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The fine sentiments behind the Indigenous Voice have just collided with the thick concrete of a public vote that makes change look impossible in a fractured country totally exposed to the power of a negative campaign.
The great hope for the Voice turned out to be founded on an illusion. “This is something that should be well above politics,” Prime Minister Anthony Albanese said in Perth in February, in a claim he kept making until the final week of the vote. In fact, it was all about politics. It had to be.
Illustration: Simon Letch. Credit:
A vote by around 17 million Australians in a referendum was always going to be an exercise in democratic politics because it required the leaders who devised the Voice to take their idea to the people. The talk about lifting the debate beyond politics was wishful thinking or, worse, empty language that rang false with voters.
That is why the verdict from the public has to be considered if anyone is to attempt change again. This cannot be the death of change.
The pain for the Yes side is palpable, and the harm is real for Indigenous Australians who feel shouted down by a No vote of 61 per cent in the latest count. (The tally on Thursday was 8.5 million No votes and 5.5 million Yes votes, with millions more to count.) It is an alarming setback for reconciliation when so many First Australians will feel heartlessly shunned.
The world looks the same, and Albanese is trying to turn his attention to the economy as if everything is back to normal, but the political tide is changing, as proven by the retreat on treaty by Queensland’s Liberal National Party and the new caution in NSW about treaty and truth. So the failure on the Voice cascades through federal and state politics.
The recriminations have begun over the serial mistakes: designing a model that was clearly unpopular with voters, deciding to pursue the model when it did not have bipartisan support, refusing to give way on wording that could gain broader approval, and campaigning poorly on a concept without enough detail.
Labor history tells the true believers to cherish the heroic failure of a great cause destroyed by conservative enemies, but this erases the necessary questions about whether Australia could have had a different outcome. Or might gain a better outcome if there is a next time.
A referendum is not only a test of courage and conviction but compromise as well. Albanese had two out of three. In the end, he and the Indigenous advocates for the Voice could not compromise with those who opposed them, even when the past century has shown that a referendum will fail without bipartisan support. They were mugged by history.
The common refrain from the Voice campaign was that the proposal was a “generous offer” from Indigenous leaders, but this was deceptive language and voters saw through it. The proposal was not an offer – it was a request for significant change. Some of the campaigners acted, however, as if they had a magnetic power that would draw the Australian community to their cause. They had democratic politics totally confused. Voters were not going to come to them; they had to go to voters.
Yes campaigners who turn on voters now will only spread doubts about whether their attitudes were flawed from the start. Some want to blame voters for being too dumb to understand the constitution, or too gullible to see through the No campaign lies, or too racist to support help for First Australians. It is a fatal mistake in any reaction to a public vote.
As readers of these pages pointed out in feedback throughout the campaign, many voters just did not like the model. They did not oppose help for the Indigenous, but they did not want to put the Voice in the Constitution.
The defence mounted by Labor is that the government was “led by what First Nations people have asked us to do” and would continue to take that approach. This is tricky language and voters know it. The government was led by what some First Nations people requested. Not all. Some. As the referendum went on, it became clear that the alliance for the Voice was too narrow.
The strongest believers in the Voice explain this away by presenting their main opponents, Jacinta Nampijinpa Price and Nyunggai Warren Mundine, as pawns of white power. This is unfair and would not be accepted if said of a Yes campaigner. The Indigenous divide on the Voice was a hard fact – and reported in these pages by Lisa Visentin from Moree and Chip Le Grand from Wilcannia.
Another hard fact is that the No campaign was powered by conservatives backed by elite money to defeat a progressive cause – something we have made clear – but that does not nullify the rise of Price and Mundine as voices in their own right.
It is true that Dutton was a wrecker on the Voice – he did not want it, so he destroyed it. It is also true that the Coalition gained 7 million votes on a two-party basis at the last election and made him their leader. He was and is the leader of a political movement that cannot be ignored.
The lesson from the Voice is not that a Yes vote is impossible – it is that a Yes vote is only possible for leaders who compromise more than they would like. This is true for Indigenous leaders as much as party leaders. As late as June this year, there was a pathway to success for recognition without the Voice, something Dutton says he supports. There was also a more challenging pathway to recognition with a legislated Voice, peeling Liberals away from Dutton.
Australia might have gained a lasting outcome, albeit smaller than some wanted. Instead, all it gets is a lasting argument.
Dutton bears the blame for silencing the Voice, an idea that threatened nobody and could have helped many. It is a fiction, however, to claim that he was engaged in politics and everyone else was above it. The debate was about whether Indigenous people would gain a say in federal decisions – in other words, a collective vote on their power. That made it a political exercise from the start. The tragedy is that the outcome reinforces their powerlessness.
The fact that a compromise was so unthinkable for so many leads to the dismal conclusion that modern politics is too entrenched in rival camps to be capable of positive change. Many of the Australians who turned out to vote could be forgiven for turning their exasperated faces toward Canberra and asking: if you could not agree, why on earth did you waste our time?
David Crowe is chief political correspondent.
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