Making Voice a referendum on the Labor government 

Jul 11, 2023
My name is WOKE name tag on jacket.

By the time of the referendum on the Voice, No campaigners look likely to have turned it into a referendum on the Albanese government, and, probably into “wokeness.” It may be a tragedy if they do, whether for First Australians or the nation generally, because it will inevitably exacerbate divisions in the community.

It is a conscious attempt to harness the negativity of many Australians towards the expressed aspirations of a majority of our most marginalised and disadvantaged fellow citizens. It will also seek to harness to that cause every type of discontent, disappointment or anger at the current government and current circumstances, perhaps including high interest rates and the rising cost of living. Pretending too that a desire for reconciliation with and a new start for policies and programs in Indigenous Australia is but a fashionable cause of no value apart from virtue-signalling demeans and diminishes their situation and their citizenship by implying that any practical lack of equality in our system is their own fault.

Despite some polling evidence that majority support for the Voice is faltering, a widening of the argument also poses more dangers for the Liberals and the Nationals than it does for the government itself. That is something which may not be obvious to its leadership, which has consistently misjudged public opinion and the popular mood for a long time. After this was demonstrated at the Aston by-election, Opposition leader Peter Dutton seemed to double down when he sought to bind his party to opposition to the referendum. By itself, at least when an overwhelming number of his colleagues agreed with his strategy, he converted what had been an essentially bipartisan proposal into a partisan contested issue. Given the tribal tugs of party in a contest rendered as being Labor versus Liberal, he was, in effect, asking general supporters – more moderate than he – to choose between the interests of Indigenous Australians and the interests of the conservative parties. The principle on which he claimed to base his opposition – that it would create two classes of Australian citizen, one privileged with fresh “rights” at the expense of the other – may be rhetorically handy but is nonsense.

The special rights argument, along with the suggestion that it would breed non-stop litigation and a legal obligation to consult Indigenous Australians even about interest rates has been ridiculed by senior jurists, but their very style of doing so may confirm, to some classes of oppositionists, that there is truth in the proposition. That’s particularly the case where arguments are clothed in facts, logic and sequence. It is not so much that Australians have been rendered insensible to proper argument and debate. It is that many are weary of constant political conflict and abuse and respond more to appeals to emotions, their own experience and their own resentments about what the “elites” are said to be saying, thinking or doing. Appeals to prejudice – such as that the triumph of Yes will create another army of self-important bureaucrats in the way of any progress – have been field tested in focus-groups. So too with those thought to have extra credibility, or relative immunity from attack. The Institute of Public Affairs may be writing some of the scripts and have trained some of the players in the argument. But they understand their sponsors have little credibility in matters associated with Aboriginal welfare or citizenship. And they are well used to selecting spokespeople who can speak without decency or restraint, yet play the victim when their facts, their arguments, their sincerity, judgment or their personal records are put in question.

Alleged wokeness, greenness, being a denizen of the inner cities, or a consumer of café lattes or chardonnay are cobbled together to suggest not only a conspiracy by elitists, but also an alleged battle – US style – against left-wing media bias, fake news, the politically correct and a host of woke notions about inclusion, an alleged war against Americanised religious cults, separate women’s toilets and a partiality for boat people. One cannot, as such, establish a direct connection – let alone a conspiracy. But it is, after all, a notorious fact that people who hold politically correct views on some things – such as the rights of women – are likely to be the sort of people who are bleeding hearts, and activists, on Aboriginal issues. Once again, apparently, it falls to the quiet Australians – the silent majority – to put these unrepresentative opinions down.

The constantly shifting populist arguments of the No advocates.

