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Brexit reloaded: ‘No’ campaign hailed as a populist pivot

The man who led the populist campaign to have Britain quit the European Union says the No campaign against the Indigenous Voice to Parliament has brought Australian politics to its Brexit moment.

“I’m watching, I’m cheering,” said Nigel Farage this week of declining support for the Voice.

Farage is known as the man who brought about a 2016 referendum that led Britain to vote to leave the European Union.

Britain and the EU eventually severed ties in 2020.

Three years on, the decision is widely described as an act of economic self-harm that, according to official figures, wiped $200 billion a year off trade.

“Put it this way, in 2016 the British economy was 90 per cent the size of Germany’s,” said Mark Carney, a former Bank of England governor. “Now it is less than 70 per cent.”

Brexit ran on the steam of a populist campaign that held contempt for people like Carney, elites of all stripes, including big business, bureaucrats, experts and international organisations.

‘Australian Brexit’

“This feels to me a bit like an Australian Brexit moment,” Farage said of the No campaign.

“This could be a real slap in the face for the metropolitan elites, especially in Melbourne and Sydney.”

Farage has failed seven times to win elections to the British parliament, but his influence on public debate has also led him to be described as the most important politician of his generation.

His brand of populism has been a potent influence on conservative politics, both in the UK and America, where, led by Donald Trump, it now controls the Republican Party.

Mitt Romney, who ran for president in 2012 and resigned from the Senate this week, said senior Republicans were too scared of their supporter base to join him in voting to impeach Trump.

“Almost without exception,” he said, “they shared my view of the President.”

The No campaign has engaged Dunham & Co, a Texas political consulting firm with links to the American Christian right.

Much of the most popular online material against the Voice comes from social media influencers who established followers campaigning against COVID-19 restrictions and dealt in conspiracies about global government and the World Economic Forum.

A shift to the right

Like many leaders of the populist right overseas, Opposition Leader Peter Dutton has moved the Liberals from being a party of the establishment to one running against it.

He has lashed out at “woke” corporations for supporting what he has described as a “city” Voice being pushed by university professors.

Tony Nutt, an old-school Liberal Party operative par excellence who advised John Howard for a decade, wryly noted such rhetoric in a speech this week.

Now a Yes adviser, Nutt said the campaign against the referendum is one of running “strawmen” and “scarecrows”.

Academics, Nutt noted, are “obviously the new criminal bikie gang leaders of Australian politics”.

Stoking base anxieties

Former Labor minister Barry Jones said the No campaign was stoking base anxieties and its victory would, like Brexit, define international perceptions of Australians for years to come.

“A defeat would lead inevitably to a loss in international standing and influence – a perception, quite inaccurate, that Australia has not forsaken its racist past,” he wrote in the Saturday Paper.

“As occurred in Britain, there will be, a few months hence, a severe case of buyer’s remorse.”

Last week, Jacinta Nampijinpa Price, a first-term National Party Senator promoted to the Coalition frontbench who has become a leading voice of the No campaign, said colonisation had a “positive impact” on Aboriginal people.

The Central Land Council, which represents 75 communities across nine regions, on Wednesday called the senator’s remarks an insult to the survivors of historical atrocities like the Coniston massacre in 1928.

“Our families still do not all have access to affordable healthy food, drinkable water and sustainable water supplies.”

Topics: Brexit
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