Has Peter Dutton doomed the referendum, or has he doomed himself?
My guess is the latter. To be clear, Dutton is being deceitfully manipulative with the Australian people.
He has the audacity to refer to the referendum proposal as “the Canberra Voice”.
What are the facts? His policy in opposing the referendum was decided by a meeting of senior Liberals in Canberra on Monday 3 April. He then called a party meeting in Canberra on Wednesday 5 April at which he put the policy without giving notice or warning to backbenchers or any chance for them to go back an seek views in their electorates, let alone getting an Indigenous input.
It was plonked down as a fait accompli. There would be a bland statement of recognition of Indigenous people in a clause in the Constitution, but no provision for a national Indigenous advisory body in the Constitution, just legislated regional ones.
Dutton’s plan for a voice was hatched in Parliament House Canberra – right in the middle of the Canberra Bubble. It was conceived in Canberra by politicians and approved in Canberra by what remains of the Liberal Party after the 2022 election.
If ever there was a “Canberra Voice” it is the Dutton one. This is the Dutton Canberra Voice.
Contrast this with the referendum proposal. Its genesis arose with the appointment of the Referendum Council in December 2015 by then Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and then Opposition Leader Bill Shorten. For more than a year the council consulted all around Australia with Indigenous groups and others. It then convened the First Nations National Constitutional Convention at Uluru which drafted the Statement from the Heart and released it publicly in May 2017.
Wide consultation, with lots of detail over a long period.
Uluru is 2,620 kilometres from Canberra. The Uluru Statement is not a Canberra statement. It is not a Labor statement. It was made at a time when Labor was not in power and through a process that was set up by a Coalition Government in consultation with the Labor Opposition.
Dutton’s statement is even more pernicious than ordinary Orwellian doublespeak. With doublespeak, politicians gloss over something horrible with euphemistic language, such as “collateral damage” or “downsizing”.
With Dutton’s reverse doublespeak, he gets something broad, aspiring, and worthwhile and condemns it with narrow, distasteful words: “the Canberra Voice”.
Worse, this is shamefully hypocritical because it is Dutton himself who has produced a distasteful Canberra Voice.
Maybe enough people will see through that and the referendum will pass. After all, the idea of a tokenistic, paternalistic statement of recognition without anything more was rejected by the people in 1999. People rightly asked then, as they will be asking Dutton now: how can you be genuinely aiming to recognise people, without first asking them how they would like to be recognised.
However, there are other reasons why this referendum will pass. It has history and historical trends on its side. What, I hear you say. Surely 36 of 44 referendums have been lost and none has been won without the leaders of both major parties supporting it.
But dig wider and deeper. If you add the two World War I conscription plebiscites and the marriage-equality plebiscite and look at the details of the 47 votes, a pattern emerges.
Of the 11 Yes votes, nine were what I call fairness matters or matters favouring the weak over the strong – just like the Voice referendum. The message is that, when asked, Australians will play fair.
Of the 36 No votes, nearly all were seeking greater Commonwealth power; jigging around with constitutional machinery in a way that could easily arouse suspicion; or were seen as seeking narrow political advantage.
Indeed, one of the No votes – banning the communist party – was in fact a vote for fairness in favour of the weak over the strong as well as a rejection of increased Commonwealth power.
When you look at the 36 No votes, perhaps only one was a fairness issue: the rights and freedoms vote in 1988.
There is a solid history of Australians voting for the fair thing in referendums. The nature of the referendum is a much better indicator of its chances of success than leadership support.
The historic trend is also important. it is true that no constitutional referendum has been approved without the approval of the leaders of both parties.
But the last time the opposition of a major party doomed a referendum was in 1988, 35 years ago. At the election the previous year the losing Liberal Party and its Coalition partners got 44.7 per cent of the first-preference vote. I stress, first-preference vote.
Last election, it was down to 35.7 per cent. Even if all of them take their leader’s queue to vote No, Dutton is well short. It is difficult to see the Coalition’s paltry support translating into a majority for No in three states, which is what is needed to defeat a referendum.
These days, people are much less likely to blindly follow party leaders’ bidding and are no longer rusted on supporters of whatever their party’s leader says. Most do not even see a political party as “their” party.
The mantra stating that unless both major leaders support a referendum, it will go down is about as useful these days as saying, if a major church opposes a referendum, it will go down.
This article first appeared in The Canberra Times and other Australian media on 4 March 2023.
Crispin Hull is a former editor of The Canberra Times and regular columnist.