One can never quite pin down most No advocates. If they invite public anxiety by warning of legal doubts and uncertainties about the impact of a constitutional amendment, their arguments will not be put down by citing the legal opinions of judges and constitutional scholars. All that will invite is dismissal of the opinions of some elitists, in a situation where one opinion is as good as anyone else’s. In any event, in an environment over-influenced by American politics and realities, it is obvious that judges will say and do anything – including turn the law on its head — according to their own political prejudices. Three decades of sustained abuse of judges by conservative politicians, not least Peter Dutton, has deprived jurists of status, reverence and respect. Indeed, judges are often held up as the ones to blame in the long running lament that there are privileged groups of insiders, with easy access to decision makers and special rights, while ordinary folk miss out or are screwed by the system.

Likewise Aboriginal leaders, academics and people with long histories of practical involvement in local, community, regional and national politics can be dismissed as elitists feathering their own nests, even as efforts to discuss the ideas, the careers or the backgrounds of some of the Indigenous No advocates lead to screams of personal abuse, playing the person not the ball, and claims that it is Yes advocates who are doing the polarising.

Forget for a moment who is orchestrating the affair. Consider instead those who think that a raucous and polarising argument can work to the benefit of conservative politics, and the coalition.

First, although the formal pamphlets putting forward the No case will have been written by coalition politicians, and although prominent Liberals, particularly Dutton, will be regularly having their two bob’s worth, and in the national media, whenever the case seems to be flagging, the coalition can afford to distance themselves to a degree from the dirtier parts of the conflict. Some prominent Aboriginal players are in the front ranks, and appear to be in charge of the strategies, the advertising and the content of the debates even when, as in many cases so far, those put forward in the town halls are the usual collection of angry old white men railing against the rotation of the spheres. The campaign is nicely organised so that it appears that any active participation is at a personal level, without either political party accepting general or collective responsibility for what is said or done. That coalition politicians, or individual ratbags such as Pauline Hanson, appear at meetings with people having no association with the coalition parties, underscores the appearance of no central direction, or collective accountability. If any argument, or tactic, slogan or advertisement causes offence, the smart advocates can personally disavow it without stepping back from their support for the cause.

The coalition can maintain this casual indifference and lack of responsibility for what is said or done – or for the outcomes – even as it has invited the electorate to vote on party lines. A No verdict cannot bring the government down. But if the referendum is pitched as a choice between the Labor way and the coalition way, the decision can be said to be a judgment on the Albanese government in action. Before the vote, and after it, voters can be asked to express their view on whether Labor is, or is any longer, “in touch” with public opinion generally, as well as on the referendum question. A mid-term government may have some unpopular policies which it expects to resolve before an election 18 months hence, but voters are not being asked to take a long-term view. The character of any unpopular Labor politicians or policies, or unfortunate events, will be part of the background against which people will cast their votes. The referendum debate is, on one side, a populist one exploiting lack of faith in, and cynicism about, politicians, politics and government action. How natural that the performance and trustworthiness of the government team, even on matters not directly concerned with the Voice, should be part of the argument. And how arrogant would the elitists be in trying to keep the argument on point.

It is easy enough to develop a scenario showing the Labor government the many risks of proceeding. And that is even assuming that the government can be reasonably confident that the ultimate outcome will be a yes vote. While the trend in the polls has been alarming, and has caused, as Noel Pearson commented, an outbreak of bedwetting, it has been only recently that the Yes side has come out into the debate. Until now, most of the running has been done by prominent No advocates. The reasoned and fair-minded rejection of their arguments by prominent Yes advocates has so far been ineffective. That’s not because their arguments are no good but because No advocates have been skilful in continually shifting ground, and in ignoring expert opinion. But one can surely expect a more professional and well-resourced campaign for the Yes case from now on. One that capitalises on many of the emotional, feel-good and heartfelt impulses of ordinary decent Australians. Ones that shift the waverers away from vague anxieties and residual preferences towards an optimistic vision of a new relationship. One that projects the debate as being about reconciliation with the past and the present, and a commitment to making things better in the future.

Labor’s Yes advocates have failed to cut through. A community-based campaign is vital.

