If the polls are to be believed, the referendum question will be soundly voted down this Saturday. It could – and should – have been so different.
The Voice referendum is asking us to say yes or no to a simple statement of recognition of our Indigenous Peoples, and to the establishment of a permanent body by and for them to have a voice – i.e. advising the government on matters relating to them.
It was what the Indigenous Peoples of Australia – a minority of less than 3% – asked for after a long process that led to the Uluru Statement from the Heart in 2017.
Turnbull’s LNP government rejected it, Labor pledged support for it, and when elected in May 2022, Albanese wasted no time in declaring it would happen in his victory speech.
His government then wasted ten months before the referendum text was announced on March 23 this year, then took another 157 days to announce the date for the referendum.
Throughout this unnecessary lengthy process, a simple proposition became inevitably politicised.
Opposition leader Peter Dutton vacillated for a good while before declaring his opposition to the referendum. And with that, it was no longer a simple bi-partisan proposition, but an issue of party politics. Instead of it being the stated wish of Indigenous People, transcending party politics, it would now be framed as a divisive issue of partisanship – obfuscating reasonable debate, and hindering real change – as it so often does.
Dutton and the ‘No’ campaign were able to attack the ‘lack of detail’ while knowing full well that a constitutional change does not only not require detail, but that putting such detail to a referendum is, by definition, unconstitutional. The ‘No’ campaign could easily exploit the lack of understanding of how our (flawed) Constitution works, and the role of Parliament in making the actual laws of the land.
Albanese and the ‘Yes’ campaign countered by adding meaning, substance and reasons for what may happen once the referendum has passed, endless fodder for the nay-sayers. Which led to a debate that has taken the focus off a simple proposition of recognition and advice – and empathy.
We will, of course, never know what would have happened if Albanese had acted with speed and decisiveness. We will never know if he could have managed to raise above the party political fray. But we do know that the protracted debate has become more confused, distracting and divisive the longer it has gone on. What once seemed to have majority support no longer does.
Voting yes is simply recognising the wishes of a much maligned minority to have a say in their own affairs. It changes nothing for the vast majority of Australians; it costs nothing and risks nothing for 97% of us. Yet it means the world to the majority of our Indigenous Peoples.
Voting no is pandering to the divisive nature of party political sentiments for no good reason.
Moreover, a ‘yes’ vote will be quickly forgotten as most people will lose interest in issues that don’t much concern them. But a ‘no’ vote will haunt our nation for a long time.
Kim Wingerei is a businessman turned writer and commentator. He is passionate about free speech, human rights, democracy and the politics of change. Originally from Norway, Kim has lived in Australia for 30 years. Author of ‘Why Democracy is Broken – A Blueprint for Change’.