Politics Opinion

Voice referendum is risky business for Albanese Government

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(Cartoon by Mark David / @MDavidCartoons)

As the Labor Government moves towards the Voice referendum, PM Albanese needs to consider the potential risks that may render the campaign unsuccessful, writes Ross Stitt.

MUCH HAS BEEN SAID about the political risk to Opposition Leader Peter Dutton if he doesn’t support the referendum on the Indigenous Voice to Parliament. But the real risk-taker here is surely Prime Minister Anthony Albanese.

Any national referendum poses two risks to the Government — the referendum’s unpopularity with voters who oppose the proposed change, and the impression of government incompetence if it fails.

But there are additional risks attached to the Voice referendum.  

The first relates to the outcome. If the referendum fails, or indeed if it succeeds but by a narrow margin, there could be significant damage to race relations in Australia and to the country’s international reputation. Peter Dutton may well play a role in such an outcome, but the Government, as the promoter of the referendum, will inevitably cop most of the blame.

The second risk relates to the current economic climate. As 2023 progresses, Australian borrowers will be battered by soaring mortgage rates. Add to that continuing high inflation and rising unemployment, and the outlook for many is grim. 

Against a backdrop of growing voter distress and discontent about the economy, much of the political discourse this year will be devoted to the Voice referendum. Many voters, fixated on hip pocket issues, will view the referendum as a distraction from the economic crisis.

The third risk is that the referendum debate could create a socio-cultural division that ostracises part of Labor’s own electoral base.

To date, the Government has relied heavily on rhetoric to promote the Voice. Voters are told that Voting “Yes” is the right thing to do and means being on the right side of history; that with “education” they will see the light.   

The Prime Minister asserts that the Voice is above politics and that those who oppose it are trying to start a culture war.  

This approach risks sending the message that a “Yes“ vote is the only morally acceptable one and that a “No” voter must be either ignorant or racist.  

That message is reinforced by social media where opponents of the Voice are derided as racists and bigots.

The trouble is we’ve seen this movie before. In the 2016 U.S. Presidential Election, many voters reacted badly to being lectured on cultural issues by the Democratic Party. Hillary Clinton made a fatal mistake when she described half of Republican voters as a basket of deplorables.

Nothing alienates voters like condescension.

The risk for Labor is that a similar dynamic will arise around the Voice referendum. Many voters will be offended if the message they hear is that the referendum is a binary choice between doing the right thing and being “deplorable”.

How has the Prime Minister got himself into this position? Understandably terrified at the prospect of a repeat of the disastrous 1999 republic referendum, his strategy has been the avoidance of complexity. Keep it simple. Don’t confuse the voters.

Unfortunately, the PM has confused simplicity with a shortage of both information and advocacy. The initial promise that details on the nature and operation of the Voice would be finalised later was always dangerous. Unsurprisingly, others have filled the vacuum, leaving the Government responding on an ad hoc basis to issues as they flare up in the media.

The latest public wrangling over whether the Voice would advise “executive government” is a classic example. Uninformed Australians just see a war of words between competing “experts”. And that feeds doubt, the referendum’s worst enemy.

The overall impression is of a government that’s reactive rather than proactive, a government that’s lost control of the referendum narrative.

Enshrining a non-binding Indigenous advisory body in the Constitution shouldn’t have been this difficult. The goodwill among non-Indigenous Australians, the acceptance of the unique role of Indigenous Australians in the nation’s history and the widespread view that we need to close the gap should have been enough to ensure success for a well-planned and properly executed referendum process.  

Unfortunately, that’s not the process we’re seeing.

Unless the Government lifts its game quickly, it risks a divisive and potentially unsuccessful referendum campaign. And serious political damage. Those disappointed and/or offended along the way could include large and diverse sections of the population from First Nations people to financially distressed Australians, the progressive Left to the culturally disgruntled Right.

Political mismanagement makes strange bedfellows.

Dr Ross Stitt is a freelance writer specialising in politics and economics. A former lawyer, he has a PhD in political science. You can follow Ross on Twitter @ross_stitt.

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