The shrunken backyard

This big country is the wrong size. It has been shrunk over decades. The horizon has been pulled closer and closer. At some point the backyard became its largest unit of measurement.

The Voice referendum was an attempt to make it bigger. It was an antidote to the shrinking potion of modern politics. Its failure will work to keep Australia small and ungenerous.

John Howard knew all this. He is a reminder that not all brilliance is good. In his guileful, scheming way, he knew this referendum was about ambition. Its defeat would be the defeat of possibility.

Howard did not try to hide it. He has lost the patience for tact. “If this referendum is heavily defeated,” he said, “which I hope it will be, that will discourage the current government from having a referendum on a republic.” 

It is not only the republic. Action on climate change is also less likely. Other reforms will be whittled down. Treaty and truth-telling will be driven off the agenda. Whatever courage the government may have had is now gone.

All along, that was the point. The “No” campaign was never really about constitutional recognition. The racism was sincere but it was never central. The colonial fantasies were indulged as a form of nostalgia but the real project was to collapse the foundations of the present.

Just as the history wars were fought as proxy, the referendum campaign borrowed one prejudice to express another. They were all worms in the same apple, chewing at the same mealy flesh. The enemy was always change.

The gloating and gnashing will last for some time, although not as long as the grief. Peter Dutton wants the prime minister to apologise for taking the country to a vote. He is drawing up sham inquiries, enjoying too much the humouring of his contempt.

In the days before the referendum, before the silence that followed it, Noel Pearson said the vote was about the generation to come. It was about the future. “My last pitch message is don’t slam the door on the children,” he said. “Imagine how horrible it is going to be that our children learn that the country turned its back on them.” 

On Saturday, that door was slammed. The dimensions of the country will remain the same, false and unbelievably mean. There is the same choking fence line, the same jealous lawn. There is the same sense of entitlement and smug, sour-tasting opportunism. None of this is fair or right, but for just enough people it is just enough. For everybody else, it is a tragedy.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on October 21, 2023 as "The shrunken backyard".

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