The ‘Who’ of the Referendum

5 October 2023

By: John Roskam

And a Liberal future for No-voting Labor voters

Over the years I’ve read my fair share of management books.  During my seventeen years as executive director of the Institute of Public Affairs I’d try to read  one or two of them a year.  Out of all of them two that stand out – ‘Good to Great’ by Jim Collins and ‘The Hard Thing About Hard Things’ by Ben Horowitz.  It’s interesting. Those dozens of management books all say nearly exactly the same thing.  Leadership boils down to one thing – picking good people.  As Collins says it – ‘First who…then what’.  This is from ‘Good to Great’:

…we expected to find that the first step in taking a company from good to great would be to set a new direction, a new vision and strategy for the company, and then to get people committed and aligned to that new direction.

We found something quite the opposite.

The executives who ignited the transformations from good to great did not first figure out where to drive the bus and then get people to take it there.  No, they first got the right people on the bus (and the wrong people off the bus) and then figured out where to drive it.

Collins believes there’s three truths to the ‘who’ of a business.  The first is that you need the right people because they can more easily adapt to changing circumstances.  Second, ‘if you have the right people on the bus, the problem of how to motivate and manage people largely goes away.  The right people don’t need to be tightly managed or fired up; they will be self-motivated by the inner drive to produce the best results and to be part of something great.’  Then, ‘Third, if you have the wrong people, it doesn’t matter whether you discover the right direction; you still won’t have a great company.  Great vision without great people is irrelevant.’

Of course you do need to have some idea of the ‘what’.  Horowitz has a good line – ‘As the great self-help coach Tony Robbins says, ‘If you don’t know what you want, the chances that you’ll get it are extremely low.’  But the point remains – it’s all about people.  That’s true in business.  And in politics.

By now you probably know where I’m going with this…

If the polls are correct and the Voice referendum is defeated in ten days’ time it will in large part be due to people like Senator Jacinta Nampijinpa Price, Warren Mundine, Anthony Dillon, and Wesley Aird.  Without the ‘Who’ of the No case, the ‘What’ would not have been communicated anywhere near as effectively.  I think the ‘What’ of the referendum – that Australians are being asked to overturn a fundamental principle of liberal democracy that all citizens are equal – speaks for itself and goes against every tenet of the Australian way of life.  But – as we know, nothing every actually ‘speaks for itself’.  Ideas don’t explain themselves.  It needs a ‘Who’ to communicate the ‘What’.

Bob Hawke without the ‘Who’ of Paul Keating and John Howard without the ‘Who’ of Peter Costello are hard to imagine.  I’ve written before that one of the tragedies of Tony Abbott’s prime ministership is that he didn’t really have a ‘Who’ in his cabinet – instead he had on his bus Malcolm Turnbull – proof of Jim Collins’ third truth.

The single most important thing Peter Dutton has done in his nearly eighteen months as opposition leader is appoint senator Jacinta Price as the shadow minister for Indigenous Australians.  It’s a ‘Who’ decision that could make Dutton prime minister.  It’s a decision he got right after making the wrong decision of first appointing Julian Leeser, a strong Voice-supporter into the role.  It’s not inconceivable that notwithstanding the Liberal Party’s eventual decision to oppose the Voice, if Leeser had asked to remain in shadow cabinet he would have been accommodated.  There would then have  been no role for Price, and she would have led the campaign for the equality of citizenship of all Australians as backbencher.  Price arguing the case for No as a first-term senator, rather than as shadow minister, might not have produced a different outcome – but it might have.  It’s ironic that in all likelihood Leeser’s resignation from the Coalition frontbench and creating the vacancy filled by Price increased the No vote.

It wasn’t a foregone conclusion that Peter Dutton and the federal Liberal Party would oppose the Voice.  For example, Dominic Perrottet as New South Wales premier supported the Voice, as does Jeremy Rockliff the Liberal premier of Tasmania.  Libby Mettam, the leader of the Western Australians Liberals originally said she was voting Yes before she changed her mind, while Queensland Liberal leader David Crisafulli supports a treaty but not the Voice.

This is what Chris Kenny wrote on the weekend in The Australian about how close the Liberals were to supporting the Voice.  This excerpt explains the importance of the ‘Who’ – and the role of Jacinta Price.

Anthony Albanese should not have claimed a mandate for implementing the Uluru Statement from the Heart in his election night victory speech last year without at least promising to reach across the aisle for a joint approach.

Peter Dutton was close to supporting the proposal as one that was constitutionally sound and practically useful – it also could have been a political opportunity to soften and modernise his image and that of his party.

In the end it was the strident advocacy of novice CLP Senator Jacinta Nampijinpa Price that pushed the Nationals to oppose the voice first; she shot to prominence as a voice for marginalised Indigenous communities, so has provided a human shield for staunch opponents in a divisive debate.  When Dutton decided the Liberals would follow suit and formally oppose the proposal (rather than allow a free vote, as you might expect of a liberal party) it immediately made the referendum task enormously difficult, if not impossible.

I have a high regard for Chris Kenny as a journalist and writer – he was good on lockdowns and is excellent on climate change and energy.  But he’s mistaken about the Voice.  It says everything about the rise of identity politics and about how the ‘old’ beliefs that we are all equal regardless of our background have been cast aside so that Kenny argues that to support enshrining racial division in the constitution would ‘soften and modernise’ the image of Dutton and the Liberals.  And to speak of Price as a ‘human shield’ does Kenny no credit.

