the assessment could be twisted by anti-immigration extremists to suggest that a representative of a mainstream and respectable organisation like the Lowy Institute is proposing that Australian voters should be given the opportunity to express their views on the size of Australia’s immigration intake – thereby fostering a potentially self-fulfilling prophesy.

But this is wrong. Roggeveen is right to highlight what he describes as the “hollowed-out” state of contemporary politics in Australia, and the many risks that this engenders. Awareness and open discussion of this can only be helpful in managing these risks, and hopefully fixing some of the problems in Australian politics.

Traditional centre-right and centre-left parties are in long-term decline, as they are increasingly abandoned by the public. A Labor Party that represented trade unions and Liberal Party formed to represent capital stems from a world that no longer exists, and consequently party membership is dwindling to very low numbers. At the 2019 election, the primary vote share for independents and minors reached its highest-ever point, at 25.2%.

Polling day (Photo: Takver/Flickr)

In response to hollowing out, Australia’s major political parties have also retreated and become professional organisations, increasingly reliant on state funding. “But as the parties weaken, they become more unstable, more vulnerable to their ideological extremes, and more motivated to grasp for opportunities for approval from an eroding base”, argues Roggeveen. This is how Bexit occurred, and how an indefinite stop to Australia’s immigration program could too.

Roggeveen believes (as I do) that for Australia to thrive in “an era of rising Asian giants”, it needs to shore up its middle-power status in order to defend itself and its interests, at a time when the US will steadily reduce its commitment to the Asia-Pacific and to the ANZUS alliance. And a high-immigration program that boosts economic growth is the only realistic way of doing that. Australia cannot rely on natural population increase to boost its economy, as the country’s present fertility rate of 1.8 children per woman is already below the “replacement rate” of 2.1.

Roggeveen’s paper is important in several respects. With democracy now under threat in too many countries, hopefully Roggeveen’s arguments can inspire Australia’s elites and especially its youth to take our democracy more seriously.

Indeed, we have much to fight for. According to the Economist Intelligence Unit, Australia is one of only 20 “full democracies” in the world. The last thing that we need is to slip back to the status of a “flawed democracy”, as the US has now done.

The paper also highlights the grave risks of flippantly calling referenda on complex policy issues such as immigration or Brexit that excite extremists and populists, and that carry major security risks for a country such as Australia.

But Roggeveen is pessimistic, in that his brilliant analysis of the challenges is not really matched with proposals to solve them. “There is no obvious way out for Australia, so perhaps the best we can hope for is that one of the major parties finds an exceptional leader who can not only manage a less disciplined party and a bigger parliamentary crossbench, but also bridge the yawning gap between politics and the party”, writes Roggeveen. But he continues “the likelihood that such a leader can emerge from one of our major parties is declining”.

Yet a key to avoiding the destabilising shock of a surprise is to be forewarned, and in that, Roggeveen’s paper is an important wake-up call.

In conversation: Weak parties, hollow politics, and democratic danger

People have increasingly stopped identifying with the big political parties (Photo: Australian Embassy Jakarta/Flickr)
People have increasingly stopped identifying with the big political parties (Photo: Australian Embassy Jakarta/Flickr)
Published 13 Nov 2019 06:00   1 Comments

This is an edited and abridged transcript of the launch of Sam Roggeveen’s new Lowy Institute Paper Our Very Own Brexit, held last week at the National Gallery of Victoria in Melbourne with prominent social commentator and award-winning journalist George Megalogenis.

George Megalogenis

Normally, the Lowy Institute is externally focused with implications for Australia. But you’ve reversed the lens for this particular work. You’ve started looking locally and drawing international implications.

Sam Roggeveen

I think the best way to describe my approach is to think of an analogy. If I was talking about a book that I had written about, say, contemporary Egyptian politics, then you would probably hope that a book like that had something to say about the Muslim Brotherhood, the Sunni–Shia divide, or about Egypt’s relations with Israel or about America. So, in other words, a book about contemporary Egyptian politics which doesn’t look beyond the boundaries, the national boundaries of Egypt, is an incomplete one.

And yet it is striking to me how seldom we adopt that kind of approach when we look at Australian politics. But as an international affairs specialist, I thought, well, let’s start on the outside and then work our way in. And it seems to me when you do that, you come to actually quite different conclusions about the stability and what we can call the long-term viability of the two-party duopoly in Australia.


So in the first 110 years of Australia’s federation, there was a leadership spill for the governing party called on only three occasions. Only one of them led to a change in Prime Minister, which was Bob Hawke to Paul Keating in 1991. The others, Billy McMahon’s on John Gorton in 1971, was a tie and Gorton sacked himself, and in the third one, Malcolm Fraser and Andrew Peacock in 1982, Fraser was reaffirmed as prime minister.

