Reflections on 14 October

24 October 2023

By: John Roskam

The referendum result was a statement about the equality of all Australians

I spent 14 October at Ravenswood Heights Primary School in Launceston wearing a t-shirt saying ‘Vote NO to the Voice of Division’ and handing out ‘How to vote NO’ leaflets.

I was there because Tasmania was supposed to be a ‘swing’ state in the referendum. In the end Tasmania voted 59% NO. At the last federal election the two-party vote at Ravenswood Heights was Labor 61%, Liberal 39%. At the referendum the NO vote was 74%. Ravenswood Heights is in Bridget Archer’s electorate of Bass. Archer, a Liberal might be a strong supporter of Yes – but her electorate isn’t – it voted 62% NO.

There’s a lot to discuss from the referendum. What Zhou Enlai is reputed to have said about the consequences of the French Revolution – ‘It’s too early to say’ applies to 14 October. I’ll be writing much more about the referendum in the weeks and months ahead, particularly on what the outcome means for the future of Australian politics and what it says about us as a country. The referendum result proves the contest for our culture and our way of life can be won.

For today I’ll talk three particular aspects of the referendum:

  1. Why NO won
  2. The fundamental flaws of YES
  3. Would have happened if the Voice had bipartisan support.

1. Why NO won

‘NO’ won for two reasons: because of its central argument – that all Australians should be equal; and because of the leadership of Jacinta Nampijinpa Price and Nyunggai Warren Mundine.

Both conditions were required for success. Messages no matter how true or powerful, if not communicated effectively are merely words. And leaders without a purpose are not leaders.

The central message of the NO campaign – ‘Vote NO to the Voice of Division’ encapsulated two truths – one explicit and negative (no to the Voice dividing us) and one implicit and positive (yes to Australians being united together). I’m not sure the deep meaning of something as simple as those seven words has been fully appreciated.

As Daniel Wild, Deputy Executive at the Institute of Public Affairs has written in this week’s The Spectator Australia numerous opinion polls identified that the number one reason Australians voted NO was because they believed the Voice would divide us by race. Arguments about the legal uncertainty and lack of details about the Voice played a role but were nowhere near as significant as the core issue of principle around the Voice – racial division. Much was made by the YES side of the slogan ‘If you don’t know vote NO’ – but that’s not why the Voice was defeated. In any case there was simply no way of knowing what the Voice would be and how it would operate. There were no answers to basic questions such as whether members of the Voice would be chosen or elected and who would qualify to be a member.

Jacinta Price and Warren Mundine spoke passionately about their love for their country – and when they spoke they meant it. Before them, the only other people in politics and public life who have spoken that way about Australia are Tony Abbott, John Howard, and Bob Hawke. That’s it. There might be others but there wouldn’t be many. ‘Patriotism’ is a word you almost never hear in Australia anymore, but Price and Mundine spoke as patriots who care about their country. There’s many words you could use to describe Anthony Albanese but ‘patriotic’ wouldn’t be one of them.

When Price and Mundine said the Voice would divide us by race many Australians were given permission to vote NO.

2. The YES case was riddled with contradictions and unanswered questions

Given what I’ve just said it’s hard to see how YES ever could have won. Perhaps the best chance for success would have been for Albanese to have called the referendum within six months of his election while he was still enjoying his political ‘honeymoon’. In August last year support for the Voice was at 65% and it peaked at 71% in February this year. The Voice campaign was basically eighteen months long and the longer it went and the more people found out about the Voice the less they liked it. Over time its contradictions became more apparent.

These are just three of the questions the YES campaign did not answer.

(a) Was the Voice ‘a modest request for a non-binding advisory committee’ or ‘a powerful force for change with a political veto’?

Too many times Albanese and leaders of the YES case were caught presenting two entirely different versions of the Voice – sometimes it was a ‘moderate proposal’ and sometimes it was a ‘radical restructure of the Australian government’; sometimes it was the first step towards a treaty and sometimes the two were completely separate issues; sometimes the Uluru Statement was ’15 pages long’ (as described on page 146 of its official history) and sometimes it was just 440 words, and to suggest otherwise was, according Albanese ‘nonsense and conspiracy’.

