The heart of the nation

The headline crawled across the front of The Australian like a Warren Zevon song: “ ‘Lawyers backing Yes for money’, may it please the court”. This is the latest argument in what is now a concerted campaign in the paper against the Indigenous Voice to Parliament.

“Barristers publicly supporting a Yes vote for the Indigenous voice to parliament are commercially motivated and will gain financially from doing so, according to eminent lawyer Stuart Wood AM KC, who, among other Victorian barristers, is opposing a move for the state Bar association to support the referendum,” the piece says.

“The Victorian Bar Association is being savaged by internal discord over the voice, with some members canvassing a ‘nuclear option’ of bringing the issue to a head at a meeting on Thursday.”

It goes on to quote Wood at length, mocking the New South Wales Bar Association for supporting the Voice and dismissing barristers who would do the same in Victoria. He describes support for the Voice as a commercial decision from people whose practice depends on government briefs. “The other thing too … is that it doesn’t hurt them to be seen to be woke with their corporate clients too. If you come out and parade as someone who’s in with the zeitgeist, then you’re not only advertising to the Victorian and federal governments that you’re the right person to brief, you’re advertising to most of the companies too.”

A day later, the paper ran a piece from “No” campaigner Nyunggai Warren Mundine. He claimed the Voice would wind back the progress of the 1967 referendum. “Anthony Albanese’s Indigenous voice to parliament will reverse the 1967 referendum. Segregation will be back. The voice will be like a great big protection board embedded in the Constitution, overseeing a vast array of constitutionally guarded mission managers and bureaucrats.”

At the front of the paper, there was a small story on advertising for the “Yes” campaign: “Ad blitz as voice support softens: Slim majority in favour but opposition hardens”. The piece reported that support for the Voice had dropped seven points since the election. It was particularly weak in Queensland and Western Australia. The “No” campaign was commissioning large sample tracking there, as well as in South Australia and Tasmania. At the end of the story was a pointer to Mundine’s comment piece, as if the dog had finally caught its tail.

It is not clear why The Australian is so opposed to the Voice. The arguments against it are so obviously specious. The solicitor-general’s advice is clear: the Voice makes no alteration to the powers of parliament and poses no threat to our system of government.

The best explanation is in the paper’s opportunism. It is an organ of conservative anxieties, a newspaper that has styled itself as the heart of the nation and is determined to share with its ageing readership every angina and diseased ventricle.

There is nothing hopeful in this. There is no vision for the future. There is only complaint and a slight tightness in the left arm. A “Yes” vote for the Voice will not just be a vote for Indigenous inclusion but a repudiation of the old, sour Australia that wants a “No”, an Australia of corned beef and racism that ended long ago but that holds on in those few institutions that steadfastly refuse to entertain the present.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on April 29, 2023 as "The heart of the nation".

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