Paul Bongiorno
Dutton’s race rhetoric unleashed

After Anthony Albanese received a standing ovation on Monday night for his Lowitja O’Donoghue Oration arguing the case for the Voice referendum to succeed, Adelaide’s lord mayor made a telling observation.

Jane Lomax-Smith said the prime minister had given the audience “an enormous insight into your passion and what has driven you for this reform”. But this passion has some high-flyers in the Labor Party fearing it is more akin to the “courage” used in the British political sitcom Yes, Prime Minister to describe political folly – or at the very least a commitment doomed to failure.

The doomsaying is prompted by concerns over the way the campaign for a “Yes” vote has been run to date and the historically insurmountable barrier of the federal opposition’s vigorous and unscrupulous resistance.

This leaves one of Albanese’s most trusted insiders fuming. We’re told, he says, that people want political leaders who stand for something. John Howard’s success as a long-serving prime minister was due, according to the man himself, to the perception that he had the courage of his convictions.

The “hand-wringers” and “bedwetters” are missing the enormous value, according to Albanese’s consigliere, of the prime minister being a conviction politician who is prepared to lead. Certainly, there is no hint of Albanese backing away from the undertaking he gave to the dying Aboriginal leader Yunupingu that he would “get this done”.

The prime minister would implement the Uluru Statement from the Heart in full, beginning with a constitutionally enshrined recognition of First Nations people through a Voice that may permanently make representations to the executive and parliament on matters relating to them. It is a promise Albanese took to the last election and he made his first commitment in his victory speech.

The optimism inside the Albanese bunker is bolstered by the precedent-busting win in the Aston byelection. They see it as a sign of the changing times. The success of the marriage equality plebiscite showed that expensive and relentlessly loud fear campaigns don’t always work. While winning a referendum is exponentially harder, requiring the majority of a popular vote and the majority of the states, the same driving sentiment of a contemporary “fair go” for everybody should work in its favour.

In his oration, Albanese said this “instinct for fairness – the great Australian instinct for the fair go that defines us – remains fundamental to our identity”. He said the scare campaigns had one thing in common: “they underestimate Australians so radically”.

On the morning the house of representatives voted overwhelmingly to pass the referendum-enabling legislation, the nervous Nellies were given an unequivocal demonstration of Albanese’s determination.

The prime minister, while admiring and acknowledging the principled stand of Julian Leeser – who quit Peter Dutton’s shadow ministry so he could campaign for the “Yes” case – rejected the Liberal MP’s attempt to amend the referendum proposal in the hope of attracting the support of more conservatives.

Attorney-General Mark Dreyfus told the house the amendments effectively watered down the ability of the Voice to survive a future hostile parliament. The government, based on the Coalition’s uncompromising rejection of the proposal, saw it as a futile gesture. Dreyfus said, “with respect”, the government did not agree with Leeser’s view. The amendments were “neither necessary nor desirable”.

Just as unnecessary and undesirable was the way in which Opposition Leader Peter Dutton characterised the Voice in his contribution to the debate. He said it would “re-racialise our nation”, singling out one group of Australians in a way that would “permanently divide us by race”.

This was a bridge too far for the leader of the Nationals. David Littleproud – whose party will have a major say in the 2000-word “No” essay for the pamphlet that will go to 12 million households – said he would not support the “re-racialise” claim being part of the argument. He wants a higher tone in the debate.

The problem of course for the Coalition is that Dutton has let the cat out of the bag. Any attempts to cloak his racist arguments in higher-toned debate about the Voice pitting “one group of Australians against another” – spurious in itself – are now clearly grounded in an appeal to deep-seated and ugly prejudice.

It’s this sort of appeal the Morrison government-appointed race discrimination commissioner Chin Tan warned would put Indigenous Australians in danger “of being attacked, vilified and stereotyped … because of who they are”.

Tan, a longstanding human rights lawyer, said “the Voice itself is not racist and it does not racialise Australia”. He argues the proposal is not about granting one group of people rights at the expense of another but about “elevating” the rights of First Nations people to participate in the nation’s democracy.

The irony is Coalition governments have used the special race power already existing in the constitution to intervene in the Northern Territory, impose prohibitions on alcohol not applied to other Territorians, and mandate cashless debit cards and other programs in the belief that they know what’s best for these communities. They now baulk at giving First Nations people a remedy by way of an entrenched say in the laws and policies that apply to them.

No wonder independent Indigenous senator Lidia Thorpe says the “ ‘No’ campaign is looking more like a white supremacy campaign that is causing a lot of harm”.

Albanese made a late insert in his Lowitja O’Donoghue Oration to confront Dutton’s race arguments head on. He said the claim from the “No” campaign that the referendum would put race in the constitution is the “great lie” at the centre of the campaign and it needed to be called out. He said these arguments were “galling” because, unlike some existing provisions in the constitution, the Voice amendment did not refer to race at all. Rather, he said, it talked about Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders “as the First Peoples of Australia – not as a race”.

Dutton has not used his “re-racialise” argument since his parliamentary speech. Littleproud was not alone in the Coalition ranks being uneasy about it – some Liberal colleagues shared his concerns. When the Liberal leader was asked about the race discrimination commissioner’s warnings on Monday, he pretended they had nothing to do with him. He called for a respectful debate “on both sides of the argument” and said it was “completely and utterly unacceptable” to label opposers of the Voice racist.

Dutton criticised the prime minister for “name-calling”. This was a feeble attempt, also made by his deputy, Sussan Ley, to condemn Albanese for his ridiculing of doomsayers who said the sky was going to fall in after the Apology to First Nations people. He called them “Chicken Littles” and said people now have a healthy scepticism, born of memories of past scare campaigns.

Beyond the referendum at the end of the year, the prime minister has his sights on the next election. In caucus on Tuesday, he brushed aside concerns that the sudden resignation of Western Australia’s enduringly popular and dominant premier, Mark McGowan, was a blow for federal Labor.

No one has any doubts that McGowan’s popularity played a big part in Labor winning four extra seats off the Liberals in the state, to achieve majority government in Canberra. Albanese leveraged it by launching his campaign in the west and sharing the stage with McGowan. But the prime minister reminded his troops and Perth radio that, unlike the Morrison government, he backed McGowan’s closed border stance on Covid-19 against billionaire Clive Palmer’s High Court challenge.

A Labor strategist in Perth says the emergence of Roger Cook as the new premier will be a positive. Cook is experienced and he shares the prime minister’s approach and policy agenda more closely than McGowan. There is no denying, however, that stepping into the shoes of the country’s most popular premier will be no easy task. Cook may struggle to establish the same rapport with the state’s business and mining powerhouses.

The Labor insider says the damage done to the Liberals by Scott Morrison and his attorney-general Christian Porter is a long way from being rectified.

Albanese is taking nothing for granted. He highlights that since the election he has visited WA 12 times, more than Scott Morrison ever managed, and he has already held a cabinet meeting there – which he will do again.

But his re-election sights are cast beyond WA. Albanese revealed to the party room that besides targeting the marginal seats of Canning and Moore in Perth, he also had his eye on Banks in Sydney, Menzies in Melbourne, Bass and Braddon in Tasmania, and Queensland generally.

The Sunshine State has a number of marginal seats that are ripe for the picking. If the opinion polls are correct, Labor has substantially improved its position since last year’s election. Albanese’s hit list is far from fanciful.

The fate of this conviction politician will be crucially tested in two years’ time. Albanese’s biggest belief, that Australians are inherently fair-minded, faces its moment of truth a lot sooner.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on June 3, 2023 as "Conviction notice".

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