Paul Bongiorno
‘No’ stretch of the imagination

If you can believe the opinion polls, regional Australia has gone very cold on the idea of a constitutionally enshrined Indigenous Voice to Parliament. Rebel Liberal “Yes” campaigner Julian Leeser certainly found a warmer reception in the New South Wales city of Wagga Wagga on Monday, where he attended a number of events promoting the referendum. He found people eager to engage with him at a crowded business forum and later with local Liberal branch members.

Leeser, who quit his position on Peter Dutton’s frontbench to support the form of recognition that grew out of the Uluru Statement from the Heart process, is in great demand from supporters of the cause. The University of Canberra played a key role in enlisting him to its program of building understanding about Indigenous issues in general and the Voice in particular. Like a number of other universities, it is formally backing the Voice and has a dedicated pro vice-chancellor for Indigenous leadership, Maree Meredith.

Meredith sees Leeser’s contribution as critical to prising away as many grassroots Liberal supporters as possible from the official party naysaying. Leeser and his colleague, Bridget Archer, played a role in the formulation of the “Yes” campaign pamphlet, released on Tuesday. Along with another colleague, Andrew Bragg, they are hoping to get 30 per cent of Liberal voters onside. They believe this target is necessary for the referendum to succeed. Bragg admits it “is very difficult now”.

Making it even more difficult is the tone of the debate. Leeser defends the right of leading Aboriginal “No” campaigners Nyunggai Warren Mundine, Kerrynne Liddle and Jacinta Nampijinpa Price to argue for their beliefs without being called sellouts or “to suggest somehow they are acting as a front for racists”. In that, he is not helped by some of the propositions they are pushing or the racist advertisement Mundine defended, even though the newspaper that carried it apologised for its offensiveness.

Leeser was on firmer ground when he criticised the targeting of Indigenous campaigner Thomas Mayo by the “No” campaign. He said Mayo is “central” to the “No” campaign “because Thomas Mayo is being made a trope for the ‘angry Aboriginal man’ who wants to tear down the country”. He said the spliced videos from the “No” case using Thomas Mayo’s words are “meant to get you angry, and get you voting against a person, even though this person is not on the ballot paper”.

Similarly, Leeser finds attacks on the minister for Indigenous Australians, Linda Burney, for being “privileged” or “elite” cruelly disingenuous. Price still has not apologised for sneering that Burney flies into remote communities in a private jet wearing Gucci.

Leeser says Burney should be held to account as a minister, but he says we are seeing “deeply personal” characterisations made about her that wouldn’t be made about white male cabinet ministers. He can’t remember the last time they were called “privileged … for somehow rising above their station in life”.

Leeser traced Burney’s disadvantaged childhood and her grit in becoming the first Indigenous person to graduate from her teacher’s college. All of that along with the personal pain of being widowed and losing her son “to the heartbreak of mental illness”.

None of that dissuades Price from continuing to target Burney. She has challenged the minister to a debate, which Burney declined. The minister says the referendum “is about Australians not politicians”. She says the Liberals and Nationals want a Canberra debate while “we want an honest and open conversation with Australia about a path to a better future. They want typical political conflict and obstruction.”

Calls from the “No” side to be shown respect are too often an attempt to silence critics of their contemptible exaggerations and appeal to the deepest prejudices. There was a disturbing example of this at a “No” campaign event in Adelaide late last month, according to a report in The Australian. Former Keating government minister Gary Johns shared the platform with One Nation leader Pauline Hanson and the former Liberal turned conservative independent Cory Bernardi.

Johns claimed Indigenous people were often no longer as identifiable as they once were and were “just not that exotic”. He said “we are not killing them because we are not listening to them. In fact, one of the worst things you can do is listen to the victim. Because the victim will always say, ‘If you give me more, this wouldn’t have happened.’ But we know giving them more makes them less able.”

Constitutional expert George Williams sums up the “Yes” and “No” cases presented to the Australian Electoral Commission as a polarised vision for Australia. In the “Yes” case there is “hope and unity” and in the “No” case all we have is “risk and division”.

At the core of the “No” case is the refusal to accept there are people among us who have a special connection to the 65,000 years spent living on this continent and that there is a tragic gap between their wellbeing and that of the majority. These people were cruelly dispossessed and their rights trampled on. This is the injustice, academic lawyer Greg Craven says, that makes Australia “a morally failed state”, and that needs to be remedied through the referendum.

The “No” pamphlet ignores this reality, preferring to foster resentment and to deny unity in diversity. It says enshrining a Voice in the constitution for one group of Australians means permanently dividing our country, and it even claims it “creates different classes of citizenship through an unknown body that has the full force of the Constitution behind it”.

This ignores that the constitution already singles out Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders to have special laws made for them alone – the race power. A successful referendum would establish a mechanism through an elected representative body for Indigenous Australians to have a say about matters affecting them.

“The full force of the Constitution” sounds ominous but all that full force is doing is establishing a consultative body that antagonistic governments such as the one led by John Howard cannot abolish. They can legislate to set up this body differently and they may, to the nation’s detriment, ignore its representations.

The Fraser government’s Aboriginal Affairs minister, Fred Chaney, writing in The Saturday Paper last weekend, spoke of how useful it was for him to be advised by the National Aboriginal Conference. It was an elected body with members drawn from across the nation. The Hawke government replaced it with the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission in 1989, which Howard chose to abolish rather than reform in light of abuses in its administration.

The “No” pamphlet talks of a better way than what is proposed, a “Yes but” siren song successfully employed to defeat the 1999 republic referendum. Can anyone believe that Peter Dutton, given his record on Indigenous issues, will be rushing to find a better way if he manages to successfully defeat this model proposed by First Nations people themselves?

Dutton was, after all, a cabinet member of the Turnbull and Morrison governments, which both failed to deliver on promises to legislate a Voice with local and regional components. And the opposition leader’s former ministerial colleague Ken Wyatt has said he himself twice brought such a proposal to cabinet and it was ignored. Dutton, he says, showed no interest in it at all.

Dutton didn’t push his opposition to the referendum in the campaign for last weekend’s Fadden byelection. Despite raising it as an issue in a doorstop a few weeks ago, he dropped it as the poll neared. Obviously, Dutton thought there were more votes to be won attacking the Albanese government over cost-of-living pressures and youth crime.

The successful Coalition candidate, Cameron Caldwell, was similarly reticent. He says people raised the Voice with him quietly because they didn’t want to be accused of racism or prejudice if they raised it publicly. It’s a curious observation. It suggests even those inclined to say “no” have been given little to be proud of by some of the champions of their cause.

In light of the latest Newspoll showing a further decline in support for the Voice – with 41 per cent of respondents saying they will vote “Yes” and 48 per cent planning to vote “No” – Anthony Albanese says “we need to do things better and differently”. He admits more effort is needed in making the arguments for the referendum.

The prime minister, however, is in no rush to disclose the actual date of the referendum. He was expected to announce it at the Garma Festival in a couple of weeks’ time but does not want a campaign longer than the minimum 33 days required in the constitution. Some see this as a concession that he knows the Voice is in serious trouble. More likely it is an awareness that “Voice fatigue” has already set in and three months of intense campaigning is the last thing the project needs.

The expectation is the prime minister will announce a date in September for a mid-October poll.

By then, Albanese will be hoping Julian Leeser’s clarion call in Wagga Wagga resonates with voters, that “it is a small change that can deliver so much, a once-in-a-generation moment”.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on July 22, 2023 as "‘No’ stretch of the imagination".

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