15/08/2018 17:18 BST | Updated 15/08/2018 17:18 BST

Populist Calls For Direct Voting Are Dangerous, Not Democratic

Australian senator's support for a 'final solution' to immigration is disturbing and offensive. But just as much danger lies in mobilising the population in yet another referendum

PA Wire/PA Images

In Australia this week, a member of the Commonwealth Senate called for an end to Muslim migration in his maiden parliamentary speech, lobbying for a referendum to be held on the “final solution to the immigration problem”.

Senator Fraser Anning said the reasons for banning Muslim migrants from the country were “compelling” and “self-evident”, linking Islam with terrorism and migrants with welfare costs and crime in praise of the discriminatory White Australia policy.

His use of the term “final solution” is an easily recognisable reference to Nazi Germany’s Jewish extermination program and a well-known marker for racist genocide.

While the language of 1930-40s Nazism is disturbing and offensive, the more immediate danger lies in the populist call for yet another referendum.

Anning was elected in 2017 as a member of the far-right anti-immigration One Nation party founded by Pauline Hanson in the 1990s, although he defected to rival minority party “Katter’s Australia Party” in June.

Calls by minority politicians for direct voting on controversial issues have been occurring in slightly greater numbers over recent years, and arguably have become a tool for right-wing populist leaders to unite their following.

Although the causes of populism are often debated, one way of looking at the approach is to see it as having a supply side and a demand side. The supply side is a leader, usually connected politically or sitting on the margins of the political process (such as Anning or Nigel Farage), sometimes part of the wealthy elite (such as Silvio Berlusconi or Donald Trump) but usually making the claim they are “of” the people and represent everyday “common sense”.

On the demand side is a group within the population who often feel they are newly marginalised, such as white factory workers whose jobs have been threatened by globalised labour, or people who feel their everyday lives are morphing due to increased cultural diversity around them. In some cases, there are understandable concerns. However, these concerns can be exploited by populist leaders on the supply side who agitate for anger and form a loose movement.

Calling for direct votes is one tool such leaders use to help mobilise a disgruntled group into a movement of political support.

While referenda represent a form of direct democracy, they tend to have dire consequences, as seen in the Brexit vote. This is not because they are democratic, but for two reasons.

Firstly, they often occur in a media and communication environment that is filled with conflicting, non-evidence based, under-researched and sometimes non-factual information, in which voting based on emotion and anger sometimes trumps reason. Heated debates and public discussions can also include hate speech and the circulation of ideas that can have serious mental health and wellbeing consequences for young minorities, as witnessed in the Australian same-sex marriage equality survey.

Secondly, they remove parliaments, congresses and ministries from the decision-making process, all of whom have powerful research resources and the ability to draw on the best possible expert advice to determine a good policy. Brexit, for example, might appeal to a majority of people after a lengthy emotional campaign, but research-based expert advice indicates it will be a costly exercise that will benefit very few, and broadly damage Britain. While they have their problems, these political institutions can also help protect minorities from being overrun by the views of the majority.

Majoritarian voting is not always inclusive and cannot always respect the ethical obligation for those in poverty, the homeless, minority ethnic, gender and sexual communities, for example.

While Anning’s allusions to a Nazi “final solution” deserve to be called out by other politicians and the public, it is just as important to denounce his demand for a referendum on immigration.

Any vote on migration risks a heated public debate and the circulation of hate speech, which will undoubtedly damage the social fabric of Australia’s multicultural society and could result in increased racial violence.

What’s more, debates in the lead-up to a vote will tend to favour groups who have media influence over those who have less access to media influence - such as migrant minority communities. 

The outcomes of such a referendum risk entrenching majority views over the genuine needs of minorities who are ordinarily protected by existing legislation, government policies of inclusivity and appeals to judicial courts.

Calling out the demands for populist mechanisms with sound knowledge of political processes is just as important as calling out hateful language, and it has immediate importance because it can help prevent marginal political figures from turning their followings into movements, and becoming genuine threats to existing democratic institutions.