John Hewson
The plot to bury reconciliation

It is time we stop pretending the overwhelming “No” vote at the referendum wasn’t fanned by racism, underlying all the lies and misrepresentation. This is not to say all those who voted “No” were racists. Rather, it is increasingly clear racism was the mostly unstated agenda of some of the referendum’s strongest public opponents: those who clung to the concept of White Australia, and the supremacy of white settlers, their dependents and subsequent settlers, seeking to preserve our Constitution as originally drafted. The proof is in their actions since the referendum – they have used the result as a platform to undermine several important elements of an effective approach to recognition.

First there is Opposition Leader Peter Dutton’s stunt, supported by shadow minister for Indigenous Australians Jacinta Nampijinpa Price, in calling for a royal commission into child sexual abuse in regional Indigenous communities – which ignores the many past reviews that have already been conducted and inadequately addressed.

Before the week was out, there was a column in The Australian by Tony Abbott, seeking to give some practical effect to the “No” vote by advocating the termination of welcome to Country ceremonies and bans on flying the Aboriginal flag.

While these leading “No” campaigners mouthed support for reconciliation through the campaign, apparently they never intended it.

The former prime minister has also attacked what he calls “an attempt to de-legitimise the result by claiming that it was due to ‘misinformation’ and what’s clearly evident is the government’s inclination to carry on as if the vote had never happened”.

There should be little doubt about the extent of misrepresentation and dishonesty in this referendum campaign – so much, in fact, that the government must be pressured to honour its promises to reform truth in political advertising by way of new laws before the next election.

The leading “Yes” campaigners, after their week of reflection, have released an open letter calling out the “No” campaign as “shameful” and “mean-spirited”, and expressing apprehension as to whether they might realistically hope to ever experience genuine reconciliation and a closing of the gap after such a vote.

Given that effective reconciliation is built on respect, their concerns are well-founded. The “No” campaign couldn’t even begin to respect the significance of the Uluru Statement from the Heart as the genuine wishes of First Australians. Rather, opponents went to great lengths to attempt to cheapen the Uluru statement by claiming the Voice to Parliament was Prime Minister Anthony Albanese’s idea for a “Canberra Voice”. In his National Press Club address, Nyunggai Warren Mundine even outrageously suggested the Uluru statement was “a declaration of war”.

Clearly the “No” case – summarised by its slogan “If you don’t know, vote ‘No’ ” – was built on the initial premise that the government had failed to provide enough information for voters to make an informed decision. All along, though, voters were uninformed of the hidden agendas of some of the leaders of the “No” case, who sought with misinformation to dupe voters whose opposition could be used as cannon fodder in culture wars with a blatantly racist twist.

Abbott revealed his agenda in the week following the referendum. In his own words: “Given that the classic notion of the absolute equality of every human being – regardless of race, religion, gender and culture – is now under sustained assault, this should be the vote that rang round the world. Indeed it needs to, given the susceptibility of governments almost everywhere to bad policy based on muddled thinking about group rights and a misguided apology mania in what are the world’s least racist societies.” He delivered this with the full authority of his recent board appointment to the Murdoch media empire, on the front page of the national broadsheet, alongside many additional column inches also devoted to such drivel. His old chairman, and his new one, must be so pleased.

Abbott boasts about “the robust common sense” of the majority of Australians who voted “No” and ignored what he called the “dispossession-angst” of the 40 per cent who voted “Yes”. He also referred to the latter as the elites and professional classes. The Murdoch media thrives on promoting class warfare.

I believe Abbott is quite delusional about what he claims to be the global significance of the referendum vote. He writes: “Probably for the first time anywhere an issue of identity politics has been put to the people and, here in Australia, resoundingly rejected.”

I find it very hard to accept the global assessment will turn on short-term political games played by our politicians. The reception is more likely to be amazement that we can’t come to grips with our history, among some concern about the rekindling of White Australia attitudes.

Abbott interpreted the “No” vote as the expression of a desire to scale back “concessions to separatism” such as “flying the Aboriginal flag co-equally with the national one (as if Australia is a country of two nations) and the routine acknowledgement of country by all speakers at official events” – that is, ignore respect for First Australians and their traditions and practices. But how dare anyone suggest racist intent in such statements! Marcia Langton had seen it coming, and yet when she called out the racist base of the “No” campaign, the media pile-on was instant.

Abbott has also claimed a “watershed moment” in the campaign was Price’s statement at the NPC that “colonisation had actually been good for Aboriginal people”. He doesn’t account for the heavy damage Dutton inflicted on the referendum’s chances with his withdrawal of bipartisanship. Price’s statement was seen by many as counter to the views of most First Nations people and appears to be contradicted by the strong Indigenous “Yes” vote at polling booths in remote communities. Of the 21 remote mobile teams in the electorate of Lingiari – which covers the entirety of the Northern Territory apart from Darwin and its surrounds – just one delivered a narrow “No” majority. Seventeen delivered “Yes” support above 60 per cent.

The referendum campaign in all its ugliness highlighted two crucial efforts for the lead-up to the next election.

First, this country must address the lack of truth in political advertising laws, which has allowed for manipulation of issues of great public importance. The Labor Party has correctly identified the need to pass legislation as a priority, in keeping with the mounting concerns among voters about integrity and accountability – issues that defined the last election and helped remove the Morrison government.

Fear campaigns based on false claims have long been a most unfortunate feature of our political discourse. In the 2019 election, the Coalition twisted Labor’s simple proposal to fix a loophole in the tax system, claiming it was a forerunner to death duties. And in the 2016 election, then Labor leader Bill Shorten ran a “Mediscare” campaign, alleging the Coalition was aiming to dismantle the public health system. There is little doubt about the extent of misrepresentation in the “No” campaign, and particularly via social media posts, which misrepresented the advisory capacity of the Voice, and claimed, among other things, that it would impose a new large bureaucracy that would disrupt government processes and circumvent the supremacy of the parliament.

And finally, it’s also now devastatingly clear the “No” camp’s repeated accusations that the referendum proposal was seeking to divide our nation on race covered a lack of commitment to any firm, alternative plans for dealing directly with Indigenous disadvantage.

The other imperative is for our political leaders to produce detailed plans and strategies to work collectively to close the gap. Such a focused effort to repair the damage inflicted by colonisation is not racist, as the party of “No” might maintain – it is essential to addressing the significant disadvantage that persists among First Nations Australians today. To fail in this duty would be to abandon us all to the worst of our history.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on October 28, 2023 as "The plot to bury reconciliation".

For almost a decade, The Saturday Paper has published Australia’s leading writers and thinkers. We have pursued stories that are ignored elsewhere, covering them with sensitivity and depth. We have done this on refugee policy, on government integrity, on robo-debt, on aged care, on climate change, on the pandemic.

All our journalism is fiercely independent. It relies on the support of readers. By subscribing to The Saturday Paper, you are ensuring that we can continue to produce essential, issue-defining coverage, to dig out stories that take time, to doggedly hold to account politicians and the political class.

There are very few titles that have the freedom and the space to produce journalism like this. In a country with a concentration of media ownership unlike anything else in the world, it is vitally important. Your subscription helps make it possible.

Select your digital subscription

Month selector

Use your Google account to create your subscription