With the Voice referendum ending in a ‘No’ vote, does its failure lie in a divided country or with the overestimation of a prime minister who loves to note he has been underestimated? By Martin McKenzie-Murray.

The key failures of the ‘Yes’ campaign

A woman consoles the woman beside her, who is crying.
“Yes” supporters in Sydney after the referendum result was announced.
Credit: Jenny Evans / Getty Images

There’s a Signal chat group used by federal Labor staffers called the “Fun Faction”. It’s been around a long time and is usually devoted to light-hearted matters – sharing the day’s canteen specials, say, or putting out a request for media equipment. Anyone have a spare tripod? Camera flash?

On March 23 this year, “Fun Faction” declared something unusual: government staffers were invited to form a guard of honour for the prime minister and the various Indigenous leaders who had comprised a historic media conference – the announcement of the wording of the referendum question, and the three clauses that would be added to the constitution if it succeeded.

It was unusual because political staffers are ordinarily governed by unwritten laws of discretion: you don’t become the story; you don’t get named in stories; your face doesn’t appear on the TV news. “There’s the ‘slab rule’ in staffing,” a government source tells The Saturday Paper. “If you’re caught on camera, then you buy someone a slab of beer.”

A guard of honour would be unorthodox, but no one objected. This was history, after all. And so, after an emotional conference in a very crowded Blue Room, a guard of honour was indeed established along the hallway between the conference room and the prime minister’s office. “Here was the centre of power, really,” the government source says. “There’s the cabinet room nearby. The Blue Room. The PM’s office at the end of the hallway, and you can see through to the PM’s courtyard. So, staffers form this guard of honour along the hallway. These were very atypical scenes. There were dozens of staffers clapping. There were tears in his eyes. Emotion on everyone’s faces. It was a historic moment, but the referendum hadn’t been won. I think there was hubris – an over-belief from others in his power to make this happen without bipartisan support. But there were all kinds of reasons to say that this isn’t possible.”

What follows are the reflections of some close to the failed referendum – some a part of the government and some who worked closely with the “Yes” campaign, like Father Frank Brennan. This piece is not – and cannot be – definitive. Rather, it’s a survey of people with uniquely privileged vantages, speaking in the raw days following the referendum’s emphatic defeat. Some spoke only on background, out of respect for senior Indigenous leaders’ week of silence.

A government source describes the prime minister’s first year as unusually blessed, an extended honeymoon in which Anthony Albanese’s confidence grew. “Albo” had narrowly lost the leadership to Bill Shorten in 2013 and he had a few lost years for which to make up. “He had an obvious confidence,” the source says. “In a setting where people had doubted him through the campaign, through his time in opposition, when there was criticism about whether he’d struck the right balance on positions – climate targets, for example – and it got messy at times. The day he couldn’t name the cash rate was a big stumble. But it all worked out, and now there was a sense of destiny.”

The Labor insider described a prime minister with swagger, one who was swatting away the impudence of an opposition he had little respect for. And he was good at it. “There was a really strong feeling that he was leading a government with purpose and that was popular. And that he could carry this signature piece of reform – the Voice – over the line without opposition support, when they were at a pathetic low. An opposition that he didn’t respect or rate. I think he thought he could make history. And it was also deeply emotional for him.”

That signature piece of reform was announced – to the surprise of many – on election night. Father Frank Brennan says, from there, the government raced into it. Brennan is a Jesuit priest and rector of Newman College at Melbourne University. He is also a human rights lawyer and was deeply involved in the years-long planning of and struggle for Indigenous constitutional recognition. He says going into the Voice proposal there were three clear lines of approach. “The one that won out was Megan Davis’s line, who said that if you legislated and it was successful, then you wouldn’t constitutionally entrench it. If it failed, you wouldn’t either. I always regarded that approach as political folly, but it was the line that ultimately swayed the government,” Brennan says.

“But at the other end of the scale … there were 52 of us involved in the Calma–Langton report and the overwhelming number of us said we thought there was a need to legislate it first. Langton made that very clear in 2021.

