Paul Bongiorno
Between the hard right and a soft ‘No’

By any measure this week marks the official countdown to a significant moment in the history of the Australian Federation and its foundation on the dispossession of the original owners of the land.

Australians are being asked to accept or reject a correction to the founding document of the Commonwealth, which built on the lie of terra nullius and excluded acknowledgement that there still existed First Nations peoples who were owed a special place in the national compact.

The moment of a new reckoning will come in six weeks’ time, when 17-and-a-half million Australians vote on constitutional recognition through an Indigenous Voice to Parliament. Prime Minister Anthony Albanese says it will now be a sprint to the finish line on October 14, coming after slow years of waiting for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.

Despite the trend in the published opinion polls this year showing support for the “Yes” case falling behind “No”, this may well be fool’s gold for the naysayers.

Campbell White, the pollster behind Newspoll, told an event on the sidelines of Labor’s national conference that the polls so far were not measuring people’s voting intent. Unlike at elections, there is no context for respondents and many were either unfocused or unaware of the proposal on which they were being asked to vote. He said that would change once the date was set and the campaigns intensified.

Leading “No” campaigner Warren Mundine says while the polls are promising, he takes them “with a grain of salt”. Perhaps Mundine is being cagey but the SEC Newgate Mood of the Nation survey cited in The Australian on Tuesday, which had 54 per cent support for “No”, also found heightened apathy towards actually voting.

According to researcher David Stolper, the “average stated likelihood to vote amongst ‘Yes’ voters is quite high at 8.3 out of 10 but significantly lower amongst ‘No’ voters at 5.4”. Stolper said a lower voter turnout could favour the “Yes” campaign and “as such, the contest may be slightly tighter than our voting intention results suggest”.

A source close to the Yes23 campaign said its research showed the referendum was far from dead. “A worst-case scenario is 50-50,” they said.

Giving credibility to this view is that even in the published polls there are quite high numbers of soft “Yes” and “No” voters. Up to 40 per cent of voters are open to be persuaded or are yet to decide.

One senior minister says the success of the referendum will depend on the ability of the campaign to build momentum in the final two weeks before polling day.

That may already be under way. A poll by The Australia Institute, also published this week, found 52 per cent were inclined to vote “Yes” in the key swing state of South Australia. While it would be impressive if this referendum repeated the 90.77 per cent “Yes” vote of the 1967 referendum, for it to succeed this time its support can be much more modest – a simple majority, however slim, in four states and in the national vote.

The stakes could not be higher but Anthony Albanese is determined to thwart the ambition of Opposition Leader Peter Dutton, who wants to use a defeat of the referendum as a stepping stone to winning back power for the Coalition after just one term.

The government will continue governing, Albanese says, and will begin bowling up more of his agenda to parliament from next week, which is sure to grab the media’s attention. It begins with Employment and Workplace Relations Minister Tony Burke’s Closing Loopholes Bill, which is the second tranche of industrial relations reforms. The bill addresses insecure work, wage theft and domestic violence leave.

By politicising the referendum, Dutton is attempting to turn it into a contest between himself and Albanese. As one senior Liberal put it this week: “It’s all he’s got.” The same person made the point that Dutton’s approach would do nothing to win back voters who deserted the Liberals for the teal independents.

The risk for the opposition leader is that his strategy will merely confirm the expedient negativity of the politics he has played on almost every issue since the last election. Burke’s bills are another touchstone. Their aim is to improve wages and working conditions, surely one of the more significant ways to help Australians cope with the cost of living pressures Dutton keeps talking about.

Dutton’s shadow minister for industrial relations, Michaelia Cash, was apocalyptic in her doomsaying over Burke’s first wave of reforms. Burke told the National Press Club on Thursday that Cash warned his reforms on multi-employer bargaining would “close down Australia”. He said, “I am not sure how it builds to a crescendo from there.”

The opposition’s credibility was certainly damaged by Labor having the best employment record of any government in its first year. Days lost through industrial action actually fell in the quarter after the reforms were introduced.

Burke hopes to get his bill through the Senate by the end of the year and is open to further scrutiny in parliament, at the request of independent Allegra Spender and in line with undertakings given to the critical vote of David Pocock in the Senate.

Treasurer Jim Chalmers’ pitch to more efficiently collect the petroleum resource rent tax from gas producers doesn’t go far enough for the Greens, Pocock and the teals, but the early indications are the changes go too far for the Coalition, which is intent on protecting the super profits of the fossil fuel producers and doing nothing to improve the government’s revenue situation.

Albanese assured the breakfast crew on Nova FM in Perth the government could “chew gum and walk at the same time” when he was asked if he was paying too much attention to the Voice and forgetting about businesses and other sectors of the economy. The prime minister pointed to his government’s policies to improve productivity, such as much more generous childcare rebates and upskilling the workforce. He said the take-up of fee-free TAFE places had exceeded the projected 19,000 positions.

A defeat of the referendum would certainly be a setback for reconciliation in the nation and, as former foreign affairs minister Julie Bishop warned this week, would damage Australia’s international reputation. Albanese says Australia is the only former colony on Earth that has not recognised its First Peoples. Countries with which we compare ourselves, such as Canada and New Zealand, did it long ago.

Failure would be a setback also for Albanese. His political acumen in proposing the referendum in the first place would be open to question. On the other hand, no one could accuse him of not being a conviction politician with his heart in a good place.

How big a setback it would be for Dutton if Australians rejected his calls for no change is open to conjecture, but it would be considerable. Already he is a very unpopular leader who has produced no coherent alternative to the referendum: he says he’s for recognition but not the sort proposed by the democratic process of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples that culminated at Uluru in 2017.

He now says he’s for symbolic recognition when one of the reasons he walked out on the Apology to the Stolen Generations was that it was merely symbolic. He’s ignored the fact that John Howard’s symbolic recognition in the 1999 preamble proposal was rejected by 60 per cent of voters.

Dutton says the Voice is an un-road-tested institution that is permanent. The same argument could have been put against the Federation referendums in the 1890s. The idea of a federated nation was endorsed, the details were still being worked out and the first 20 years could accurately be described as a shambles.

It was the idea of a Commonwealth that was embraced ahead of 1901. It is the concept of recognition with defined and limited agency that is being proposed now.

The Coalition leadership of Dutton and David Littleproud have the luxury of agreeing on defeating the referendum and disagreeing fundamentally on what they would do to replace it. All that is needed is to sow confusion and stir up prejudice – and then accuse Albanese of dividing the nation. The brazenness of it is galling.

Dutton’s own divisiveness on race was on display in his recent appearance on the ABC’s Kitchen Cabinet. Neither Dutton nor Littleproud have condemned the ugly racism at last month’s CPAC conference, supporting the “No” case.

The campaign Dutton is running is born of political desperation. He is stopping at nothing, including claiming that the Australian Electoral Commission had “rigged” the referendum with its rejection of crosses as a formal vote.

The current member for Kooyong, the seat of Liberal Party founder Robert Menzies, Monique Ryan, summed it up. She said, “It looks like Peter Dutton will do anything, even undermine faith in our democratic processes, to score cheap political points.”

It’s hard, at the end of all this, to believe his arguments are about respecting Australia’s democratic institutions. That’s because they are about the opposite.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on September 2, 2023 as "Between the hard right and a soft ‘No’".

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