November 2023


The year the Voice broke

By Don Watson
Yes referendum corflute with No spraypainted over it, in Bassendean, Perth, Saturday, October 14, 2023

Bassendean, Perth, Saturday, October 14, 2023. © Richard Wainwright / AAP Images

How John Howard’s shadow over Australian politics is evident in the referendum, reconciliation and the rest

The Indigenous leaders who made the case for the Voice to Parliament, and the non-Indigenous who joined them, have suffered a bitter rebuke. To appreciate the real blow, you don’t have to believe in the proposal. You could vote against it and still wonder how an Aboriginal parent should explain the result to her nine- or 12- or 15-year-old. What should she say? That the country didn’t mean us any insult or harm; that we mustn’t take it personally. That’s why there was so much at stake in putting the Voice to a referendum. It’s not like a football match or even an election. It’s not like losing; rejection haunts a different realm.

When Anthony Albanese announced in his election victory speech that he would take the Voice to a referendum in his first term, it is a fair guess that most Australians wondered what he was talking about. Among those who knew what the thing was, probably half felt their necks stiffen, while the other half cheered, even if a few had to put their doubts aside, thinking the boldness rose from the euphoria of victory and stricter reasoning would follow. What if the opposition opposed it, for instance?

It did seem that the new prime minister might have overestimated the love: against a miserable opponent, Labor had scrambled home with 33 per cent of the primary vote, and it only got there with the aid of an unnatural avalanche in Western Australia. There were Labor governments in every mainland state, but one look at the quality of their opponents should have put paid to any notion of a countrywide passion for the ALP that would translate to support for the Voice. Did anyone think Western Australia would vote “Yes”?

Post-Covid the electorate was irritable, the more so because prices and interest rates were rising, and everyone knew they would get worse. Wouldn’t the Voice make them more irritable, more inclined to say, What about my bloody voice? You could almost hear the flutter of John Howard’s Australians replicating. And surely Peter Dutton could hear it too.

To get Dutton in perspective, it is useful to go back to the 2008 United States presidential election campaign, and the day when a member of an audience in Minneapolis told the Republican candidate John McCain that he was “scared” of Barack Obama because he “cohorts with domestic terrorists”. And a woman followed up, putting it more plainly: she’d “read about Obama”, she said, and he was an “Arab”. McCain, who was no pussy and never a saint, took back the microphone and shook his head. To loud boos, he said Obama was a “decent man”, “a decent family man, citizen”. He had fundamental disagreements with him, but the debate had to be respectful, he said. The exchange went live across the country and replays went on for days afterwards.

For McCain it was a poison dart, and you could see he knew it. What people thought might be a turning point in the campaign turned out to be a turning point in democratic politics. We can’t say how many votes it cost him, but we know that six months later, when the first of the Tea Parties were held, it was not McCain’s but Sarah Palin’s name they shouted, and soon enough it would be Donald Trump’s. When Trump saw McCain rebuke the two frightened and angry constituents, we know what lesson he would have drawn from it.

Every day in the past few months, Dutton had the chance to do the honourable thing that McCain did. He could easily have disowned the racism, lies and scaremongering of the “No” campaign. Countless conservative Australians would have applauded him, without changing their position on the Voice. Dutton could have said that he disagreed with the Voice, but intended to argue the case only on its merits, and that lies and racism would have no place in it. This, of course, he did not do. The honourable thing? In what century do you think you’re living?

History having made it clear that referendums will not pass without bipartisan support, did the new prime minister surmise that in the dungeons of unpopularity Peter Dutton would decide he could only sink deeper by resisting such a feelgood, unifying measure? Yet it was much more likely that he would see the Voice as an irresistible gift, a lifeline he could grab and haul himself up into the game. Why, with the wonders of social media, he could sow doubt everywhere; better still, he could watch as it was sown by myriad unseen bigots and reap the benefits. In no time he would even be able to say Albanese had divided Australia with his referendum.

Dutton’s an opportunist, but in politics all ambition at some point yields to that temptation. It is a given of the game. Just as it’s a given that a competent politician will not mistake a club-wielding thug for Friar Tuck or a bloke who just wants to be mates.

Dutton owes something to the Trumpists, but long before they blighted the landscape, long before 2008, John Howard, with all necessary dignity and gravitas of course, had set a fine example of opportunism, as well as fearmongering and breaking with polite conventions. Remember what he said during the 2008 US election: that Al Qaeda, the terrorists, would be barracking for Obama.

Even in retirement Howard might be still the most influential politician in the country. It is not only his status in the Liberal Party. His army of silent but glued-on admirers is almost certainly larger than that of any other politician, active or senescent, and whenever the country looks like it might jolt itself free of the past, the cohort swells to twice the size and blocks the exits. He is both spectre and guru, half man, half myth. His shadow hangs over Dutton as it did over his three predecessors. It hung over the referendum from start to finish, and it was there in the result. For all the changes we have seen and all the looming threats, October’s debacle proved that in certain basic ways this is still John Howard’s Australia.

Did the prime minister not know this? We thought he must have inside information: that he had Dutton over a barrel on some account, or that he had his solemn promise of bipartisan support, or that there was some kind of polling that guaranteed victory against the odds. But if the Liberal Party decided to oppose the Voice, naturally he would look for other ways of proceeding.

We didn’t know what those ways might be, and we still don’t. Could he have put only the first part to a referendum, the part the opposition did support, and maybe slide it through, not at a one-off poll such as the referendum, but at the next election? Maybe he could have legislated the Voice part, and given it a chance to work, then at some future date asked the people for constitutional approval, or a prototype of some kind could have been established in a few communities to demonstrate in concrete ways the utility of the Voice. In a half-dozen places – a hub town, a homeland, Alice Springs, a country town or two – an energy might have been born, organisation, leaders. Money and services might have found their proper targets. The gap might have closed a little in these places, and then, who knows, in others.

