Anthony Albanese cemented victory in the 2022 election by being mostly highly cautious and having Labor run, by and large, a tight campaign. If he loses the Voice referendum, which is looking very likely, his own overreach and the “yes” campaign’s ill-discipline will carry a good deal of blame.
Albanese will be responsible for the former, but a victim of the latter.
He could have put a more modest referendum proposition, albeit one that Indigenous leaders would have condemned as not going far enough. But he could not impose order on the “yes” campaign, because he’s only in charge of the government’s part of it.
This has arguably been the worst, and most depressing, week for the “yes” march towards the October 14 vote.
By now, the accumulation of polls has put the prospect of carrying this referendum into near-miracle territory. A month of campaigning remains, so it’s not over, but it would take a great deal to turn the trend to “no” around.
Beyond the blame game and the political fallout, defeat would confront Albanese with an existential personal question. Did he do the Indigenous cause serious harm by embarking – with the best of intentions – on a mission possibly doomed from the start? Did ambition overcome judgment and a sense of history?
In the event of a defeat, it will be a legitimate question, however much condemnation rains on Peter Dutton and other “no” advocates. One of the strongest (negative) arguments for voting “yes” is what we will be left with in the event of a “no” win.
Trying to pick up the pieces after a failed referendum will be extremely difficult. So far, there is no evidence the government has a fallback plan. But it needs to craft one, because a void filled with little but anger or apathy or both would leave the country in the worst of places. While polling has found people want to see improvement in Indigenous lives, on the other hand we are already seeing some resistance to Welcome to Country and the like.
Yet what would be the nature of a post-defeat plan? Legislating a form of Voice after a referendum loss would be seen as flying in the face of the result – although a non-constitutional Voice might be acceptable to many “no” voters. Anyway, Albanese has indicated he won’t go down that path.
Given he was so measured in the rest of his election pledges, it was uncharacteristic of Albanese not to be more careful on this one. Perhaps he did think, as he often says, it was a modest ask. Perhaps he overestimated his own persuasive power, or underestimated the impact of the inevitable scare campaign. Perhaps he simply ignored the compelling story of past referendums.
To maximise the referendum’s prospects, maybe it would have been better to have held it with the next election, when there would have been a less intense spotlight on it.
In the referendum campaign, Albanese is seeking to make a virtue of the fact non-government campaigners are to the fore. In theory, that should be a strong point. But this week we have seen how damage can be caused by things outside the government’s control.
Marcia Langton is one of the biggest names in her generation of Indigenous leaders. In her early 70s and with an impressive academic career, she has been a formidable, passionate advocate over decades, a take-no-prisoners fighter for Aboriginal causes, a woman who says what she thinks, and then some.
Langton was co-author, with Tom Calma, of a seminal report on a Voice under the former government, and a member of the Albanese government’s working group on the referendum.
At a weekend meeting in Western Australia, Langton let fly about the “no” campaign. “Every time the ‘no’ case raises one of their arguments, if you start pulling it apart you get down to base racism, I’m sorry to say it but that’s where it lands. Or just sheer stupidity.”
That’s what she actually said. It was wrongly reported as Langton saying “no” voters were racist, which meant she had to get out the fire hose later. Even in its accurate form, however, the comment was sure to be regarded as provocative.
It was always going to be impossible to expect the broadly based “yes” campaign speakers would carefully watch their words (although the canny Noel Pearson has indicated he’s curbed his well-known caustic tongue and sometimes inflammatory language). But loose lips (or spontaneous frankness) will likely be costly for the “yes” side.
Worse was to come when various Langton comments from the past were dug up, including a derogatory one about opposition Senator Jacinta Nampijinpa Price, the leading Indigenous woman of the “no” campaign, and her mother Bess, who was formerly in the Northern Territory parliament.
This Voice battle has become, in part, a black-on-black argument. That damages the “yes” side, by showing divisions among Indigenous leaders and undermining the proposition the Voice has overwhelming Indigenous support.
The campaign has seen the emergence of Price, aged in her early 40s and so a generation younger than Langton, as a tough, articulate and fearless political warrior. In federal parliament only since 2022, she has become the most prominent face of the “no” campaign.
Her consistent pitch has been that the Voice wouldn’t advance closing the gap and that the issue divides the country on racial lines.
Like Langton, Price gives no quarter. Appearing at the National Press Club on Thursday, she had a sledge at Langton (dating from their joint appearance there some years back), and when asked whether she believed “the history of colonisation continues to have an impact on some Indigenous Australians”, she was blunt. “No. I’ll be honest with you. No, I don’t think so,” and went on to point to positive impacts.
As opposition spokeswoman for Indigenous Australians, Price (who is in the Nationals) made it clear she will project her own loud voice when the Coalition puts together its post-referendum policies. Asked whether she agreed with Dutton’s policy for legislated regional and local voices, she said: “There are certainly conversations taking place and […] need to be had, within our party rooms, within shadow cabinet, to determine what it might look like to amplify and support regional and remote communities. […] And I am absolutely going to be front and centre with those discussions and those determinations.”
Federal parliament rose on Thursday, to the government’s relief, and won’t sit against until after the October 14 vote. The partisan battle over the Voice in question times this week was an unedifying, uninformative free-for-all.
Early Thursday, Albanese met former AFL star Michael Long for the final leg of his marathon walk from Melbourne in support of the Voice. It was a positive and optimistic moment for the PM in what, for him, must be an increasingly disheartening campaign that is now perhaps accompanied by some soul-searching.