John Hewson
Beyond the referendum

Writing this, in the sorrowful days after the referendum, I am concerned the things that make me feel regretful about our politics and public policy are not so much in the past but in the future.

As disappointed as I am about the outcome, and as appalled as I am by the fear and dishonesty of the campaign, I am concerned the “where to from here” in terms of attitudes towards and policy for First Australians could also be a very ugly process.

The other major public policy challenges in the run-up to the next election are just as troubling, possibly worse. There is a real risk the world might drift into a global recession next year. Dangerous geopolitical forces are alive in the Middle East and Ukraine. In the United States we continue to see the imbalances of that country’s politics. This is without mentioning the impact of AI and the constant threats from climate change.

As background, it is important to recognise the mounting rank-and-file tensions in both the major parties. For Labor it is driven by concerns over the AUKUS security pact and Anthony Albanese’s judgement regarding the referendum. In the Coalition it’s the mounting concern about Dutton’s negativity and dishonesty, his Trumpian approach to politics attempting to drag the party to the extreme right, which for many came to a head with his behaviour in this recent campaign.

On Indigenous affairs, the Coalition is foreshadowing a complete reset. This sits awkwardly with Albanese’s call for bipartisanship in addressing Indigenous disadvantage following the referendum.

Dutton has ditched his commitment to another referendum and is calling for a royal commission into child sexual abuse in remote communities. The motion was voted down in the Senate on Wednesday. The opposition leader also wants an audit of spending on Indigenous programs, ignoring that 22 such audits were conducted while his party was in office, with no change to outcomes.

A most disturbing element of Dutton’s response has been to say he will rely on Jacinta Nampijinpa Price as shadow minister to develop and deliver the Coalition’s policy, on the basis of her “lived experience”. He sees Price as a political winner and makes no attempt to address the controversy of her time on the Alice Springs Town Council or her rejection by many in the Aboriginal community.

Price is to be Dutton’s voice on Indigenous politics. This is disturbing. Take as one example her recent comments on the way forward, suggesting another attempt at assimilation and to remove children from families, having them “sleep in school” to ensure they get a proper breakfast. This will strike fear into the hearts of families and communities that continue today to struggle with the legacy of their stolen generations.

Dutton will need to do more than this to counter his reputation for gracelessness, callousness and complete lack of empathy. In leading the “No” campaign, Dutton’s sole motive was to use any win as the basis for his attempt to drive Albanese from office.

However, as Albanese points out, Dutton doesn’t understand what it means to be a “conviction politician”. It will be painful for Dutton to learn that his so-called win with “No” will not easily transfer to an improvement in his electoral standing.

Moreover, he can’t rely on the significant “No” vote in Labor seats to suggest any kind of electoral victory. As an indicator of this fact, many Labor seats voted for same-sex marriage but those voters didn’t determine the outcome of the next election.

I see key segments of the media echoing the opposition’s claim that Albanese should have sought bipartisan support before announcing the referendum. But does anyone seriously think Dutton would ever have offered genuine bipartisan support, especially when his game plan was to create maximum division to undermine the prime minister and his government?

Dutton had no genuine interest in reconciliation or in closing the disadvantage gap, just in scoring a win against the government. As Paul Bongiorno has pointed out, he needed a win on any issue, anywhere, after his historic drubbing in the Aston byelection and the Coalition loss of government in New South Wales.

Dutton’s media arm, the Murdoch press, has driven his agenda before, during and now after the referendum, culminating with the call for Albanese to stand down on the night of the result. This outrageous suggestion, made on Sky News’s referendum panel, was very poor journalism. It was also blatant hypocrisy, blaming Albanese for creating the division that hosts such as Andrew Bolt, Peta Credlin, Paul Murray and Rowan Dean had worked so hard to ensure.

Unfortunately, Dutton’s ill-considered strategy on the return of the parliament has been to act as if he has Albanese on the ropes, just waiting for the opportunity to deliver the killer punch. His whole demeanour is aggressive and hyper-partisan.

Most recently the Murdoch media has had The Australian’s editor-at-large Paul Kelly out there encouraging Dutton to do a Richard Nixon, specifically to turn the “No” vote into an election strategy by focusing on the “silent majority”, the “middle Australia” that voted “No”. The strategy is not so much Nixon as Donald Trump: a fight against the so-called elites and professional classes and a promise to Make Australia Great Again. Kelly tries to add a little historic justification and legitimacy to the strategy by suggesting Dutton echo Robert Menzies on the “forgotten people”.

Class warfare is raw meat for the Murdoch media. As clever as Kelly would want this to sound, it ignores the history of Nixon’s statement to “the great silent majority of my fellow Americans” who did not join the large demonstrations against the Vietnam War. This strategy was already run by Scott Morrison with Murdoch support. Remember the “quiet Australians” who produced his “miracle win” in 2019, but who subsequently became much less quiet, tossing him out of office for incompetence, dishonesty and generally poor governance?

It is now an imperative that both the government and the opposition spell out the detail of their approaches to Indigenous disadvantage and hopefully find a way to work together. This will involve a joint commitment to education, to demonstrate that dealing with disadvantage is not favouring Aboriginal people over others, that it’s not racist to do this but just and fair. Indeed, it is racist to continue to let the challenge drift.

Beyond this issue, the economic outlook is very cloudy. The head of Citibank recently forecast a global recession was imminent. Although inflation numbers have improved, they have not improved as much as hoped, which may result in global central banks having to push interest rates even higher.

Complicating this is mounting concern about further increases in global oil prices, reflecting the tensions in the Middle East, especially uncertainty about Iran’s oil output, which will depend on whether Iran decides to engage directly in the Israel–Gaza conflict, in addition to its indirect support for Hamas and Hezbollah. This could contribute to another surge in global inflation, with significant direct consequences for petrol prices and overall inflation in Australia.

My concerns with the current geopolitical forces, apart from the risks of escalation in the wars in both Ukraine and Israel–Gaza, are also focused on the fact the US is so heavily committed to both conflicts, compounded by its congressional difficulties building support for funding its commitments to these wars. I fear Xi Jinping might seek to take advantage of this US distraction to make China’s rumoured move on Taiwan. In these circumstances I am concerned about the pressures that would probably mount for Australia to have some involvement in supporting Taiwan alongside a diminished US.

The challenges I have identified are very real and will require enlightened leadership in our national interest. This will require a giant leap forward from the base politics of the referendum campaign and the division that defines our federal leadership.

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

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