While the PM was suggesting the Voice was ‘nothing to be afraid of’ and ‘advisory’, Megan Davis was presenting a completely different conception – ‘Parliament will not be able to ‘shut the voice up’ and the Indigenous body will speak to ‘all parts of the government’ including the cabinet, ministers, public servants as well as statutory officers and agencies from the Reserve Bank to Centrelink’ and ‘the point’ of the Voice was that it was not ‘limited to matters specifically or directly related to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples’.

Greg Craven, a YES supporter wrote in The Australian yesterday about the letter from indigenous leaders issued on Sunday evening in wake of the referendum’s defeat. According to the letter (that was unsigned) ‘Australians have committed a shameful act’. To his credit Craven acknowledged the letter revealed a far more extreme position from those leaders than that they’d previously presented to the public. For example – ‘We do not for one moment accept that this country is not ours. Always was. Always will be. It is the legitimacy of the non-indigenous occupation in this country that requires recognition, not the other way around. Our sovereignty has never been ceded.’

Craven admits:

The most alarming aspect of the letter is the view that it presents of the modern Australian nation state. Allowing for deep hurt, loose language and insider terms, it comes very close to repudiating the Australian polity along with its constitution. Many or most of the writers may not have meant this, but words do haunt.

This is not about the commonplace recitation of sovereignty and land unceded. The letter specifically questions the ‘legitimacy’ of non-indigenous ‘occupation’. It say the Constitution belongs to ‘those for whom their founding fathers originally intended it’, and not indigenous people. That ‘founding document’ continues the process of colonisation. This is not the laying of charges against past wrongs, or calling for action on clear present failures. It is a challenge to the ongoing legitimacy of Australian’s constitutional and national foundations. It is Lidia Thorpe, not Neville Bonner.

Whatever the hurt this referendum has done to indigenous people, there is no future in this rhetoric. It is a dead-end car wreck for indigenous and non-indigenous Australians alike.

The editorial of The Australian today about the statement puts it well:

Unfortunately, the language used will only confirm in the minds of many NO voters that they made the right decision not to open the way for those with separatist ideals to be inserted into the Australian Constitution.

(b) Was the Voice creating a special right available to only some Australians?

Right up until 14 October we were constantly being reassured the Voice did not create special and separate rights for a segment of the Australian population. This was the view of the government-appointed ‘Constitutional Expert Group’ on the referendum. As Professor Anne Twomey wrote in December 2022:

The expert groups was also unanimously of the view that the proposed amendment would not confer ‘special rights’ on anyone. It would instead establish a body that could make representations to parliament and the executive.

The proposed constitutional amendment does not confer special rights upon people to participate in, or choose the membership of, the Voice.

Once voting had finished the story changed. Jacqueline Maley wrote in The Sydney Morning Herald on the night of the referendum in an article titled ‘Devastating Verdict – Australia tells First Nations People ‘You are not special’:

NO voters don’t want any difference enshrined in our constitution. Some of them think Aboriginal people already get enough privileges. You can call it egalitarianism, or you can call it a racialised version of the tall poppy syndrome: no special treatment for you. Australia has said to its First Nations people: you are not special.

Twomey and Maley can’t both be right.

Waleed Aly’s politics is of the left but he can be an astute observer of Australian politics. In The Sydney Morning Herald last week he acknowledged what the NO case had been arguing all along. His piece was headlined ‘Australia turned on the Voice, but it wasn’t because of racism’. I’ve given you a long excerpt below because I think it’s important as the only recognition from a YES supporter (at least that I’ve seen) of the core of the NO case.

Two things seem true. First, that Australians were initially open to the Voice, and second, that in the end it wasn’t even close. The drop-off in support itself isn’t unusual in Australian referendums, and is a common feature of the ones that lose. But ultimately the margin was simply too big to suggest the Voice could have been tweaked to victory, or that a better Yes campaign would have done the trick. [That’s my view too.] In the end, something about the idea itself didn’t quite match the intuitions of enough Australians.

The best account of this I’ve seen comes from pollster Jim Reed, who concluded that Australians will vote to ‘award equal opportunities to individuals regardless of their attributes’, but won’t vote for something that ‘treats individuals differently’.

Here, he’s comparing the same-sex marriage plebiscite with the Voice referendum, and in the process identifying the central obstacle the Voice never overcame; that it was exclusive to a subset of Australians. That, of course, was the whole point given the level of indigenous disadvantage and the history of government’s failure to consult First Nations people on the policies that are imposed upon them. But it is nonetheless a serious shift in the way Australians tend to think about their government…

Viewed from this angle, the Voice referendum vailed for exactly the reason the 1967 referendum succeeded. Both concluded that the Constitution should hand everyone the same basic status.

