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17 October 2023

Australia’s Brexit moment: why the Indigenous Voice referendum failed

The Yes campaign failed to provide voters with a consistent, compelling message.

By Tim Soutphommasane

The decision by Australians to vote not to recognise indigenous people in their constitution – by 61 per cent to 39 per cent – is a stinging rebuke to a long-running campaign for change. The cause of reconciliation – a reckoning with the country’s history and legacy of colonial dispossession of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people – is now dead for at least a generation.

For those watching from outside Australia, this seems to confirm the country’s inability to deal with racism and discrimination. That, too, is how many Australians are reflecting on the weekend’s vote.

Not all that long ago things looked different. On the night that Labor won the general election in May 2022, the new prime minister Anthony Albanese began his victory speech by committing to the “Uluru Statement from the Heart” – a manifesto of indigenous community leaders from 2017 that proposed the creation of “Voice”, a body that would advise parliament on issues affecting indigenous people. For the first six months of the Labor government, polls showed majority support for the idea. What went so wrong?

The explanation is simple at one level. Australia is at heart a conservative country where constitutional change is difficult to achieve. The requirement of double majorities – both a national majority and a majority of states – sets a high bar for any referendum to clear. Since the Australian colonies federated in 1901, there have been 45 referendums on changes to the constitution: only eight have passed.

When Australian voters do endorse change, it has invariably been supported by both major parties. As with the last time Australians voted at a national referendum – in 1999, they rejected becoming a republic – the proposition did not enjoy bipartisan political support. Once the right-wing opposition Liberal leader Peter Dutton stated he would oppose the Voice in April, the path for change narrowed dramatically.

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The No case took an unrelenting approach to its opposition. Its advocates argued a Voice would divide Australians and do little to make a practical difference to the lives of indigenous people. They presented ignorance as a virtue: “If you don’t know, vote No.” Their case did not want for profile. The former Liberal prime minister Tony Abbott (2013-15) was a prominent Voice critic, warning about a “power grab” by indigenous activists intent on entrenching separatism into the constitution. Another, John Howard, prime minister from 1996-2007, urged fellow No voters to “maintain the rage” against the Voice.

Yet it was some newer Liberal voices whose interventions were pivotal. Jacinta Nampijinpa Price and Warren Mundine became the indigenous faces of the No campaign. In September, Price delivered an address at Canberra’s National Press Club, claiming that indigenous bodies sought to “demonise colonial settlement in its entirety and nurture a national self-loathing about the foundations of modern Australian achievement”. Colonisation, she said, had “a positive impact” on indigenous people, as it meant they now “have running water, readily available food”.

[See also: Donald Tusk spies path to power in Poland]

As the campaign went on, thoughts that people previously kept quiet were now more frequently being said out loud. Many indigenous Australians had feared the referendum would license racial prejudice and bigotry. Their concerns were proved right. Debates saw many airing their discontent about indigenous Australians supposedly enjoying special treatment because of their ethnicity and race. There was a predictable wave of misinformation and conspiracy theories. One well-circulated claim suggested that private land title would be converted to indigenous native title, prompting fears that a Yes vote would see Australians losing their land and property.

For many supporters of the Voice, this was evidence of a dishonest and unedifying No campaign. But it also highlighted the deficiency of the Yes case. There was no consistent, compelling message to which people could turn. Those in the Yes camp inexplicably assumed the better angels of Australians’ nature would prevail – that Australians would agree there was an intrinsic worthiness to the Voice because it was an idea generated by indigenous people. As Albanese described it, indigenous people’s proposal for a Voice was “an invitation extended with humility, grace and optimism for the future”. But in a country where a significant number of people do not even know anyone who is indigenous (just 4 per cent of the population fall into this category), many could not truly understand the Voice’s meaning. Hope does not always trump fear.

It is tempting to conclude that Australia has had its Brexit moment. While those in affluent inner-city areas in Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane and Canberra resoundingly voted Yes, the outer suburbs and regions overwhelmingly voted No. Australia is far from one nation. It is divided not just by postcodes and incomes, but also divided between indigenous and non-indigenous.

Saturday’s result leaves the Albanese Labor government with a profound challenge. The Voice was meant to be the signature reform for the government’s first term. Defeat is a blow to Albanese’s credibility, though his supporters say he showed courage in not retreating from his promise on election night. 

Albanese and his ministers now have the task of bringing the nation together, having been humbled by the laws of Australian political gravity. The referendum’s failure has revealed the country still lives under the shadow of Howard’s conservative nationalism. It is a place still deeply uncomfortable with national self-reflection, not least about its colonial history and ongoing injustices. It is still a country of sun and surf that may just prefer, as Howard once extolled, to be “relaxed and comfortable”.

[See also: Sinn Féin sees false equivalence in Palestine]

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