Opinion: Politics cannot be 'the outsider' in Voice contest

Photo by kylie De Guia on Unsplash
Sunday 30 July 2023

By Mark Kenny

A version of this article was originally published by The Canberra Times.

Newest among the challenges facing the Voice referendum is the possibility of the Albanese government quietly hedging its bets in an act of damage control.

A senior figure privately conceded that there's a bit of social-political distancing already occurring. Others acknowledge that the campaign has lost momentum and may already be unsalvageable.

Labor's stock response when asked about a near-absent advertising and advocacy campaign is that politicians have played their role and handed it over to the people.

Peter Dutton obviously didn't get that memo, with his shadow Indigenous minister publicly fronting the "no" campaign.

In any event, we are being asked to accept that the governmental leadership vital to every major reform of the past is suddenly and mysteriously unnecessary in this case. Which is odd because what empirical evidence we do have - opinion survey data - points to the very opposite.

Things may, or may not, be as bad as they appear. Professor Matt Qvortrup, a renowned British academic expert on referendums worldwide, told me last week that support for controversial propositions often wavers and can even dive precipitously before recovering ground.

This was the trajectory for the 2018 abortion referendum in Catholic Ireland which sank before recovering to pass with 66.4 per cent of the national vote.

That's encouraging for social justice campaigners even if Labor's "over-to-you'" attitude seems blasé. After all, it's a big ask for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders, who constitute less than 4 per cent of the population, to swing a double majority against fierce opposition. With that kind of electoral clout, they wouldn't need the Voice to begin with.

Besides, do Labor strategists think voters will forget election night 2022?

A triumphant Anthony Albanese that night was no disinterested Meursault from Albert Camus's classic The Outsider. Rather, he was all heart and fully invested.

"I begin by acknowledging the traditional owners of the land on which we meet, I pay my respects to their elders past, present and emerging," an emotional Albanese kicked off, "and on behalf of the Australian Labor Party, I commit to the Uluru Statement from the heart in full."

The applause was as delirious as the pledge was unqualified. Substantive constitutional recognition became the new government's unrivalled first-term priority. Publicly and officially.

Labor's Caucus would subsequently bind its MPs to that noble cause. Confidence in a shared public enthusiasm for the Voice was sky-high.

Now though? The campaign against this reform has been vigorous, unrestrained, and to a puzzling degree, unmet in the public sphere. It has featured lies, exaggerations, racial tropes, and offensive front-running such as a call from one leading "no" campaigner for compulsory blood tests to establish Aboriginality.

The "yes" campaign has neither successfully rebutted these brutish intimidations, nor landed its positive alternative model of national unity, justice, and superior program design.

Increasingly, voters are becoming "undecideds" - a state propitious only for the naysayers.

Publicly, the contest feels asymmetric, unbalanced, and often unhinged with the widespread bandying of risible terms like Apartheid, special powers, and re-racialising.

The government shelters behind the worthy but unprovable prediction that the Voice will materially improve problems from lower Indigenous life expectancy, to higher rates of incarceration, illiteracy, domestic violence and joblessness.

On Friday, one of Labor's best and brightest, Treasurer Jim Chalmers, published an opinion piece in The Australian in which he hammered these themes and framed the Voice as a fiscally prudent mechanism for "making sure the billions of dollars we invest in programs are getting value for money and improving lives".

"If we're going to make responsible investments in the future that achieve what we need and what we want for our people, our country and our community, we need the Voice to get there," he wrote, describing it as "practical".

"The Voice is good economic policy too. It will help government listen to locals and direct money to where it's needed and working."

Clearly calibrated to the Oz's older, white male demographic, this was a pitch only a fiscal conservative could truly love - a bridge of hip-pocket self-interest to carry taxpayers across the yawning moral chasm of Aboriginal mistreatment and marginalisation.

Even at their most persuasive however, restrained good faith explanations struggle in an increasingly bad faith polity drowning in hyperbole. And that bad faith is growing wilder, bolder, unchecked and uninhibited.

The latest addition by Sky News will not help. The Murdoch-owned rolling news service has established a special Voice channel for the period leading up to the referendum. It goes out on free-to-air in the regions.

While Sky's main daytime news service can boast some of the nation's finest journalists - Chief Anchor Kieran Gilbert being a stand-out - few observers expect the dedicated channel to improve overall balance. Rather it seems likely to hasten the "Foxification" of a brand proudly defined by its recalcitrant "after dark" bellicosity.

Meanwhile, the opposition's contradictory opportunism goes untested. It opposes a constitutionally enshrined Voice because it would be "academic", "elitist" and "Canberra-based" but favours creating one anyway via legislation. It complains of "re-racialising" Australia via insertion of a Voice in the Constitution, but defends simple recognition ... in, guess where? The Constitution.

To be successful, this referendum must overcome all of this noise and the absence of bipartisan political support.

Perish the thought, then, that even within the side officially supporting it, a certain half-heartedness or creeping cowardice could further sap its momentum.

Mark Kenny is a professor at the ANU Australian Studies Institute and host of the Democracy Sausage podcast.

Updated:  31 July 2023/Responsible Officer:  Institute Director/Page Contact:  CASS Marketing & Communications