24 June 2024
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Dutton’s Voice ploy kicks own goal

Malcolm Mackerras
15 August 2023

On Wednesday 26 April there appeared in Switzer Daily an article by me titled “The Voice referendum will be carried”. After promising a further article as polling day nears, I wrote: “In the meantime I make my predictions which begin with me predicting Saturday 14 October as polling day.”

That prediction will be correct but my further prediction, that the Voice referendum would be carried, will be wrong – much to my regret. It has now become quite clear that the YES campaign cannot carry Queensland, South Australia and Western Australia which means it can’t win. That is sad but the reality which I now accept. For that reason, my commentary from now on will be on the politics that occurs when the Voice goes down.

I’ll write another Switzer Daily article later setting right certain details about the 1967 referendum, an event almost universally described wrongly. That is relevant because it involves comparing the situation of two prime ministers, Harold Holt in 1967 and Anthony Albanese in 2023. Both men were, in effect, required to square the circle. Holt was lucky, Albanese unlucky.

Now let me explain what I mean by squaring the circle. For Aboriginal Australians they can only get what they want by having a strong campaign for YES combined with minimal advocacy for NO. That condition was met in 1967 but not in 2023. For that reason, in 1967 the YES campaign deserved to win, and it did win. In 2023 the YES campaign deserves to win but will lose. More on that in my next article.

On the politics of the situation, I feel I must comment on the position of The Australian newspaper whose campaign is a disgrace. It describes (virtually) everything wrongly and there are two explanations as to why. The first is that it has become a propaganda sheet for the Liberal Party. The second is that it strongly backed the republic in 1999. For that reason, it describes the outcome of that referendum wrongly. The effect is to give itself a licence to blame Albanese at all times when Albanese deserves no blame. His unfortunate present position is due to his need to square the circle, an operation difficult to accomplish, unless you are blest by luck as Holt was in 1967.

So, let me give some examples of what I mean, all of which come from The Weekend Australian for 12-13 August, the most recent edition. On the front page there is an article by Dennis Shanahan and Rosie Lewis titled “Dutton’s preamble promise” in which praise is heaped upon Dutton for promising a preamble, a disreputable proposal which, when placed before the people by John Howard in 1999, was rejected overwhelmingly by Australian voters. In my earlier article I gave the statistics and I give them again. The affirmative vote was 4,591,563 (39.3%) and the NO vote was 7,080,998 (60.7%).

Howard’s preamble included these words: “. . .honouring Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders, the nation’s first people, for their deep kinship with their lands and for their ancient and continuing cultures which enrich the life of our country”. Needless to say (as I explained in my earlier article) I voted against those words but not because I disagreed with them. I voted against them because I do not see the role of a country’s constitution to be a history of that country.

A constitution is a practical thing. It sets up a system of government. It should not be a place where some pieces of history are included while other pieces are thought to be too unimportant to be included.

On page 14 of The Weekend Australian there was an editorial headed “Dutton position on voice poses a difficult challenge” to which the sub-heading was “Yes team has failed to learn the lessons of the republic campaign”. The editorial describes everything wrongly which is scarcely surprising from a newspaper which so comprehensively backed the republic in 1999 and now looks for every way to hurt Albanese it can conjure up.

Take this for sloppiness from an editorial writer not wanting to know the facts, and not wanting to get his statistics right: “There is no doubt constitutional recognition for Indigenous Australians is something that enjoys overwhelming public support. If this had been the question put in a referendum it is likely it would have enjoyed support similar to the 97 per cent achieved in the 1967 referendum that enabled Aboriginal people to be counted as part of the population and acknowledged as equal citizens, and for the commonwealth to make laws on their behalf.”

There is every reason to doubt that. The Aboriginal leadership would have campaigned for a NO vote with this request to the people: “We want to be recognised in a way acceptable to us, not in a way foisted upon us by Dutton and the Liberal Party.” And, by the way, the affirmative vote in 1967 was 90.8%. So, this editorial was typical of The Australian, sloppy in its thinking and sloppy in its details.

I praise Albanese for the way he has handled this referendum. He has done exactly what I advised a future un-named prime minister to do in an article under my name published in The Canberra Times on Monday 3 February 2014, nearly 10 years ago. It was titled “History in the wrong place” with a sub- heading: “The constitution is a system of government, not a history lesson.” I advised that un-named prime minister to ask the Aboriginal leadership how it wanted its people to be recognised – and, assuming the request were reasonable, then put that to the people. To his credit Albanese has done exactly that.

Coming back to The Weekend Australian, there was an article by Dennis Shanahan on page 17 in the “Inquirer” section. Its title was “Dutton’s voice ploy raises the stakes for PM” to which there was a sub-heading “The Opposition Leader is offering a choice for voters”. So, Shanahan has been able to praise Dutton for what is a thoroughly cynical ploy. Not only is Dutton praised for “offering a choice” he is praised for being politically clever.

Too clever by half I say. Albanese has ridiculed him in advance by saying the obvious – that voters are being offered a once-in-a-generation chance to recognise Indigenous Australians in the Constitution. So, let me suppose that Dutton, having defeated the referendum, later is prime minister and makes his offer. What will the aboriginal leaders say? This is what they’ll say: “Your mate Howard invented this idea of making the Constitution a history lesson, so we say this: Europeans invaded Australia, killed and dispossessed its owners and gave them European diseases. Those owners never ceded sovereignty.” Etcetera.

Obviously, Albanese is right. This is a once-in-a-generation chance for voters. When I say that to NO voters they typically say: “I don’t care”. Fair enough, but they accept my prediction. They don’t care and, in a way, I don’t really care either. But I am honest enough to assert that Albanese is telling the truth and that he is doing the right thing for which he should be commended. Dutton will win the referendum, but it will do him no good in the eyes of the history books.

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