Australia’s Voice to Parliament Referendum went down in flames in the October 14 vote. An overwhelming majority of Australians voted “no” to the proposal to “alter the Constitution to recognize the First Peoples of Australia by establishing an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice.”
While this result was not unexpected, the size of the loss was. Sixty percent of voters rejected the proposal.
The result has unleashed much soul-searching. Is this a statement about Australia’s attitude toward its Indigenous peoples? Is it about which side ran the slicker campaign? Among these many questions, there is one aspect of this result that is crystal clear. This is a huge loss for Prime Minister Anthony Albanese and his government, which staked enormous political capital in their early months in office on bringing about this change to Australia’s constitution. Those claiming a win with the rejection of the referendum may have won themselves a pyrrhic victory as their political tactics have opened deep national wounds while not offering a viable alternative to address the ongoing disadvantage of Indigenous communities throughout the nation.
The results are deeply revealing, as was the acrimonious campaign. Credit is due to Albanese for having the guts to lead with this issue, whatever the cost. In a rare display of political conviction, Albanese followed through on a promise to honor the Uluru Statement from the Heart, an Indigenous appeal written in 2017 aiming for constitutional recognition and the establishment of an Indigenous advisory committee to the government of the day. Albanese framed the referendum as recognizing the 65,000-year history of Australia’s First Peoples and atoning for the many wrongs of White Australia, so Australia’s Indigenous peoples can forge better futures.
Albanese’s ideals were beyond reproach, but the execution of the plan to actualize them was riddled with miscalculations and missteps. Albanese and his advisors took the path that needed the highest bar to succeed, constitutional change that requires a majority of voters throughout the nation and a majority of the six states voting in favor of change. In Australia’s political history dating from 1901, there have been 44 referendums; only eight have succeeded. With one very notable exception, these successful referenda have sought procedural changes like the retirement age of federal judges or management of state debts. None has passed without bipartisan support. This was the uphill path Albanese opted to take.
Added to this challenge, the referendum was about an idea. No defined and detailed outline of the advisory board and its function was offered to voters. Instead, the explanation given was that once approved by voters, the Parliament would make these decisions. So, this path also required a leap of faith and trust that politicians would take this idea and make it a workable and equitable representation of Indigenous Australia.
The other great misstep was that Albanese and his government assumed that the case for a Voice to Parliament had been made. There may have been decades of historical rewriting and dissemination into the national consciousness; court cases, inquiries, and reports centering on shocking aspects of Indigenous experience; and a dedicated campaign for Reconciliation in the 1990s led by Linda Burney, who as Albanese’s minister for Indigenous Australians led the government’s referendum effort. But when it came time to sell the referendum to a dubious constituency, the case was poorly made.
Another assumption that shaped the Albanese government’s approach was the belief that the huge electoral support that carried him into office in May 2022 would readily translate into support for this constitutional change. This was painfully dispelled on October 14.
The absence of concrete detail handed an opportunity to Albanese’s political opponents. The Liberal Party/National Party Coalition in opposition, beleaguered by the May 2022 election that eviscerated their ranks, was in desperate need of political traction. Peter Dutton, the opposition leader, was struggling to connect with voters. The referendum offered a golden opportunity the opposition seized upon. The slogan “if you don’t know, vote no” became a simple and catchy weapon to sow the seeds of doubt in voters’ minds.
Added to this, the Liberal/National opposition opened a political playbook that took their campaign down the path of divisiveness while pouring salt into raw wounds. The central issue of the Voice to Parliament – addressing Indigenous disadvantage, which both sides agree is an immense challenge made worse by years of government failures and ineffectiveness – got drowned out by the blood sport of a political campaign, greatly aided by the pervasive Murdoch press, where the object was to win at any cost.
The opposition promoted two Indigenous leaders, Warren Mundine and Senator Jacinta Nampijinpa Price from the Northern Territory, who also serves as the shadow minister for Indigenous Australians. Both led the charge and argued that the majority of Indigenous people were not in favor of this change. Price’s political profile has been burnished and greatly elevated by the campaign, but she landed such heavy blows on Indigenous leaders involved in the “yes” campaign that her ability to achieve the consensus needed to effect real change for Indigenous communities will be impacted. Her narrative about Indigenous disadvantage, how it came about, and how it needs to be solved is one deeply conservative elements in Australia want to hear, but it is one that will be difficult to square with Australia’s history and Indigenous experience to date.
Results from polling booths in the remote Northern Territory showed a majority of Indigenous voters indicating strong support for the Voice. If Price wants to lead Indigenous Australians, and not be an Indigenous politician appeasing Australia’s most conservative constituencies, she will have much work to do. The same can be said for all the other Indigenous leaders who were prominent throughout this bruising campaign.
There was no state where a majority voted for the constitutional change. Only in the Australian Capital Territory, where Canberra is located, did 60 percent of voters favor change. The task of drilling down into results to discern what they reflect about Australia’s populace and its attitudes to the abiding polemics around race is now underway.
There are already some notable results that cast a pall over the opposition’s celebration of this referendum result. Some of the safest opposition coalition seats voted “yes.” As with Albanese’s assumption that electoral support in the May 2022 election would translate into support for the Voice, the opposition must accept that the referendum results are not a direct line to electoral support going forward. During the campaign, Dutton floated the idea of another referendum that recognizes Australia’s Indigenous people. Since the referendum results, the opposition leader has already backed away from that undertaking, because it is bad politically.
The cause embedded in the referendum has suffered a mortal wound with this outcome, as the Indigenous Voice to Parliament has been strangled by hands seeking short-term political gains.