The ‘Yes’ vote comeback we have to have

Upset results and come-from-behind victories are as common in politics as they are on the sporting field. Opinion polls have famously got election results wrong over the years, although not as often as many underdogs would wish.

The referendum for constitutional recognition through an Indigenous Voice to Parliament is now in that final phase and the need for an unexpected turnaround is great. Anthony Albanese senses it every bit as much as everyone else.

A little over a year ago, when he promised the referendum, he argued it would reconcile modern Australia with its ancient and foundational history. According to polls, the promise looks set to be rejected by a majority of voters.

Make no mistake, however, this would set back reconciliation by a generation. It would disrespect a majority of Aboriginal Australians who supported the national process that led to the Uluru Statement from the Heart and who have dedicated years to campaigning for it.

After real progress in recent decades, First Nations leaders made the judgement that there was broad community and political support to redress the hole in the Constitution that simply ignored the existence of a people who were cruelly dispossessed. This compounded the original injustice meted out in 1788.

The founding fathers – there were no mothers – did this on the basis of believing Indigenous Australians were either dying out or would be absorbed into the white community through assimilation. This presumed First Nations cultures, traditions and spirituality were too primitive to survive the apparently superior constructs of the white settlers.

This week, the prime minister was asked how he intended to bring the nation together – whatever happens on October 14. He said, “Firstly, by accepting the outcome of the referendum”, but quickly added he was “very hopeful” the referendum would succeed.

The Nationals took the lead in breaking the national consensus on constitutional recognition – denying the bipartisanship that has been central to every successful referendum since Federation. The party’s leader, David Littleproud, says he’s not confident the referendum will fail but in the same breath says “the Australian people always get it right”. His antipathy to any notion of a First Nations advisory committee that can’t be abolished on the whim of a prime minister is based, he says, on the experience of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission.

Then prime minister John Howard abolished that body, which had funding responsibilities for Indigenous programs. An inquiry Howard established recommended the commission be reformed rather than scrapped, but he ignored it. This episode in particular encouraged Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander leaders to call for a protected permanent mechanism that would not run programs but would be able to advise on them.

With the scent of a smashing victory over Albanese and the Aboriginal leaders who proposed the Voice, Peter Dutton is now perversely blaming the prime minister for the rancour and division engulfing the nation. Dutton says Albanese and his minister for Indigenous Australians, Linda Burney, “embarked our country on a path to division”.

He says Albanese should be “man enough to stand up and take responsibility for the mistakes that he’s made”. We will find out in seven days’ time if trusting Australians’ better angels was indeed a mistake – and if so, how big a mistake.

The division to which Dutton refers is entirely of the Coalition’s making. Initially, they characterised recognition as a unifying thing to do. In 2016 and 2019 they promised a referendum to enshrine recognition and flagged a legislated Voice. Now they have redefined it as divisive. They are playing on Australians’ fear and timidity to constitutional change, hoping to use the referendum as a way to bring down the prime minister.

Dutton is delighted at the performance of his first-term shadow minister for Indigenous Australians, Jacinta Nampijinpa Price. Price argues that recognition of First Peoples’ special place in the continent’s history creates a racist wedge between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and the rest of Australia.

She is unafraid to press all the buttons that trigger prejudice and resentment against her people. This week, to huge applause from a Perth audience, she called for an audit of all spending on Aboriginal programs. She is seemingly oblivious to the fact her side of politics poured millions into the programs she now scorns, while at the same time cutting millions from programs that were effective.

Dutton ran for the hills when asked about audits into the Coalition’s spending, claiming he would have more to say on how he would do better closer to the election. He said there would be improvements for communities in places such as Alice Springs, because “Jacinta has a practical knowledge”.

Price may have a “practical knowledge” but there is little evidence she did much to bring it to bear on the federal Coalition government when she was deputy mayor of Alice Springs. Indeed, the electorate of Lingiari, encompassing Alice Springs, rejected her in 2019.

Analysis reported in Guardian Australia debunks Price’s claim that she represents people in remote Indigenous communities. Data extracted from booth-by-booth returns over the past two elections gives clear evidence that most in these communities do not vote for her.

Former radio presenter Jon Faine sums it up this way: “Price’s election to the senate in 2022 came overwhelmingly thanks to support from suburban voters in Darwin, Alice Springs and Katherine, not voters in the bush. Her constituency is predominantly white.”

She is now being hailed as a conservative superstar, with some touting her as a future prime minister. It’s unlikely on a number of fronts, not least that it would require the Liberals to accept a National for the top job.

The Northern Territory’s other Indigenous Australian senator, Labor’s Malarndirri McCarthy, has a greater claim to represent remote communities. Unnerved by Price’s success in building the perception that the Aboriginal community is fundamentally split over the referendum, the party has pushed McCarthy to the forefront of its efforts.

She embarked on a media blitz this week, beginning with an appearance on the ABC’s Q+A. She counters the message from Price and Nyunggai Warren Mundine that most of her people don’t support the Voice. She says, after attending remote voting booths, “First Nations people want a better way ... not only for ourselves but for all Australians.”

It’s a message that may have arrived too late, though. The Price and Mundine tag team has shown up in research as being persuasive in eroding support in the broader community.

A defeat of this referendum would also be a setback for Albanese’s other constitutional ambition, an Australian republic. There is no time line, although the issue is a second-term agenda item. It is presumed the current assistant minister for the republic, Matt Thistlethwaite, will be given more to do preparing the ground.

If the precedent of a referendum never succeeding without bipartisan support is confirmed next Saturday, the republic faces daunting obstacles. Peter Dutton, for starters, is a monarchist. If he is still opposition leader, he would relish another opportunity to thwart Albanese.

Much could depend on what damage Albanese suffers politically if the Voice referendum goes down. The Liberals’ long-time pollster, Mark Textor, who is now working for the “Yes” case, believes it will be Dutton who will take on more water. After last week’s Newspoll showing a dramatic fall in the opposition leader’s approval, Textor commented on Facebook: “No electoral benefit in being ‘no’ wrecker, worse, it’s just sure death. As I predicted.”

A senior Labor insider takes heart from the fact then prime minister Bob Hawke escaped unscathed after his four referendum proposals were defeated in 1988. They were less consequential than this vote, however, which goes to community relations and social cohesion.

It may be harder for politicians to move on from this referendum. The republic could well have to wait another generation but the gap between Indigenous Australians and the rest of us will not go away.

Albanese and Dutton will be expected to find and fund new ways to close the disparity in life expectancy, infant mortality, incarceration rates and other intractable failures. Ironically, Canberra taking the lived experience of local communities and leaders more seriously could be an enduring legacy of the Voice debate.

Albanese believes the referendum has given more urgency to Aboriginal disadvantage but how he addresses it without looking like he’s ignoring the verdict of the people on a Voice could be a minefield. Mind you, Dutton himself is promising to take more notice – something his former colleague, then minister for Indigenous Australians Ken Wyatt, has indicated would be a stunning conversion.

In the meantime, the nation will be holding up a mirror to itself, as Senator Patrick Dodson has characterised the vote next week. Many will be hoping for a spectacular late comeback for the “Yes” campaign, one to rival Penrith’s in the NRL grand final.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on October 7, 2023 as "The Price of everything and the value of Mundine".

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