Put differently, the Voice was a collectivist idea based on an assertion of group identity, trying to find a home in a broadly individual constitution. I think there were powerful arguments for doing so. But they were not easy or intuitive arguments to make. The Voice was always trying to thread this impossible needle. It had to present itself as modest, yet meaningful; to show it had no formal power, but would nonetheless make a practical difference. And it had to convince an electorate that it would achieve greater equality by treating citizens differently.

If the YES campaign had acknowledged from the outset that the Voice would ‘treat individuals differently’ YES would still not have won, but at least its arguments would have been founded on an honest assessment of what the Voice actually was. But even so, no matter how honest YES might have been it would never have been able to rebut the truth of the declaration from John Roberts, the chief justice of the US Supreme Court – ‘The way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race.’

(c) What difference would the Voice have made?

Maybe, if the government could have demonstrated the Voice would have made a practical difference to the lives of indigenous Australians perhaps the public would have accepted some degree of differential treatment. But the government was never able to explain how a ‘non-binding advisory committee’, albeit one enshrined in the constitution, would have any greater success than the dozens of committees that had gone before it. Many Australians would be doubtful about the suggestion that the way to overcome indigenous disadvantage was by creating yet another government committee.

As sincere and well-meaning as many supporters of the Voice might have been, the YES campaign was never able to overcome the suspicion that for at least some of its prominent supporters, the Voice was as much about the development of a radical agenda of separatism and sovereignty as it was about the idea of a committee advising the parliament and the executive. The language and sentiments of the statement from indigenous leaders following the defeat of the referendum have done nothing to allay those suspicions.

3. The Voice would have been defeated even if the Coalition had supported it

Paul Kelly was right when he said the day after the referendum – ‘Given the YES vote will be around 38% [it is currently 39.4%], it is most unlikely the Voice would have passed even with formal bipartisanship.’

The complaint from the Labor Party and the YES campaign that the Liberal Party’s opposition defeated the Voice has no evidence to support it. The NO campaign was not led by the Liberal Party and while a number of Coalition MPs did actively campaign for NO many did not. Bipartisanship would not have overcome the Voice’s central flaw – that it divided Australians by race. In any case, if as Labor and the YES side would believe the Voice was doomed to defeat as soon as Peter Dutton opposed it, the question is why then did Anthony Albanese proceed with the referendum.

The final word on this my first email to you after the referendum must go to my old boss, Dr David Kemp. David was not only a professor of politics, and a reforming education minister in the Howard government, he is also the country’s foremost historian of political ideas in Australia. His five volume series Australian Liberalism is magnificent. On the Monday after the referendum he wrote an important piece for the Australian Financial Review. This is some of it:

ENLIGHTENMENT IDEAS DEFEAT THE IDENTITY POLITICS OF THE DISCRIMINATORY VOICE – The arguments for the referendum failed because they challenged the fundamental principles of Australia’s liberal democracy and longstanding political culture.

Australians need not fear the result of the Voice referendum, not give undue regard to those who say that it has inflicted lasting damage on reconciliation and on recognition of indigenous people.

In the referendum debate, Australia’s Enlightenment liberalism, based on equal citizenship for all and humanitarian respect for the individual, was forced to confront the new culture of identity politics and defeated it.

Identity politics is a philosophy that interprets liberal society as divided between exploiting and and victim classes. In the 19th century and for half of the 20th century, these classes were deemed to be capitalists and proletariat. Today these classes are based on race and gender.

The flaws of this modern version of Marxism, however, damned the Voice as a viable project…

To an adherent [of identity politics], it is persuasive simply to name the identity group being privileged. Identity politics misled the government into imagining that the mere fact that indigenous activists wanted the Voice was an argument in its favour. As most Australians believe, that is no argument at all.

Again, only within the ideology of identity politics can it become ‘racist’ to refuse to treat individuals principally as members of a race. Most Australian still believe it is racist to grant a privilege to one group of citizens over another – on whatever basis, race or indigeneity, matters not.

The main issues of gross disadvantage are to be found among the 20 per cent of Aboriginal people in remote communities, not among the 80 per cent living in major towns and cities. The 2021 Census recorded that of 813,000 people identified at that time as having Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander ancestry, 516,000 (63 per cent) also noted that the