From three spills in 110 years, we’ve had – I’ve lost count – six or eight in the last eight years, and four changes of Prime Minister. So something has obviously shifted in the conduct of party politics in the second decade of the 21st century. Tease out the whys and wherefores in Australia of what parallels you can draw from overseas.


So what’s shifted? This is the part where it helps to start from the outside in, starting from a perspective on politics in mature Western democracies and then work your way into Australia. I think the near-universal phenomenon is that the major centre-left and centre-right political parties in all those democracies are in decline, which is to say they’re losing members and they’re losing vote share.

Now, why has that happened? Well, I think the Australian case actually illustrates the point for the broader sample.

What’s happened in Australia is essentially that our economies and our societies have changed. The Labor Party was founded as the political wing of the union movement and today less than 15% of our workforce is unionised, less than 10% if you take out the public sector. So we’ve got a political party which is designed and was founded to represent a social and an economic base that no longer exists.

You’d think, in circumstances like that, that the Liberal Party would thrive. And in a sense it has, because the Liberal Party has spent much more time in office in the post-war period, and in particular the last 20 years, than has Labor.

But the Liberal Party is in decline too, just like centre-right parties all over the Western world. It has lost membership. When organised labour implodes as a social and economic movement, what’s the Liberal Party for anymore? Why do you need a Liberal Party if there is no union movement to oppose? So the Liberal Party too is a political movement with no actual social or economic base to represent.

When these parties go backwards, when they go into decline, they become less stable. And in Australia, I think one of the symptoms of that is leadership churn.


And the title, Our Very Own Brexit. There’s a word missing ­– Trump is obviously not involved here. Why look at Brexit and not the US election in 2016? Why does Brexit have greater saliency for the Australian situation than, say, the American examples?


The evolution of our major political parties is really at the core of the argument. The analogy is easier to draw not just with Britain, but also with Europe, where there are also a lot of parliamentary systems. In the American system, presidential politics tend to be at the forefront and party affiliations are different, the dynamics work a little differently with regard to party politics.

In European politics, as much as here, a couple of generations ago, you voted the way your parents voted, and they voted the way their parents voted. And the party you voted for was tied to the class you belong to, the kind of job you had, or your parents had, the church you went to, and so on. All of those social connections to party politics have almost entirely disappeared. So voters are free to go where they want and what that means is that politically the big political parties are just far less stable and they’re far more vulnerable to shocks from their own backbenchers.

And that’s what happened in the United Kingdom. In 2010, the year David Cameron came to office, the polling firm Ipsos used to take a poll every month asking, what do you think the biggest challenge to Britain is today? And in October of 2010, the year David Cameron came to office, the grand total of the percentage that said that Brexit or that Europe was the most important challenge for Britain was 1%! Six years later, there’s a referendum and they decide to get out of the European Union.

Now, how the hell did that happen? You can’t explain it by the fact that the people revolted. There were no marches on the streets. Nobody was breaking windows. This was cooked up inside the Conservative Party. Previous prime ministers had the authority to be able to put down that Eurosceptic sentiment. Cameron couldn’t. And so they had to had to call this referendum. 


Let’s get down to the detail on migration. How would this question ­– and we’re catastrophising here – you’re not saying it’s going to happen in the next election or the election after …


… A “plausible worst case”, I’m saying.


Walk me through the worst case. And which party could it come from?


The Brits broke away from Europe through Brexit. We can break away from Asia if we make a radical turn away from immigration. I argue in the book this could come from either party.

I’m very careful in the book to say this won’t be driven from the bottom up. There is not this kind of racist underbelly in Australia that a lot of, I think, critics on the left worry about, that there’s some kind of nascent, xenophobic, racist movement in Australia and if you scratch the surface of our tolerant selves, you’ll find a bunch of white supremacists. I think that’s mostly a fantasy.

Where the analogy lies is that one of the major parties become so unstable that it cooks up something like this out of desperation, that it basically takes a position to the election where it says “Australia is full”. And at that point, we are, in fact, deciding – if one side of politics says we continue with our high-immigration model and the other party says “no, Australia’s full” - at that point, we’re holding a de facto referendum on Australia’s place in Asia.

The reason I think this is a nice analogy with Brexit is that high immigration is a point of elite bipartisan consensus, just as the relations with the EU were in the UK. This was a point of elite consensus which was never tested really with the population. Both major parties in the UK took it for granted that Britain’s slow, halting but gradual enmeshment with Europe was a good thing.

And it seems to me because these parties became so disconnected from the public in the way that I just described earlier, they fail to recognise that the public had not bought into this sentiment. Now, it’s not that the public was against it necessarily. They just they just haven’t paid any attention to it. And they certainly weren’t invested in it the way that the political class was in in the UK. So when they did eventually make the mistake of asking, the British people came back with the “wrong” answer.

The full audio from this event is available here.