It must be said that many Labor representatives are not much good at the stump speech, the clarion call or the mixed and uplifting appeal to the heart and the mind. Even Anthony Albanese, sincere as he has been, has been largely ineffective in moving public opinion, and generally wooden in presenting his case. Labor’s Aboriginal politicians have been somewhat more effective but have been struggling to cut through. So has the largely Aboriginal committee that has steered the debate so far. Collectively, the Yes side needs to take some professional advice about a more coherent, and a more inspiring campaign. And they need to spend advertising dollars to address some of the false impressions and scare campaigns of the No side. Certainly, the campaign cannot be won in the op-ed columns, the front pages, or on Facebook or Twitter alone. Perhaps a populist campaign, appealing to stereotype and prejudice might be best countered by a debate that embraces popular participation. The general sympathies of many mainstream journalists are not to be presumed, as, surely, the last election demonstrated.

But the problem need not be seen as too daunting. Labor might shrink at making the referendum a Left bandwagon and rally against Duttonism. But there’s the world of difference between that and fighting, perhaps with some diffidence, the war on the battleground that Dutton seems to want. There is not much evidence that Labor, in government, is yet on the nose with voters. Indeed, the evidence is very much to the contrary. Voters do not seem to be blaming Labor for inflation or marking them down for economic management. Dutton and his leadership team have been largely ineffective in creating effective negative images of Labor through Question Time debates, by statements on the hustings by shadow ministers, or by the pressure of events, here or abroad. Judging by the wider opinion polls any sort of plebiscite inviting voters to put thumbs up or down on Albanese or Dutton would bring bad luck for Dutton. The self-confident propaganda from Liberal acolytes in the media has not lived up to its billing for some time.

Dutton cannot win a campaign against ‘wokeness’ and would struggle in any plebiscite about the effectiveness of the Labor government.

It is likewise not to be assumed that a handy majority of Australians are sick to death of “wokeness” — whatever that is. Nor, indeed, that the “woke” are a tiny tribe mostly to be found in Balmain, Carlton, inner Brisbane and Canberra. The Australia Institute – a body Dutton might dismiss as a temple of wokeness – did a survey of wokeness, as it was widely imagined to be – in the recent past. It demonstrated that “woke” ideas and views about human relationships are spread widely through the community, and are not restricted by location, even by being a city as opposed to a rural dweller. It may well be true that the tribe of angry old white men – or in Pauline Hanson’s case, women – are considerably less likely to be woke than any other part of Australian society. But wokeness seems to pervade younger age groups, adherents to mainstream political parties, the professions, the trades and the working class. Many women are sympathetic to ideas about the elimination of discrimination, of tolerance, and a focus on inclusion and the things that unite rather than divide us. And that, for many, of not most Australians, increasingly means both a strong empathy with Aboriginal aspirations, a desire to close the gap, constitutional recognition and a commitment to a new era in relationships with our First Nations.

Peter Dutton lacks the persuasive skills to lead a crusade against wokeness. Indeed, if he lent himself to such a battle, his mere participation might incline the vote the other way. But that does not stop some behind-the-scenes players in Australian politics, including those clustered inside the IPA and News Ltd from yearning for a battle to the death against the imagined scourges of political correctness, cancel culture, and restrictions of the freedom to be a bigot in religious schools or the public square. Many seem to take their intellectual lead from the more extreme edges of the modern Republican Party in the US. They may have a lot of amplification, but the constituency is small and unlikely to triumph. Thank heavens.

Trends with wokeness, indeed, mirror the profound demographic shift in the population which is seeing out the rapid decline of the baby boomer generation – the one to which I belong. Australian politics is no longer dominated by vestigial memories of the Depression and War, and economic insecurity. The modern generation has not lived in this shadow. Its vision of nationhood involves inclusion, non-discrimination, and respect for other cultures. It has no nostalgia for the middle-class values of the 1950s, or the anti-intellectual affections of the Murdoch media and those in its thrall. It is “past” tedious debates about the rights of women, gays or the gender wars, or the urge to pick fights with Indigenous Australians, or to defend the angry old white man version of settler history. It looks ahead, not behind.

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