The Politics    Thursday, October 5, 2023

Peter rabid

By Rachel Withers

Opposition Leader Peter Dutton in front of orange backdrop banner

Opposition Leader Peter Dutton speaks in Canberra, September 14, 2023. © AAP Image/Lukas Coch

The ‘No’ campaign has emboldened racists, and emboldened Peter Dutton to become the worst version of himself

I was brought to tears reading Evonne Goolagong Cawley’s heartfelt op-ed today – a simple, graceful reminder of what this referendum is about. “When I was a little girl, I remember hiding under the bed so I wouldn’t be taken from my mum,” began the Wiradjuri woman and former tennis champ, noting she might not have won Wimbledon were it not for the 1967 referendum, and imploring Australia to say “Yes” again. The Voice, she wrote, is a “straightforward request” to be heard, while all the “noise and nonsense is designed to frighten people”, much the same as with Mabo and the apology. “History proved them wrong. Every single time they have cast shadows, the bright Australian sunshine has proved stronger,” she said of the scare campaigns, asking voters to keep their eye on the ball. “You’ve cheered for me,” she concluded, appealing to Australians of her generation. “Now, please, vote with me: vote Yes.” Goolagong Cawley’s appeal brought to the fore a question I have repeatedly asked myself through this unnecessarily nasty campaign: what kind of person takes such a modest plea, a simple request to be recognised and listened to, and turns it into something ugly and sinister?

It truly has been staggering watching Peter Dutton tear down this referendum, claiming – with the help of Jacinta Nampijinpa Price and Rupert Murdoch – that an uncontroversial idea, supported by the vast majority of Indigenous Australians, backed by doctorslawyersjudges and the community sector, is “divisive” and “Orwellian”. There would still be a “No” campaign without Dutton, of course. The National Party would still be opposed, and Tony “intergenerational trauma is a neo-Marxist fiction” Abbott will be beating his assimilationist drum until the day he dies. But Dutton was the man who turned this unifying proposal into a partisan game – the leader with the power to prevent this misinformation clusterfuck, but who chose to ignore the direct appeals to his better nature and instead made this campaign a living nightmare for Indigenous Australians, one that threatens to do serious damage to Australia as a nation.

For months now, Dutton, who holds one of the most influential positions in the country, has been using his platform appallingly, stoking misinformation and bigotry. In the past 24 hours, his flagrant lies seem to have reached new levels of absurdity, seeing him claim – with no basis whatsoever – that the PM chose not to change the referendum wording to something more amenable to Dutton because outgoing Qantas chief executive Alan Joyce told him not to (Joyce was not a member of any of the referendum working groups, which were made up of constitutional experts and Indigenous leaders). As Michael Bradley wrote in Crikey last week, the opposition leader has long made claims he couldn’t possibly believe, doubling down when he’s caught out. But there was something truly alarming about this one, with Dutton feeling emboldened to make up transparently conspiratorial nonsense, knowing it would not be fact-checked in our national broadsheet.

As of writing, Dutton still has not condemned the disturbing video sent by neo-Nazis to Indigenous Senator Lidia Thorpe, in which a balaclava-clad man claiming to be from “Warriors for Convict Resistance” reads a statement endorsing “white Australia”, before burning an Aboriginal flag and performing a Nazi salute. (Government ministers have condemned the “disgusting” video, although Thorpe blames Prime Minister Anthony Albanese and the federal police for doing too little to protect her.) It seems Dutton’s interest in condemning Nazis back in March really was a stunt, with the “No” campaign completely uninterested in condemning the behaviour its encouragement has wrought.

It has been well documented that Dutton is only opposing the referendum for political gain, after deciding this was the best way to damage the government. Most agree there will be little benefit in it for him – his approval rating has sunk along with initial support for the Voice, demonstrating that his wrecking ability is not necessarily an appealing leadership trait. Earlier this week, I questioned how the moderate Liberals’ consciences were faring, as they said things about the campaign they know to be false. But what I really find myself wondering, daily, is how Peter Dutton could possibly sleep at night, knowing what he has done to the country, and to Indigenous Australians, who simply asked to be heard.

Evonne Goolagong Cawley clearly still has faith in the power of the “bright Australian sunshine” to illuminate the dark shadows that are clouding this debate, and in the “simple goodness of every Australian heart” to stand with First Nations people. But will such faith prove to be misguided when pitted against Peter Dutton, a man who decided to use this referendum to appeal to people’s worst natures, and in turn became an even worse version of himself?

Rachel Withers

Rachel Withers is the contributing editor of The Politics.


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