On 7 June, 2022, shortly after the election, I wrote in this space http://www.crispinhull.com.au/2022/06/07/risk-of-going-too-early-with-voice/#more-12486 that Prime Minister Anthony Albanese ran a big risk if he went to the referendum too early because, since the 90 per cent pro-Indigenous vote in 1967, too many underlying myths had built up, namely that, since Mabo, Sorry, and massive government spending, Indigenous people had become privileged with special treatment, and did not deserve any more special treatment.
Without those attitudes changing, the referendum risked defeat, I wrote. Those attitudes have not changed. If anything, the referendum campaign has hardened them.
In the months after writing that, I and many other Yes voters thought, very naively, that Australians were better than that: that we would not fall for the sort of misinformation and conspiracy theories that delivered the tragic Brexit and Trump results in Britain and the US. Silly me.
True, the consequences in Australia will be bad, but not as bad as in Britain and the US. Britain has become an economic basket case and, though the US has been partially rescued from Trumpism, it might only be a temporary respite because its destructive return threatens.
Nonetheless, in Australia we will have to accept that scare-mongering, misinformation, and conspiracy theories will remain a fundamental feature of all our politics, not just the treatment of First Nations people.
It means that any sensible reform becomes so hellishly difficult that our political leaders will give up or at best restrict their expenditure of political capital to just a few minor things.
A lot of the blame must lie with Opposition Leader Peter Dutton. If he had joined his state-level Liberal colleagues in supporting the Voice, it would have won a comfortable majority. But he chose a short-term, petty victory over a national attempt at healing.
His action illustrates the ease with which a great number of Australians can be lied to, duped, and scared into rejecting change for the better. And they all vote. It seems that democracy is its own worst enemy – at least until or unless some broad education in civics and critical thinking takes hold.
Dutton’s actions in whipping up the conspiracy theorists adds an extra element of difficulty to government in Australia. His “success” in defeating the referendum will not be looked upon kindly by Teal and young voters. Far from adding to his stature, his actions will make it that much harder for the Liberal Party to regain inner-city seats and without them attaining government will be impossible, as will getting moderate voices in its party room.
In short, the Opposition will be relegated to a rural, regional, and old people’s party. That is fine for the National Party which time and time again retains it seats. But it is no future for a centre-right Opposition. It means the Opposition in Australia is reduced to a yapping far-right irrelevance, at least for the medium-term. That is not good for democracy.
In Australia, we will also have to accept that changing our Constitution is as good as impossible. Constitutional changes to make government more effective and efficient will be impossible.
To illustrate the problem, at least one of them is quite pressing. The workload of the Members of the House of Representatives is being hopelessly stretched. The size of the House has not been increased for nearly 40 years. In that time, the number of people each MP represents has gone from about 125,000 to 173,000 people.
Day-to-day representation work leaves little time for more reflective or investigative politics.
But the Constitution says, in the nexus clause, that the House can only be increased, if the Senate is increased, too. An increased Senate will make it easier for shrapnel parties to get seats, making government that much harder. In general terms, the nexus clause says the House can be no more than double the Senate.
Removing it should be an obvious straight-forward matter in the national interest. But the conspiracy theorists and self-aggrandisers would inevitably spook scared, apathetic voters into believing it would result in compulsory euthanasia; the banning of religion; the end of free speech; and the fluoridisation of Covid vaccines.
The nexus was intended to ensure states’ rights were not compromised, but the Senate is no longer a “states’ house”, if it ever was one. It is a party-line house. Australia does not need any more senators, but that possibility makes increasing the House more difficult.
When this referendum goes down, it will show that Australians do not deserve control over their Constitution. Indeed, the most significant constitutional changes in Australia have not come through referendums, but through legislative change and interpretation by the High Court.
The Commonwealth’s huge expanse of power since Federation has come through the High Court’s broad interpretation of the taxation, foreign affairs, and corporations powers, among others.
Indeed, this now appears to be the only way to make some changes to constitutional arrangements. For example, a government could still get the Parliament to legislate for a Voice, for fixed terms of Parliament, and even for a republic (by providing for a direct or indirect election of the person to be nominated as Governor-General by the Prime Minister).
The changes might not be as encompassing or as satisfactory as a change to the wording of the Constitution, but they could be done, and when people see the changes working well, the conspiracy theorists, scare-mongers and self-aggrandisers would lose their traction.
As this referendum is showing, their ability to publish nonsense directly to the people via the internet is threatening the good government of the country.
All that said, I am still hoping the pollsters have blundered and Australia has a generous heart and we wake up a better nation on 15 October.
This article first appeared in The Canberra Times and other Australian media on 3 October 2023.
Crispin Hull is a former editor of The Canberra Times and regular columnist.