Will referendum defeat foretell doom for Albanese?

Oct 10, 2023
Male hands against Australian flag background.

There’s no spin or ex-post facto interpretation of the likely defeat of the Aboriginal Voice referendum able to disguise a resounding setback for Aboriginal Australians.

And for the principal Labor proponents of the ballot, and for Australians generally, not least in international reputation. Supporters should, of course, fight to the bitter end. But realists must now be considering what, if anything, can be retrieved from the debacle. In priority terms, not so much for the main advocates, black or white, or for the Labor party, but for the big losers, First Australians generally, and the common weal of all Australians.

The first step of facing up to the problem is accepting that the requisite majorities decided against the referendum proposition. Their reasoning is to be found within the slogans, the rhetoric and the appeals made by the No side, rather than characterisations from the Yes side.

There is no further point in attacking the logic, the reasoning, or the alleged racism of many of the advocates of the No coalition. Yes advocates had all the chance, all of the time, and all of the money in the world to prove the fallacy of these arguments. It ought to have been easier because most of the arguments were fallacious, mean-spirited or crude populism. Australians are not naturally mean-minded or stupid. But the Yes arguments failed to persuade enough people.

If I were Anthony Albanese, I would acknowledge defeat with some humility towards Australians, but discern within the vote a strong popular distaste for elites and insiders. I would quote, ruefully, some of the anti-establishment comments of Peter Dutton, Jacinta Nampijinpa Price and Warren Mundine – even Lidia Thorpe. All suggested a Yes vote would put existing insiders in charge. So called progressive Nos wanted more, and in a different order. The mainstream Nos wanted less but didn’t want the usual suspects up front.

If I were Albanese I would admit, post-result, that this view of insiders having too much access to government at the expense of ordinary citizens, was growing all over the world. I would deny that administration by elites was the intention but admit that I understood the perception. I would say that the sentiment, in Australia, had become stronger over the past decade. People were worried that there were privileged people who seemed to have the ear of government, when others could not get anyone to listen to them.

Rule by elites and insiders is a serious problem. For Labor as much as, in the past, the coalition.

I would claim Labor’s early actions against corruption, against allegations of jobs for the boys and girls in judicial appointments, and the winding back of the public service so that private sector contractors got lucrative work were actions against elitist government. So too with efforts to restore proper process in the public service and to prevent partisan handouts rather than ones based on need. But I would say the government knew the public wanted more.

In coming weeks Labor would be acting to put more supervision over the access and activities of lobbyists, including the lobbying activities of industry groups and think tanks. It would retain an open door to anyone wanting to make a case to government but take many more practical steps to avoiding suggestion of privileged access for insiders.

Likewise, Labor would attack revolving door arrangements by which military officers dealing with major acquisitions were moving smoothly, in retirement, to the boards of arms companies. And public servants, ministerial advisers and even, horrors, former ministers were getting Canberra jobs selling their inside knowledge of government. Using old connections and friendships to gain access to decision making on behalf of private sector clients. Some of this might be more innocent than it looked, but, he had to admit, it was not a good look. The public had every right to regard these cosy relationships with deep suspicion and the government would too.

As far as Aboriginal affairs itself was concerned, I would note that many, if not all, of the No advocates had acknowledged the need of disadvantaged communities. And the gap between the health, education, income and housing status between many Indigenous Australians and their fellow citizens. The government’s commitment to addressing that disadvantage and that gap would continue unabated – indeed with even more effort and more resources. At the same time, people on both sides had made many criticisms about the effectiveness of many programs and policies, and the government, in conjunction and close consultation with Aboriginal groups and organisations would be critically reviewing what was happening.

Of course (the PM should say) the referendum had been about better consultation with and listening to Aboriginal Australians. The result had seen the defeat of the mechanism Aboriginal people themselves had recommended, but he was going to make no apology for a continuing and renewed commitment to better involving them in the planning, organisation and control of policies and programs.

He had heard fears that First Australians might be getting extra rights and powers not accessible to other Australians. That had never been the case or the intention. But all governments attempted to organise their policies and their services to address needs and realities on the ground. All Australians wanted, or should want, programs to reduce the disadvantages and to address the needs of fellow citizens. Need and equity was fundamental. But this was not an intention confined to Aboriginal policy. Governments had long organised services for Australians at a disadvantage to others, whether in health, or education, or housing. Or in childcare. Or living in regions where services were less accessible. His government was continually rededicating itself to make such programs work better for all Australians, but especially the most disadvantaged ones, including First Nations people. He would rededicate himself to do that today.

Admitting loss not the time for bitter words, even against Dutton.

Words like this would do better to move past the defeat than bitter words directed at those who orchestrated the No vote. Even at Peter Dutton, whose motives at all times seemed deeply suspect. During the campaign itself, Albanese directly attacked Dutton and his words – if in my opinion too late, and much too politely. He failed to make it a referendum about Liberal political cynicism and the exploitation of latent ambivalence about the circumstances of First Australians. But carrying on with complaint, however justified, after the result would sound both like sour grapes and refusal to accept the verdict. It would, moreover, seem to be a switch from rightly attacking Dutton and his allies– to attacking the verdict of half of the Australian population.