We did not have to know what the alternatives might have been to realise that one would have to be found if Dutton decided to campaign for “No”. That is the work of politics: to find ways through, to outmanoeuvre or outwit the opposition, to coax them into a position favourable to your goals, to compromise when necessary. For this reason, it is hard to see the failure to even attempt a different strategy as anything but failing the Statement from the Heart.

The prime minister would not hear of compromise. He pushed on. Like Ferdinand Magellan, he would cast aside the fainthearts and lead the way to a new world. Except Magellan was in a boat, and the prime minister was in politics. To be fair, more than likely he reckoned that if the likes of Pat Dodson, Noel Pearson and Marcia Langton and a host of others had given so much of their lives to this cause, he should have the courage to back them in. But what he needed was the courage to say to them – admirable as they are, formidable as they are – as prime minister, as a politician, as someone who is paid to read the political signs, to lead: I can’t go on with this knowing I will be leading you over a cliff. Courage is essential, but defeat in this is unthinkable. We must find another way.

No form of words would have saved him from their outrage, and years later there would still be people saying the referendum could have been won if only Albanese hadn’t squibbed it. It goes with the job, like the victories, and it’s a lot better than being told what the country has now told Aboriginal kids. Or what it told the people who have given so much of their lives to the creation of something better and who gave their all to this. It is not on them that responsibility should fall.

Nor should it fall on the voters who rejected it. The voters, and all their ignorance and prejudices, their self-interest, their meanness, their gullibility, and all their goodwill, faith and conscientiousness, are the raw material of the democracy, and to blame them is like blaming the rain for falling. The same should be said about the Aboriginal people who exercised their democratic right to oppose the Voice. Nowhere is it written that in a pluralist democracy Indigenous people are to be restricted to one opinion.

More than the nature of things made opposition inevitable. The Statement from the Heart was inspired, magnificent, and the Voice spoke as eloquently of forbearance as it did of rights and justice. Yet the poetry and the symbolism were sometimes at odds with the questions of practicality. It sounded good but how would it help? Who would it help? If, as its advocates said, it would have a powerful effect, how could it also be a modest request, as they also said. If it was not asking much, what good would it be? How could a mere advisory body make a significant difference? And who would be on it – the same old faces? And by the way, how come they need a Voice when we see them on our screens all the time? And so on, in a generally downwards direction.

Even without the lies and deceptions, it was easy for the “No” campaign to fray the edges of the proposal by making merry with the things it didn’t say. That left the “Yes” advocates having to explain the policy, and, as the old axiom goes, you will never sell a policy that you have to explain.

Not all the people who asked these questions, and much harsher ones, were ignoramuses and racists, and it will heap another fundamental mistake on all the others to imagine that they were. In conservative Australia, bedrock conservatives think of the Constitution as the country’s incorruptible core, off-limits, not to be fiddled with. You don’t have to know what it says to hold it in this kind of regard. We can be sure that a great many people voted against the proposal not out of prejudice, but from conscientious belief and the evidence before them. There were people with deep experience in Aboriginal communities who voted “No”, or voted “Yes” reluctantly.

Nor were all the doubters non-Indigenous. In those communities there were Aboriginal people who, when they were told what the Voice was, said it would just mean more for the people who already had the power, in their own mob and in the south. They’d had a representative organisation for years and it had a voice, but it only represented a couple of families and only spoke with their voice.

That was a concern all along: how could there be one Voice for people so vastly different in culture, experience and aspiration as communities in the Cape, the Kimberley and the Northern Territory, and the people of mixed descent identifying as Indigenous in southern towns and cities? To the extent that the answer was in the 60,000 years of occupation, the shared history of brutal dispossession and the attachment to Country, it was of limited use to a campaign at pains to stress the future, avoid any suggestion that modern Australians should feel guilty about the past, and say nothing that might be construed as disputing their title to the land.

Other kinds of avoidance undermined the “Yes” case, as it undermines many conversations about Indigenous affairs. Simply put, as much bullshit is uttered on the left as on the right. The entirely justified effort at truth-telling is not served by dodging truth that is inconvenient, swallowing new fallacies, cooking the historical and cultural books. Among other things, the referendum vote was a massive victory for the culture warriors of the right, and if the left wants to regain the ground it lost it needs to give up its fashionable pieties, broaden its reading, examine its own motivations for signs of vanity and self-interest, and stop equating occupation of the moral high ground with doing something useful. It should recognise that identity politics is an option for people whose identities are threatened, but it won’t get you a democracy where all identities are secure. It will get you Trump. And it will go some way to getting you a referendum result like this one.

No doubt there are several dozen lessons to be learnt from the fiasco, but one stands out: non-Indigenous Australians with an interest in social progress should try to reach the same intellectual and imaginative level as the Indigenous authors of the Voice. They need to bring the same fire and devotion, the same goodwill and something approaching the poetry to the business of making a decent social democracy Australia’s natural aspiration. The best assurance of justice, hope and opportunity for the First Peoples of Australia is a re-energised general effort to build a society on those principles and restore fairness as its watchword.

Don Watson

Don Watson is an award-winning author. His books include The Passion of Private White, Death Sentence: The Decay of Public Language, Recollections of a Bleeding Heart: A Portrait of Paul Keating PM, The Bush and Watsonia, a collection of his writing.

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