Paul Bongiorno: Righting wrongs puts Voice referendum in box seat

by Paul Bongiorno

Earlier prime ministers have heralded false dawns promising First Nations people they would receive the recognition and respect so long denied them.

But Anthony Albanese is determined to break the mould, and there are precedents for his success.

At the Garma Festival of Traditional Cultures in remote East Arnhem Land at the weekend, Albanese acknowledged “a referendum is a high hurdle to clear; you know that and so do we”.

He said he recognised the risks of failure. But the greater risk, he later clarified, is “not advancing at all”. That would be “an admission of failure, a concession of a lack of success”.

His Special Envoy for Reconciliation and the Implementation of the Statement from the Heart, respected Aboriginal elder Senator Patrick Dodson, agrees.

Patrick Dodson
Senator Patrick Dodson believes the referendum will show where we are as a nation.

He says the time for stalling is over, and if the referendum fails to get a majority of votes in a majority of states, it is a reality check of where we are as a nation and how far we have to go.

Much has been made of the overwhelming number of referendums that have failed but there is a clue in those that have succeeded which suggest Albanese is on much firmer ground than the naysayers and the doubters might think.

Precedent for success exists

The most successful referendum was the 1967 granting of recognition to Indigenous Australians as full citizens to be counted in the Census, with almost 91 per cent of voters supporting the yes case – the highest ever recorded.

This referendum was essentially about righting a long-recognised wrong.

The Liberal prime minister at the time, Harold Holt, said it demonstrated to the world Australia’s “overwhelming desire to give full acceptance to the Aboriginal people in our community”.

The next successful batch of referendums was in 1977.

They were proposed by Malcolm Fraser, the Liberal prime minister who benefitted from the rupturing of convention and exploitation of loopholes in the constitution that led to the dismissal of the Whitlam Labor government in 1975.

Malcolm Fraser succeeded with three of four referendum questions. Photo: Getty

Three of the four referendum proposals succeeded, and they were essentially fixing the gaps that led to the brazen exploitation of vacancies in the Senate that thwarted the democratic will of the people as expressed at the previous election.

In other words, a perceived wrong was recognised by the people of Australia, acknowledged by the prime minister of the day, supported by the opposition, and convincingly passed by the required majorities.

More than lip service

When we come to the question of recognising the status of the people who share this continent with us and whose forebears predated our arrival by thousands of years only to be brutally dispossessed, we clearly have another wrong to be righted.

And as the Prime Minister says, these First Nations people have generously given us a way to do it in the Uluru Statement from the Heart.

Albanese is promising to enact it in full: Voice, treaty and truth with a simple referendum question that essentially asks voters if they accept the principle that such recognition should exist – how it is implemented is then up to the government and Parliament of the day.

The precedent for bipartisan acceptance of recognising Indigenous Australians in the constitution goes all the way back to John Howard in 1999 and repeated in 2007.

The Voice, however, is more than paying lip service. It gives flesh to the bones, creating an important adviser with standing while at the same time accepting the absolute primacy of the Parliament.

Indigenous Voice In Parliament Referendum

Analysis of two polls on how people would vote on the question of a Voice released by the Australia Institute suggests strong support across the board for it.

The institute’s executive director Ben Oquist says: “The research shows increases in recent months, including with Coalition voters who are now in majority support.”

So, while the overall numbers are encouraging – in July 65 per cent would vote yes, up seven points in a month – there is overwhelming support in the four largest states, which augurs a big win for the proposition.

No wonder some Labor insiders are anxious for the referendum to be held as quickly as possible.

Opposition Leader Peter Dutton remains open minded about the proposal. Photo: AAP

Opposition Leader Peter Dutton declined an invitation to attend the Garma festival, though allowed his shadow minister Julian Leeser to attend. He says he has an open mind pending detail.

Sure to exercise his thinking is the result that shows 56 per cent of Coalition voters would vote yes, again a significant 7 point improvement in a month.

Dutton’s Coalition partner, the Nationals, seem more attuned to what is happening.

Their leader David Littleproud says the opposition “wants to be constructive and I think that’s what Australians want”.

But there is a way to go, and a cloud on the horizon is the attitude of senior Liberals like Michaelia Cash, who see the referendum in terms of an Albanese “vanity project”.

If it is reduced to such a crass partisan contest then the hurdles could well prove insurmountable.

Paul Bongiorno AM is a veteran of the Canberra Press Gallery, with 40 years’ experience covering Australian politics