“The third view was the happy medium, if you like, summarised in Noel Pearson’s address in March 2021: design the Voice, learn one lesson from same-sex marriage and draw up a public exposure draft, then negotiate the terms of constitutional change. What then happened was Albanese came into government and there was a headstrong rush into this: we’ll do this and we won’t give detail.”

In a July 2022 interview with the ABC, Albanese gave a tactical reason for the lack of specific detail on the Voice, namely the failed republic referendum of 1999.

“He was vague on details,” the government source says. “And deliberately so. He didn’t want to get bogged down in it. That was the lesson he learnt from the republic referendum – that some people voted ‘No’ because they didn’t like certain details of the proposed model. He didn’t want people to do that. He wanted it [to be] about the principles of the Voice, but people didn’t know what the Voice was – the lack of detail gave the opposition an obvious attack line: that he was being sneaky, or wasn’t across the detail.”

About Albanese’s defining lesson from the 1999 referendum, Brennan says this: “I’ve always taken his invocation of the republic, and his historic observation, as a proxy for the decision he had to make given the division amongst Indigenous leaders about how to proceed regarding the detail released.”

Early this year, with Voice polling still positive for “Yes”, Dutton was conspicuously equivocating on the Coalition’s support. He was dragging his feet, and within the “Yes” camp there were grave suspicions about his commitment. Then, on April 1, a byelection was held for the federal seat of Aston, vacated by the scandalised former Morrison minister Alan Tudge. Long considered a relatively safe Liberal seat, its margin was slashed at the 2022 federal election. On April 1, Labor won the seat – the first time a government had won a byelection from the opposition in a century. “Aston was a turning point for the referendum, I think,” the government source says. “It forced Dutton’s hand, forced him to reject the Voice then and there. The results defied what even those in the campaign thought might happen, and I think Dutton saw everything coming up Albo.”

Four days later, the opposition leader announced his party’s formal opposition to the Voice. He directed his front bench to actively campaign against it.

On the matter of securing bipartisanship – or at least Dutton’s blessing for a conscience vote, as Howard allowed his caucus in 1999 – there is pronounced debate. Many cannot see any alternative universe in which Dutton relaxed his opposition. They argue he was a craven opportunist, and no tinkering of words or process would have changed that. “To find a model that Dutton supported, I think, would have lost the support of Indigenous leaders,” the government source says. “It would have reduced it to symbolic recognition, which reinforces the view that we’re telling you what’s best. You’ve asked for something, but it’s not going to happen.”

A senior “Yes” campaigner described Albanese as being between a rock and a hard place. Brennan, understanding the forbidding difficulty of a successful referendum without bipartisan support, believes more could and should have been done to find common ground. He says Dutton’s appointment of the moderate Liberal Julian Leeser as shadow minister for Indigenous Australians last year – a man long supportive of Indigenous constitutional recognition and a supporter of the Voice – was a signal “Dutton could be persuadable”. Leeser resigned from the position earlier this year, when his leader declared his party’s uniform opposition to the Voice. “If Dutton was always of the mind that he’d reject it out of hand, then he’s clever enough to know he would be causing himself grief,” Brennan says, “because Leeser would have to spit the dummy or forfeit his integrity, given what he’d committed himself to.”

Brennan, as an advocate for the Voice, sought to win over moderate members of the Coalition. In these dealings, he says, moderates were irritated by the seeming high-handedness of the government. “It seemed like take it or leave it to them,” Brennan says.

In the joint select committee on constitutional recognition, which ran for five days in April, Brennan argued the wording of the proposed constitutional clauses, which prescribed the Voice making representations to “executive government”, be changed to “ministers of state”. This, he said, would help broaden support for change. The government would not compromise, however. “Andrew Bragg, a key Liberal to get on board, described it as a joke,” Brennan says. “And it was a joke. I have been appearing before select committees for 30 years and have never been treated like that before. I was treated like an enemy of the state because I had the temerity of saying, with good reason, that we should replace ‘the executive’ with ‘ministers of state’. It was a farce.”

