Paul Bongiorno
Echoes of the Voice

Anthony Albanese has moved on from his thwarted attempt to have an Indigenous Voice to Parliament enshrined in the Constitution. It is frustrating the opposition and disappointing some key leaders in the Aboriginal community.

Greatly assisting the prime minister’s pivot to other agendas in the second half of this parliamentary term was a headline-generating four days in Washington, DC. The prime minister looked much happier in the many picture opportunities afforded him in Washington than he did on the night of the October 14 referendum. The access to our key military partner was remarkable, including a private meal with the Bidens before a gala state dinner the following night.

The opposition’s carping about “Airbus Albo” is puerile in light of the weight of the visit. Although they’re right to say it looked as if he was trying to avoid scrutiny by cancelling a scheduled sitting of the House of Representatives. Albanese didn’t want any distractions from the positive coverage he was expecting to get out of the trip.

As Albanese said on his arrival in the United States capital, the visit “comes at a turbulent time for the world”. He said the strengths of the relationship between Australia and the US provided “stability, security and comfort”.

There is significant optimism in that statement, particularly as Trump-aligned politicians grind Congress to a halt, interrupting legislation for the AUKUS submarine deal and the creation of an Australia–US defence science and technology industry. Surely the prospect of another Trump presidency – he is the Republican frontrunner by a country mile – inspires more dread than confidence.

In a more positive frame, Albanese regards the $5 billion Microsoft investment in Australia and the willingness of the Biden administration to advance the Climate, Critical Minerals and Clean Energy Transformation Compact as a boost and a concrete example of how he intends to “get on with it” following the referendum.

The Liberals are now seeking to convert the huge referendum defeat, in which they played a significant part, into a rejection of the Albanese government at the election scheduled for 2025. They have been buoyed by a Morgan poll this week showing them ahead of Labor, on a two-party preferred basis, for the first time since the election.

In political terms it shows the enormous miscalculation Albanese and his key advisers made in pursuing the referendum in the belief the political landscape had changed and bipartisan support was no longer a key factor. This was a belief bolstered by the historic Aston byelection win.

One of Albanese’s closest confidants says the main lesson for any future referendum is you don’t proceed unless there is assured bipartisanship and an overwhelming national consensus has already been established.

No one was happier with the outcome than the Liberals’ Michaelia Cash. On Monday she admitted the cynicism of the politics behind the “No” campaign. She said, “Australians on referendum day, they did not vote ‘No’ to uniting Indigenous people, they did not vote ‘No’ to better outcomes for our most disadvantaged. What Australians voted ‘No’ to was Mr Albanese.”

Cash said this in response to the release of an unsigned open letter from Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders involved in campaigning for the Voice. It accuses a majority of Australians of committing “a shameful act whether knowingly or not and there is nothing positive to be interpreted from it”.

Without naming him, the statement rebuked the deputy prime minister, Richard Marles, for saying “the Australian people always get it right”. It said this was “a misguided exculpation of ‘No’ voters”. The anonymous authors have a point. Albanese put it better when he repeated his referendum night comments just before he flew out for Washington.

The prime minister said, “I accept the results of the referendum.” He added, “I think, overwhelmingly, Australians do want to see the gap closed between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians. When it comes to moving forward, I think it is up to all of us to come together and find a different way to get to the same reconciled destination.”

Leading Indigenous “Yes” campaigner Thomas Mayo flagged that First Peoples won’t be giving up on a Voice. There are discussions about establishing, “independent of the Constitution or legislation”, a Voice to “take up the cause of justice for our people”.

There’s not much doubt the raucous and ugly campaign saw a loss of support for Labor, although the consolidated Newspoll over the past three months doesn’t quite show the “buyers’ remorse” claimed by The Australian’s analysis. A closer look at the state-by-state results shows Labor in a slightly improved position since it won government. Still, no one in the parliamentary party or the organisation thinks keeping Peter Dutton in opposition will be easy.

Labor strategists console themselves with the fact that Dutton will find it harder to defeat Albanese than it was to defeat the Voice. A binary yes/no vote at a referendum is very different to the preferential voting system and the need for the Coalition to take back 20 seats to win government. One cabinet minister says Albanese has emerged from the referendum as a conviction politician, while Dutton has cemented his image as a negative one. “He’s done nothing to reposition himself or the Liberals on issues that helped defeat the Morrison government.”

Dutton is clearly convinced being the opposition leader rather than the alternative prime minister is his best path to the Lodge. One Canberra source tells me John Howard put it this way: “You don’t win elections from opposition by being co-operative with the government.”

Dutton is convinced, as he has told his party room on more than one occasion, that cost of living will undermine Labor’s credibility. A number of surveys found voters saw Albanese’s commitment to recognition through a Voice as a distraction from him dealing with their struggle to make ends meet.

A lobbyist for a national organisation says their research found cost of living was far and away the dominant concern for voters and, the more their purchasing power was being eroded, the more they felt they were being ignored. Albanese is facing persistent high inflation and the likelihood of another rate rise when the Reserve Bank board meets on Melbourne Cup Day. In her first major speech this week, new RBA governor Michele Bullock signalled she was a hawk on bringing inflation closer to 2 to 3 per cent, against the current rate of 5.4 per cent.

Treasurer Jim Chalmers says production cuts and disruptions in global oil markets are a key driver of inflation “in the global economy and here at home, with Australians facing far higher prices at the bowser”.

As Albanese tries to regain momentum after the referendum, the next six months will be critical. Economist Warren Hogan told Sky News the treasurer should follow his predecessor Paul Keating and explain why inflation needs to be beaten and interest rate pain will lead to a more enduring gain. Hard-pressed voters will need a lot of convincing.

While hoping to ride this wave of voter misery, the opposition shares a significant part of the blame for our continuing vulnerability to world oil shocks. Put simply, they have sat on their hands since the days of the Howard government, stalling and hindering the transition to renewable energy and electric vehicles, falsely claiming they were protecting Australians from higher costs.

Climate Change and Energy Minister Chris Bowen says, “We’re playing catch-up on increasing access and upfront costs of fuel-efficient and electric cars for families and business so they can slash their petrol bill and dependence on volatile international oil markets.”

In Senate estimates this week, the opposition made a frustrated attempt to link the Voice to Australia’s response to the Israel–Gaza conflict.

Indigenous South Australian senator Kerrynne Liddle, a key opposition voice in the “No” campaign, pushed Foreign Minister Penny Wong on whether the national security committee of cabinet met between the October 7 Hamas terrorist attack and the October 14 referendum date. Liddle said the question went to the prime minister’s focus at that time. The none-too subtle implication was that Albanese and the government were ignoring Israel and Gaza while they concentrated on the Voice.

An infuriated Wong hit back, pointing out fevered government activity. She said “people have been working around the clock on this, including repatriation flights seeking to get people out of Gaza”. She said a crisis centre had been established and she had been “engaging with counterparts in the region”.

In the Oval Office, thousands of kilometres away, Albanese was at one with President Joe Biden, calling for humanitarian aid to be allowed into Gaza, talking about international humanitarian law and the international law when it comes to the way war is waged.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on October 28, 2023 as "Echoes of the Voice".

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