Along the same lines as Kenny suggesting Liberal support for the Voice would have ‘softened’ the party’s image, a recurring motif of left wing journalists is that the Liberals’ road back to power requires the regaining of the so-called ‘Teal’ seats.  Supposedly regaining those seats and getting back into government is put at risk by the Liberals’ position on the Voice.  Katharine Murphy ran this argument in The Guardian yesterday, saying of Dutton and the Voice – ‘Being relentlessly negative is not a strategy for convincing undecided, disengaged voters you are worth a look.  It is not a strategy for winning back the Teal seats.’  (It’s always amusing when Guardian or ABC journalists give political advice to the Coalition.  It’s hardly disinterested counsel.  Urging the Liberals to attempt to win back Teal seats is more about the desire of commentators to have a left-leaning Liberal Party than it is about genuinely wanting Liberals to win the next election.)

Murphy couldn’t be more misguided.  If Peter Dutton and the Coalition are to win the next federal election they need to get the support of No-voting Labor voters – not Yes-voting Teal voters.  There’s a key fact in all the opinion polls on the Voice that Anthony Albanese and the Canberra press gallery never talk about.  More than one-third of Labor voters are going to vote No.  This is hugely significant but because it’s embarrassing to the Labor Party and to every one of its state and federal MPs who support the Voice it’s a finding that’s ignored.  According to the latest Newspoll survey 36% of Labor voters, 23% of Greens voters, and 81% of Coalition voters will vote No.  Based on the first preference votes for the House of Representatives at the last federal election that’s 1.7 million Labor voters who’ll be voting No.  Compare that figure to the number of first preference votes for all the eight successful Teal candidates at the election – which was 283,000.

Let’s put that another way.  For every one voter who voted for a winning Teal candidate at the federal election there are six No-voting Labor voters.  That’s right.  It’s 1 to 6.

Leaving aside this overwhelming electoral arithmetic there’s other things to consider.  Whose votes would the Coalition prefer?  And which set of policies would be closer to conservative principles – those required to get No-voting Labor voters or those needed to get Teal voters?  And even if it won back all eight Teal seats that would only take the Coalition 64 seats and 76 seats are needed to form government.  The Katharine Murphys of the press gallery never explain where those dozen extra seats are going to come from.

There’s other calculations you can do.  If every Yes-voting Coalition voter switched their vote to Labor and every No-voting Labor voter switched their vote to the Coalition, the Coalition would gain one million extra votes. It’s primary vote would go from 36% to 43% to put it in an election-winning position.

Certainly real-life politics isn’t as simple as this sort of electoral modelling, but the numbers are stark.  Some of the few commentators who’ve noticed the proportion of Labour No voters have said you’d expect to see the Coalition vote improving as the No vote has increased – which hasn’t happened.  The same Newspoll poll that had the No vote at 56% had the Coalition primary vote at 36%.  To which I’d respond – that’s true, but so far Peter Dutton and the Coalition haven’t tried to get those Labor No voters.  It’s interesting to speculate whether if for example the Coalition announced it would oppose Net Zero and replace it with a policy that prioritised the affordability, reliability, and security of energy the Coalition would win more votes than it would lose.  (I think I know the answer – and I think more than a few Coalition MPs know the answer too.)

What I’ve been reading

In The Australian on the weekend there was an outstanding article on the Voice and identity politics article by Peter Baldwin, a former minister in the Hawke and Keating governments and a self-described person ‘of the left’.  Baldwin is one of the country’s most thoughtful commentators.  In his piece ‘Indigenous voice to parliament: How progressives lost their distaste for racial prejudice’ Baldwin wrote:

The left used to unqualifiedly condemn racial vilification, the deprecation or abuse of people based on skin colour, or some other racial characteristic.  The were no inferior or superior races; there was no hierarchy of merit grounded on racial characteristics.  The aspiration of Martin Luther King that everyone be judged by the content of their character, not the colour of their skin, was the guiding principle.

Now we live in an age of racial guilt, where vilification is licensed – provided it is directed to the right targets, of which there are two.

The first racial category it is OK to vilify is, of course, the category of ‘white people’, who possess the property of ‘whiteness’, from which flows all manner of pathologies, including ‘white’ ways of thinking that value objectivity, empirical verification, and a strong work ethic…

The other category it is legitimate to vilify – even in more egregious terms – are certain ‘people of colour’, members of racial categories deemed oppressed, who decline to stick to the script the identarians deem appropriate to their racial identity.  As the superlatively woke American congresswomen Ayanna Pressley put it, ‘we don’t need more brown faxes that don’t want to be a brown voice, or black faces that don’t want to be a black voice’.

You see, oppressed people are expected to speak collectively, to represent faithfully the approved narrative for their group.  They should know that deprecating your own culture is strictly a whites-only privilege.

To get the full article you need a subscription to The Australian but if you don’t have one you can read online for free a longer piece by Baldwin in Quadrant Online from which his weekend piece was drawn – ‘The Progressive Case Against the Voice‘.  It’s excellent and a very significant contribution to the public debate.