The final public hearing was May 1. Government confidence was still relatively high. So were the polls, even if we can now see that the terminal decline in support had been established. “Maybe there was some anxiety, but I think the overwhelming feeling was that we’re making history,” a government source says. “[Albanese’s] charisma and emotion rubbed off on people. This is the Voice’s moment – if not now, when? Labor had won New South Wales and now governs everywhere in mainland Australia. Liberals were left behind on gender, climate, integrity. Labor’s in the ascendancy. More young people on the roll than ever before. This belief that maybe we’re entering a golden generation for progressive politics that led people to believe in the success of the referendum. I think there was a perfect storm of overconfidence and moral righteousness. That wreckers were trying to stand in our way, but let’s get this done now.

“It’s funny. [Albanese] often likes to say, ‘I’ve been underestimated my whole life.’ He says it a lot in interviews, pressers. He’s always saying it. But here, everyone overestimated him. It’s extraordinarily hard to carry any referendum, especially without bipartisan support. It was a big call. But there was a prevailing belief that we were walking a righteous path, and everything he touched turned to gold.”

In his dealings with the government, Brennan says he felt he was treated like an “old fogey” at times – a man who’d lost touch with political dynamics. A man whose opinions may have been well-meaning but were antiquated. “There was a sense that the old ways of amending the Constitution haven’t worked, that we haven’t managed substantial change in a long time, but in light of what we’re being told by pollsters we think this can get there with a combination of Labor supporters, young voters and supporters of Indigenous groups,” Brennan says.

“There was also an enormous optimism, where I thought there were illogical parallels constantly being drawn with the same-sex marriage plebiscite. But that was voluntary, and there were 20 per cent who didn’t vote. Most of those would’ve voted ‘No’. Second, [with same-sex marriage] we were moving into terrain – like the 1967 referendum – of let’s treat everyone the same. This was different: that there is a distinctive entitlement of First Nations Australians, and we need to address that. And third, by the time we got to the same-sex marriage plebiscite, you didn’t have any leading gays and lesbians saying: vote ‘No’.”

Brennan is referring here to the influence of the two prominent Indigenous “No” campaigners, Jacinta Nampijinpa Price and Nyunggai Warren Mundine. Everyone The Saturday Paper spoke to this week considered their influence on the referendum’s outcome as vast.

The polls kept nosediving. Optimism was curdling. There were frustrations between the government and the two major “Yes” campaigns. This week, The Age reported some campaigners informally asked senior government figures in late July to delay the referendum. “By the time [the parliamentary] winter break was over, its failure now seemed obvious, but it was too late to change direction,” the government source says. “Talking about it was now sucking out oxygen from other issues – cost of living, especially. But no one wanted it to die or to abandon it either.”

Within the Labor Party there are strong and divided feelings about the strength of the campaigning. Some believe it was chaotically organised, its messaging verbose and imprecise, that it too often appealed to the converted. There was also the matter of corporate endorsements, not least when the prime minister, two weeks before the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission began litigation against Qantas, did a photo shoot with the airline’s then chief executive after a few of their planes unveiled “Yes23” livery. “The PM did a photo shoot with Alan Joyce at the time, and it’s staggering that he thought it would help,” the government source says. “The group whose public standing was up there with tobacco.”

Others believe what could be done was done and criticism is now exaggerated – that no campaign could have survived the country’s racism, the ruthlessness of the “No” camp and an opportunistic opposition leader unwilling to temper the most reckless and misleading attack lines. In other words, that there are vastly greater villains here and to fix criticism on Albanese is to conveniently obscure them. Others still were emphatic that “the buck stops with the PM”.

Responsibility for the “Yes” campaign is diffuse. Responsibility for its outcome even more so. Labor has ruled out an internal review about its own campaigning, while in Question Time this week the prime minister and opposition leader exchanged insults. Dutton began reversing his pledge on holding, if elected prime minister, a second referendum allowing for symbolic constitutional recognition.

What next? In these pages last week, Marcia Langton wrote “reconciliation is dead”. Back in February, Noel Pearson said he would “fall silent” should the referendum fail. “I don’t think we have anything left after that,” he said. “It’ll be up to a new generation to chart a new course because we will have been rejected.”

Meanwhile, Frank Brennan feels sick. “There was,” he says, “only one shot in the barrel for this.”

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

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