But by putting the spotlight on No voters’ perception of elites, insiders, and Canberra folk having unequal access to the government ear would be taking the political attack directly to Dutton. Like the Republicans in the United Stares and now, absurdly, the Conservatives in Britain, Dutton fashions his oppositionism around the idea that he and his party operate at a deep disadvantage. The party of industry and of capital pretends it has no access to power.

The real elites of whom Dutton is a loyal servant are found in the banks, the giant mining companies and gas producers. In big construction, big agriculture, tobacco and grog manufacturers, big pharma and the retail sector. Big law and the consultancy industries. The owners and controllers of services such as aged care centres, child-care centres, the health insurance industry and the financial advice industry. And American-style church sects, who pretend that the Bible preaches individualism and self-reliance rather than social justice and love of the poor.

He pretends that power lies with the intellectual elites and asserts that such elites have ignored the interests and needs of the people, as represented by the coalition. Or have frozen out ordinary Australians. In fact, the coalition has little trouble getting its snout in the trough even from opposition. Labor folk are reasonably dab hands at it too. It’s the poor old mug punter who is missing out.

It seems passing strange that politicians such as Dutton become the leaders of parties of protest. In government or opposition, they purport to represent the little guy against the big institutions who have stopped listening to the authentic voters far away from the divvy-up. It’s in much the same manner that Donald Trump, billionaire, pretends to have the outlook of a redneck hillbilly, worried about American jobs, soaring government deficits and the way that white Americans feel themselves becoming a minority in their “own” land. Now, in Britain, any number of would-be or actual Tory prime ministers reach out for populist support from the constituencies they have most damaged.

Labor cannot let Dutton “own” resentment about elites in government. He, after all, is the ultimate insider.

A pseudo-war against elites, insiders, the (non-)elect and the woke is at the centre of the marketing image projected by Peter Dutton. The language of grievance and missing out allows constant opposition, with the business of politics being less about the division of the cake, or even the size of the cake, than about market-researched social issues and wedges having nothing to do with the practical business of government. It’s the politics of gesture, of slogans and refusal to get involved in practical debates about good policy. It’s the policy of being against every policy and spending proposal, while complaining about outcomes. It’s the policy of no, of social division and constant ideological war inside one’s own party as much as against other parties.

This popular style may well end up haunting a wider Australian politic for years to come. It shaped much of the No campaign. It constantly wrong-footed Yes leaders, who could not get a grip on the campaigners who cared little about consistency or a single message. Coalitions of the No became a movement. Coalitions of the Yes became a bit of a bore. Less about a moment by which white and black relations could be transformed and started anew. More about mischievous demands for details, scaremongering about what the referendum might enable, and never ever on point. The No side owned the passion, the emotion, and even, to a degree and from their own constructs, the logic.

For much of the campaign indeed, the failure to persuade was obvious. No doubt organisers, their advisers and their marketing people were pointing to ways in which the Yes argument was not cutting through. Perhaps they were offering alternative strategies and tactics, or perhaps some of those in charge were not listening, or were treating the evidence as personal criticism, to be rejected, or proof of the electorate’s stupidity or antagonism.

There will be ample time for inquests into a poor campaign, into arguments that did not succeed, appeals that failed to appeal, phrases and slogans that did not charm, or move hearts or minds. Those inquests, at least in private, may be unsparing of the campaigning capacity of some of the leaders, black and white, as well as of the backgrounds or habits of mind of some in the front rank.

We know it was an argument about a constitutional amendment, intrinsically a legal matter, but legalism, patient legal rationale and the arid logic of lawyers did not build constituencies, nor defeat notions that the legal effect of a Yes vote was to create two categories of citizen, or vest Aboriginal Australians with rights and privileges other Australians did not have. Lawyers make good parliamentarians, but few effective barristers can win an argument on the stump. Gough Whitlam, Doc Evatt and Bob Menzies may have had legal backgrounds, but never put their case to the public in legal syllogisms.

Nor did the formidable academic backgrounds of some of the leaders win many arguments in the town square. Indeed, many of their arguments – good ones – sold at a discount because they could be dismissed as of the elite, the impractical or the desiccated defence of existing, manifestly unsuccessful policies and programs. Though they left the Yes campaign open to the charge of elitism, arrogance and disregard for what some opponents, black as well as white, regarded as practical experience on the ground. Perceptions matter as much as facts. Emotions, empathy and feelings count as much as cold hard reasoning. Persuasion works on the heart as well as the head.

There’s no evidence that defeat of the referendum foretells doom for Albanese and the Labor government. The polls still have Labor ahead, and rate Dutton poorly. Although Labor has passed its honeymoon period, the failure of the coalition to issue any sort of alternative policy, and its own division and disunity in virtually every state suggest that Labor will still be there after the next election, and, probably, past the leadership of Dutton. That said, the referendum campaign showed many of the leadership weaknesses of Albanese, and his general inability to get a fix on a slippery rival who won’t stand for anything. And the success of Dutton’s tactic will give heart to many of Labor’s enemies and make the formation of any sense of national purpose more difficult. Albanese needs to lead. He needs to be struggling against the constraints – whether for First Australians, or the homeless or the disabled, as he plays sober and responsible. He couldn’t inspire Australians to deliver a brand-new day for members of the First Nations. He must give, at the least, some sign that he’s now trying harder for them as well as for his other constituencies.

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