Australia’s referendum fails and, sadly, that’s a good thing

The victors get to write the history – that’s not always true. Saturday’s winning side in Australia’s referendum on an indigenous voice to Parliament is being misrepresented in the world media.

At the beginning of the campaign in March and April polling was running at about 60 percent for Yes and 40 percent for No. The final result was almost the opposite – 39.7 percent for Yes and 60.3 percent for No. The No vote won in every single state. The only jurisdiction with a majority Yes vote was the Australian Capital Territory, where Canberra is located.

However, “Crushing Indigenous Hopes, Australia Rejects ‘Voice’ Referendum,” was the headline in the New York Times. “Why Did Australia Fail Its First Nations Citizens?” asked the Washington Post. “Australia rejects Indigenous referendum in setback for reconciliation” was Reuters’ interpretation. And Al-Jazeera said that “Indigenous Australians call for ‘week of silence’ after referendum failure”.

Two local experts, academics from La Trobe University, declared that “It may entrench views of Australia as a settler-colonial state unwilling to grapple with its past.”

But these interpretations misrepresent the referendum, the campaign, and the Australian people.

The referendum proposed “to alter the Constitution to recognise the First Peoples of Australia by establishing an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice”. There would be nigh-universal approval amongst Australians for recognizing indigenous people as the first nations. They have lived here for possibly 60,000 years and have a unique connection to the land.

There is universal agreement that the situation of indigenous people, especially in remote areas, is appalling. Some are effectively living in a Fourth World country, not even a Third World country. Billions upon billions of dollars have been poured into government programs and the gaps in key areas like life expectancy, incarceration, suicide, and children in care persist.

“The Voice”, despite Prime Minister Anthony Albanese’s soothing reassurances that it was modest, gracious and legally sound was simply … dumb. It proposed to hand a blank cheque to persons unknown. But this was a referendum on a significant change to the constitution, not a referendum on the PM’s good intentions.

The sticking point was the Voice. There was no detail about how the Voice would work, who would be part of it, how they would be chosen, and what powers it would have. Voters were told to trust the government.

The campaign was intense but not, as the BBC claimed, “fraught and often acrid”. The Yes campaign, which was supported by state and federal governments, many of Australia’s big corporations, churches, trade unions, sporting codes, universities, and everyone who wanted to be seen to be doing the virtuous thing, appeared to be a done deal when Albanese announced it in March.

It became “fraught” when the No campaign, to everyone’s surprise, surged ahead.

As for the “horrific racism” alleged by some journalists, this is hard to square with the fact that the leading figures in the No campaign were Aboriginal leaders Senator Jacinta Nampijinpa Price, who comes from one of the most disadvantaged Aboriginal centres in the country, and Nyunggai Warren Mundine, a businessman and political strategist. Senator Price’s brilliant campaigning has turned her into a major political figure.

Apart from a few minor incidents by lunatics on both sides of the debate, the thunder was all rhetorical.



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At a Sydney polling booth

The referendum – which cost A$450 million, according to the Australian Electoral Commission – was supported by woke professionals. A map of electorates with a majority Yes vote shows wealthy islands of blue bobbing in a vast sea of red.

A respected financial journalist, Robert Gottliebsen, was uncharacteristically scathing about the amount of money that famous brands donated to the Yes campaign. “The real reason too many large corporates jumped into the Yes campaign was that they are embracing woke and politically correct agendas like Uluru in their organisations, and those views swamped the long held traditional behavioural rules and the national interest.”

Perhaps the biggest own goal for the Yes campaign was a photograph of the Prime Minister with Alan Joyce, the outgoing CEO of Qantas, the flagship carrier, in front of a plane emblazoned with the Yes logo. A few weeks later Joyce, the apotheosis of woke virtue signalling, resigned early -- with a $24 million handshake -- after mounting anger over allegations that Qantas had cheated its customers and given them shocking service and illegally outsourced thousands of jobs during Covid. It made the Yes campaign look like an out-of-touch project of inner city elites.

To be sure, many Aboriginal people must be deeply disappointed with the outcome of the referendum. It will take a detailed analysis of the vote to determine how remote Aboriginal communities voted. By and large they back the case for the Voice, but they were not unanimous.

There is no doubt that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders do deserve much, much better from their government. Historically, their fellow Australians have failed them badly. But since the story of official help has been one of failure and underachievement, it’s clearly time for an entirely different approach. What is needed is a plan which prioritises family development, education in virtues, and dignified employment.

The failure of the referendum must be a springboard for radical change. The government has just wasted $450 million – surely it can find some small change to entertain fresh thinking on this vital issue. 

Michael Cook is editor of Mercator

Image: a polling booth in Sydney 

This is the biggest controversy of 2023 in Australia. What do you think? Leave a comment below.

Showing 4 reactions

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  • Joan Seymour
    commented 2023-10-19 00:41:02 +1100
    Spot on Michael. For me, the most embittering thing is that no-one would make any substantial suggestion that might change the wording to make it acceptable to most of us. It could have happened, but the PM’s ear was only given to the indigenous leaders, who didn’t want any real change. The Leader of the Opposition clearly wanted the Yes campaign to fail, so that Mr Albanese would fall and Mr Dutton would rise. