The kind of Australia we’ll wake up to if the Voice referendum is defeated

Anthony Albanese

Paul Strangio, Monash University

It was Robert Menzies, father of the modern Liberal Party, who famously remarked, “To get an affirmative vote from the Australian people on a referendum proposal is the labour of Hercules”.

Menzies knew this from bitter experience. The politician with the electoral Midas touch was the sponsor of three unsuccessful referendums. Most notable was Menzies’ (thankfully) failed 1951 attempt to win public support for amending the Constitution to grant his government the power to outlaw the Communist Party of Australia.

On the Labor side of politics, the feat of constitutional change has been an even more unfulfilling exercise. The party has been responsible for 25 amendment proposals and only one has been successful. It has been a truly Sisyphean quest.

If the opinion polls are to be believed, history is repeating itself with the impending Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice referendum. Since the middle of the year, those polls have been relentlessly moving in the wrong direction for the ‘yes’ case. On the current trajectory, the Voice will secure less than 40 per cent of the national vote and also fail to win the support of a majority of states. The frontier states of Queensland and Western Australia in particular are lost causes.

As it must, the ‘yes’ camp continues to evince optimism. Its advocates point, for example, to the relatively high number of undecided voters, hoping they break heavily in their favour. I fervently pray this optimism is well placed. Yet a prudent government would now be wargaming what to do in the scenario that the Voice is defeated on 14 October.

For Anthony Albanese, a ‘no’ vote will present diabolically difficult challenges. As prime minister, he will be tasked with making sense of that result. His response will need to be finely calibrated, modulating the message to different audiences.

First, and most importantly, he will have to devise a formula of words to console and soothe the Indigenous population, the majority of whom will likely feel that the rejection of the Voice is another in a long line of acts of dispossession and exclusion by settler Australia. Mr Albanese has often likened the Uluru Statement from the Heart to a generous outstretched hand. He will not only need to explain why that hand has been spurned, but give cause why First Nations people should continue to keep faith with non-Indigenous Australia. He will have to provide reassurance that reconciliation endures as a genuine project.

Both at home and abroad there will be those who view a ‘no’ vote as having exposed a dark streak of racism in Australia’s soul. Mr Albanese will feel obliged to seek to absolve the nation of that stigma. But given some of the more noxious attitudes aired during the referendum campaign, airbrushing racism out of the picture will not be easy.

On election nights, leaders are typically magnanimous in victory and gracious in defeat. There is a convenient myth about election results – that the punters always get it right. Mr Albanese will no doubt have to publicly give lip service to that notion if the referendum fails. He will avoid recriminations, despite the sophistry and mendacity that has characterised the ‘no’ side of the debate. In this way, he will play the role of healer-in-chief after the bitter divisions of the referendum campaign. What attacks there are on Peter Dutton for being a wrecker will probably be left to be made by other government members, but even these will have to be carefully framed so as to not indict all those who fell in behind the ‘no’ cause.

The larger dilemma Mr Albanese and his government will face if the referendum is lost is where to next with the Uluru Statement agenda, to which the prime minister signed up lock stock and barrel on election night in May 2022.

Most pressing will be the question of what happens to the idea of an Indigenous Voice to parliament. The most obvious fallback position will be a legislated rather than constitutionally enshrined Voice. The complication is that Mr Dutton has claimed some of that space and Indigenous leaders have rightly portrayed a legislated Voice as a poor substitute because it can be repealed by a future government. Somehow a legislated Voice will have to be transformed into a palatable alternative.

The Voice was the low hanging fruit of the Uluru statement when compared to treaty-making. The realpolitik takeout from the rejection of the Voice referendum will be that there is next to no chance of delivering on a national treaty in the short to medium term, especially if that were to involve some form of constitutional amendment. It would provoke an even more shrill scare campaign than the one we have endured over the Voice. In the absence of progress at the national level, it will be left to the states to advance treaty making and truth telling.

The defeat of the Voice referendum may set back other elements of Labor’s vision for the nation. When he won office, Mr Albanese appointed an assistant minister for the republic in a clear signal that a move to a republic would be a feature of his government’s longer term reform program.

With the Australian public’s profound reluctance to embrace constitutional change demonstrated yet again, it will likely douse enthusiasm within the government for proceeding to a referendum on a republic in its second term. The idea will continue to drift, as it has since 1999.

Another probable consequence of the loss of the referendum will be a narrowing of the priorities of the government. Labor hardheads will read that result and opinion polls showing a dip in the government’s support as evidence that voters are growing frustrated by what they regard as a straying from bread and butter issues.

So, we are likely to see a less expansive government as it steers towards focusing chiefly on matters such as the economy, cost of living pressures and housing shortages. These, of course, are vital issues, but they will not stir the soul or etch themselves into history as would a Voice, treaty and republic.

All of this seems a desperate shame. But it is the Australia we will wake up to the morning after 14 October, if indeed the referendum goes down.

Paul Strangio, Emeritus professor of politics, Monash University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons licence. Read the original article.

Written by The Conversation

The Conversation Australia and New Zealand is a unique collaboration between academics and journalists that is the world’s leading publisher of research-based news and analysis.

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  1. What a ridiculously biased article. Not surprising I s’pose as it comes form the conversation. In fact sophistry and mendacity, characterises the Yes side , along with the fearmongering, racism, and abuse.

    • indiginous people can go to schools if the parents send them
      indiginous people can get work but fail to do so especially as centrelink recipients get more benefits than all other australians and i think head per head indiginous people receive more money from taxpayers e
      That means the indiginous people percentige of workers is a lot lower than other Australians
      I might also point ouyt that they are the only land owners who do not pay rates and taxes on land they own
      i think there is discrimination against all australians non indiginous as they get govt housing and welfare before whites

  2. NO will win because the only people to benefit from a yes vote are the city people claiming aboriginal heritage.

    What happens to all the money spent yearly by taxpayers?

    Prim minister talks of shonks – well he will have a full time job investigating aboriginal affairs

    • Totally biased favour of the Yes Vote.. The last time a politician asked me to “just trust them ” it ended very badly ( for me). Its such a pity that Albo and the Canberra Elite Yes committe have attempted to wedge us and a great number of indigenous folk into acepting this version of a Voice. Would have had a better chance if they had gone for say a legistated bipartisan 2 year trial ,so we could all see exactly how this thing would positivly demonstrate lifting the living standards of those disadvantaged first nations people. ( oh.. and don’t worry about the rest of us in struggle street).
      But no, they had to demand we all take it their way or no way.
      Would also be instructive, for the sake of open disclousure and transparency, if the likes of Noel Person and Co, would list the number of and financial benefits of companies they own who will be recepitants of the wall of taxpayers money flowing into this proposal.

  3. What do the Indigenous Australians want? They have more privileges than non-Indigenous Australians. No affirmative action ever, and nowhere worked. Leaders endowed themselves using the system and playing the ‘guilt industry.’ Others live on the fringe of civilisation, draining welfare at a rate above the level of non-Indigenous Australians – they prefer this way. And the majority prefer to cultivate their culture by sitting around the bonfire. All of them complain. Free choice. Forty years ago, my family arrived in Australia; on the one hand, a kid, on the other hand, small luggage – four of us. Today, parents retire, and kids are highly educated working in high places. We are grateful to Australia for taking us. We did not need any Constitutional Amendment to drag us up. The system was good enough and still is. Is it not so that Primary and Secondary school are compulsory between the ages of 6 and 16? The State failed Indigenous Australians by letting them abscond and double failed non-Indigenous Australians by allowing the first and discriminating against the second (at their expense). How many ‘holy smoke’ dancers do we need – not 3% of the population? When will schooling be enforced to include the Indigenous 3%? Who will benefit from the Amendment? So far, all those who have helped themselves from the taxpayer’s purse, ‘leaders’ and non-Indigenous bureaucracy sitting on Government sinecures, committed to ‘holy smoke’ ideology and keeping Indigenous Australians around the bone fire. Nothing will change, except it will be more expensive.

  4. ‘Recognition’ is one thing. ‘A voice’ is another. It is ultimately an attempt to achieve total sovereignty (or dual sovereignty which is impossible) by 3% of the population over the remaining 97% as a final objective, as Lydia Thorpe and other radicals freely admit, but without the intervening subterfuge and deception. It includes reinstatement of ‘aboriginal culture’ onto 97% society that may respect it but do not want it forced on them at every public or sporting event
    SOVEREIGN. Def. supreme (leader), exempt from external control, and by implication, ruler with total power, ownership and control, politically, culturally and financially.

  5. The reason the referendum will fail is because the very proposition is racist. In 1967, over 90% of ALL Australians voted to remove the explicit racism against Aboriginal people from the constitution as was right and proper. For the last 50+ years, Aboriginal people have had the same rights and obligations as any other Australian in Australia and that includes freedom of religion, freedom of movement, the right to vote, and the right to make their own decisions. Of course, decisions have consequences and if you choose to live in a very remote location you must accept that the goods and services available in urban areas will not be available to you on your doorstep. And that is true no matter what colour your skin or where your ancestors originated.

    This 2023 proposal reinstates explicit racism back into the constitution and will give a minority cohort rights that other Australians do not have. The constitution will treat Aboriginal people differently to all others and THAT IS racist. And it is this racism the NO voters will reject.

    Ms Price was quite right when she said that constantly making victims of Aboriginal people does them no good service. The fact that 235 years after the First Fleet, Aboriginal people are still blaming the current generation of Australians for all their woes clearly illustrates her point. The VOICE will do nothing to change anything. Help should be afforded on the basis of need NOT the colour of your skin or genealogy. Governments at all levels know exactly what the problems are, they throw billions of dollars at them every year and nothing changes. It is practical solutions that are needed not another bureacratic gravy train for a few urban elites.

    • What a biased article. I hope that the No vote wins and wins by a big margin. This article is written to disrespect anyone who votes No and try to make us feel guilty for doing so. Red flags against the Yes vote are numerous. Albanese denies he has read the Uluru statement, but wants people to vote for an amendment to the constitution, but won’t divulge what it will mean. Jacinta Price organised a group of outback tribal elders to come to Canberra to meet Albanese and the Aboriginal Affairs minister. Both very conveniently cited other commitments so that they did not have to meet with them. How dis-respectful can you get? There are at least ten MP’s in Canberra of Aboriginal and Torrens Island heritage, but Albanese refuses to consult with them. Why doesn’t Albanese instruct the Attorney General to audit the hundreds of organisations, that claim to support the Indigenous people and receive federal funding, to find out what that money is spent on and why it hasn’t helped much at grassroots level? I very recently spoke to a NZ friend, who hoped fervently that Australia won’t make the same mistake that NZ has done.

  6. I think the one sided opinion written by the author of the article is the reason that the yes vote is on shaky ground. No matter which side wins this referendum the most disadvantaged people in remote areas will be no better off. The often quoted difference between indigenous people and non indigenous regarding life expectancy will not change, better results from education, welfare, employment opportunities are already in place, the proof is in the amount of very well educated indigenous people that access the availability of a good education, there are teachers, solicitors, judges, politicians and other professionals that are doing very nicely. The inner city indigenous people have a similar life expectancy to everyone else, the money indigenous organisations receive is vast, some of it is well spent some is not, nothing will change with another voice, maybe if they are not continually told that they are victims and have no future they might be able to move forward, we live in hope.

  7. If the “No” vote is successful, the PM and the “Yes” case need to own up that (1) they asked the wrong question – despite many public pleas to ask 2 separate questions and (2) the ‘trust us, the government will sort out the details” narrative does not hold water with today’s electorate. What government policies stand the test of time. Medicare – no longer fit for purpose. NDIS – despite 10 years in the planning, many more people are eligible than originally thought. Sell off public housing, electricity/gas providers, Qantas, telecommunications, water … all under the promise the private sector will do it cheaper – not true now and never was. (3) If there’s a Voice, indigenous people will have a say in things that affect them. So why is the Federal Gov ignoring NT people who don’t want fracking for gas we’re not allowed to burn. Why did the the SA Gov spend $13m taking indigenous people to court who didn’t want a nuclear waste facility on their land? Would either of those decisions been different had there been a Voice?

  8. The main reason it will fail is because Albanese has ducked and weaved, and avoided answering crucial questions about the whole proposal, and didn’t even know that there was more than one page to the Uluru statement, which by the way was not representative of all aboriginal communities, but more so a select group that comprised mostly urban woke aboriginals. Yes lots more has to be done for our indigenous peoples, but this was never going to be the right way.

    • Typical responses from people who obviously have neither read nor understood the actual referendum question or the Constitutional amendment: “… the Parliament shall, subject to this Constitution, have power to make laws with respect to matters relating to the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice, including its composition, functions, powers and procedures.” (Chapter IX Recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples, 129 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice, section iii). @Diogenes, @retep, @arbee are just rolling over to the dog whistlers of the Murdoch press – the question does not reference the imaginary additional pages of the Uluru statement. But unfortunately it’s typical of people who spit in the face of the decency and ‘fair go’ that used to epitomise the COMMONWEALTH of Australia, and the ANZAC spirit that fought the Nazis. There is nothing stopping a future conservative government (perish the thought!) of appointing the likes of Jacinta Price, Warren Mundine, Tony Abbott, or the ultra right wingers from the shadows of the No side to the Voice… The No side just seems to dredge all of their own insecurities and prejudice…. Vale Australia when we cannot have a respectful discussion on how we treat our fellow Australians –

  9. Disappointed to read a totally biased article, posing as impartial but suripticially supporting Albo’s yes point. I personally have experienced the priority given to first nation people when 45 years ago in Victoria I was notified I had obtained a Govt public house. I was a single parent, I gave notice at the unit I was living in, only to be told that ‘oops, a mistake, that house has already been allocated, we’ll look for another one’. I approached my local MP for help, who found out the house had been given to an aboriginal family who had been in Victoria less than 2 weeks. Less than 5 months later, that house was burnt down under suspicious circumstances. The family were given another public house. I’ve also traveled to Coober Pedy, Broome and Katherine, and have never seen so many houses utterly destroyed by misuse.

  10. Our country faces many challenges, including high inflation and interest rates, however the upcoming referendum on 14 October is also very important.

    This referendum is not simply about recognising Indigenous Australians in the Constitution. That can be achieved without tying it to a risky Voice.

    This Voice proposal goes much further. It would be the biggest change to our Constitution in history.

    It covers all areas of “Executive Government”. This means basically no issue would be beyond its reach.

    It risks legal challenges. The High Court would ultimately determine its powers.

    Some Voice supporters are upfront in saying that this will be a first step to reparations and compensation and other radical changes.

    It’s a big decision. However, the Government refuses to provide basic details.

    We don’t know how its members would be elected or chosen. We don’t know how it would make representations or be accountable.

    Australians are being asked to vote before these details are worked out.

    Enshrining the Voice into the Constitution would mean it’s permanent.

    When we need to unite the country, this divides us.

    This decision affects every Australian. For the sake of Unity we do not and never will require Racial co-governence.

  11. Hopefully when the referendum is defeated the PM will get on with the job to actually do something to address any disadvantages that aboriginal people have.That is the way forward.After all that is his job.Many existing organisations exist to help do this.If they are not doing what is expected then the PM should fix it.

  12. I’m tired of the false humility when it comes to racism throughout this whole world 🌎 in particular the USA our chosen world leaders, let’s give YES a shot who knows we may become world leaders against racism which is really what this is about, come on Aussie give it a go! Who knows we’ve tried everything else 👏❤️

  13. I have read this article and it just reinforces my view that the media industry are giving too much media to Those from academia whose views are rarely mainstream.
    This voice model is flawed and will not achieve to reduce indigenous disadvantage.
    A prime Ministers job is to represent ALL Australians and in this matter he has divided Australia and is way out of touch.
    Cost of living has not been in his mind.
    If you can’t pay bills you don’t have the money to address disadvantage.
    However what we need is Ministers representing First Australians to just do their job.
    Business sucking up to Govts by giving money to a cause would be better off spending that money directly to reduce disadvantage..
    Boards who represent shareholders but have no idea what a customer looks like…qantas,banks,even Woodside,just chameleons.
    The Prime Minister has failed us as he has divided the country in the eyes of the world.

  14. The Prime Minister “signed his own death warrant – the minute he signed the approval for the Constitutional change – and FUNDED THE “YES” VOTE ONLY!!

    This Prime Minister has NOBODY else to blame but himself – for wanting his name engraved on the “TROPHY OF RACISM!!”

  15. Wow. A clear one-sided view of the threats if the majority reject the voice. Sadly, it doesn’t come clean with all of the hidden elements or acknowledge this will create a more divided nation tan we have now.

  16. We would not had a need for a referendum if Howard hadn’t abolished ATSIC. ATSIC had regional councils who then elected Commissioners who advised government on aboringal issues. I worked for ATSIC until it was abolished. ATSIC worked and was a voice for aboriginals. There was no rational for Howard to abolish the commission.

  17. It seems to me that no one who plans to vote NO has actually read and understood the proposed amendment. Dutton plays people as fools when he instructs those who don’t know to vote no rather than to find out. His leading of the opposition is leading us towards civil war.

    • What an arrogant post. You seem to believe only you are right and those who have read and understand and can see the longer term strategy are a problem to be dealt with?

      Any referendum that divides the nation is not in the best interest of the nation. Giving a small percentage of the population control over Australia spells the end.

      The Government may as well have just handed our sovereignty to another country. Oh, that’s right. They’ve been consistently doing that for years, but held back by the constitution, which they now want to dismember!

      Lessons in how to destroy a country, step-by-step.

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