Australia’s Prime Minister Anthony Albanese, urged his fellow Australians to take “the opportunity to make history” this weekend. And they did, but not in the way that Albanese had so fervently hoped. His government’s referendum, which aimed to change the country’s constitution to entrench an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander advisory voice to Australia’s parliament and executive government, was defeated by a majority of voters in all Australian states.
The final margin, 59 percent to 41 percent between Yes and No, was not just decisive. It was a landslide of resounding proportions, almost a mirror reversal of the polled support for the Voice as recently as April.
The biggest defeat was in the traditionally deeply conservative state of Queensland, but even in Victoria, which is dominated by an ultra-progressive state government, handed the Yes campaign a solid hiding. Looking at the result by parliamentary seats, the relatively few wins for Yes largely were in affluent urban constituencies inhabited mainly by university-educated and younger voters.
Humiliatingly for Albanese, few of the seats held by his Labor Party voted for the Voice. Even the Sydney seat of indigenous affairs minister Linda Burney — the minister, herself Aboriginal, charged with coordinating the government’s determined campaign for Yes — soundly defeated the referendum question.
Albanese couldn’t use the authority of his office to ensure the Yes camp spoke consistently and respectfully with one voice for the Voice
Albanese, and the indigenous activists who came up with the Voice and who were driving the Yes campaign, offered few details of what the Voice would be, in practice, in fear of scaring off voters with too much detail. They looked at the early opinion polls and felt complacent that they had the Australian public solidly with them. But they did the opposite: the lack of detail proved unsettling for voters, and right to the end they refused to do more than sketch out how the Voice would work, what its jurisdiction would be, and what would happen if the constitutionally entrenched advisory body’s advice was overruled or ignored by the government of the day.
The Yes message was deceptively simple: vote for the principle and leave the rest to us. In a country where opinion polls routinely rank politicians as hugely untrustworthy, that was a heroic assumption for the Yes campaign to make, and they paid a crushing price for making it.
There was also overwhelming support for Yes from business, social, political and media elites. The campaign outspent its opponents by a large margin, and big businesses donated lavishly in cash and in kind. Yet all that achieved nothing, and late polling indicated such identity politics and virtue-signaling was resented by much of the voting public.
For the No camp, led by two Aboriginal politicians, conservative senator Jacinta Price — by far the most effective campaigner on both sides — and respected political figure Warren Mundine, the result was a vindication of their tireless efforts, criss-crossing Australia with a message that the Voice was only for the 3 percent of Australians who identify as Aboriginal, a privilege not granted to the other 97 percent. They succeeded in getting voters to dare to question the elites’ consensus and to ask not only how the Voice would work, but also how an activist-conceived body would improve the gulf of social and economic disadvantage — ‘Closing the Gap’ as it’s called — that separates so many Aboriginals, especially in remote outback communities, from their fellow Australians.
Unlike in a general election, the No victors took no pleasure in their win. “We haven’t won the National Rugby League grand final. It doesn’t feel like that, it’s just pride,” said Mundine. “The Australian people want practical outcomes, a unified country where we can move forward together,” said Price.
A tired, defeated and deflated Albanese addressed the nation once the outcome of the vote was clear. He accepted the judgment of the Australian people and promised that he would redouble his efforts to make effective progress in closing the gap. But he failed to accept any responsibility for the thrashing the Yes campaign received, when it was his political decision to rush to a referendum without having an endorsed model for the Voice. He also refused to compromise on the referendum question to secure the bipartisan support, essential to pass referenda in Australia, from the Liberal Party-led opposition Aboriginals and he allowed voters to believe he was more preoccupied with a voice for just 3 percent of Australians ahead of cost-of-living and day-to-day challenges for everyone.
Tellingly, and despite his genuine passion and sincerity for the cause, Albanese couldn’t use the authority of his office to ensure the Yes camp spoke consistently and respectfully with one voice for the Voice. All these factors, in the end, helped sink the referendum.
Now the dust is settling. Beyond the indigenous activists and white luvvies outraged by the result and ready to demonize those who voted No as rednecks or worse, Yes and No leaders must now come together to bind the wounds opened by this drawn-out campaign. Above all, they must embrace the most marginalized members of the Australian community, the Aborigines this voice was supposed to uplift, whose hopes were falsely raised by the soaring rhetoric and lavish promises of the Yes campaign and who must now think their countrymen are somehow set against them.
In short, it is a time for friendship and goodwill. And, in a week when Hamas unleashed its bloodlust on the Israeli people, the Ukraine war continues to convulse Europe and the international situation is so unstable, to the rest of the world this referendum must seem like an insignificant family squabble.
Indeed, it’s a reminder to Australians that they are so fortunate to live in a peaceful nation where the ballot box, not guns, bloodshed and brute force, ultimately rules.
This article was originally published on The Spectator’s UK website.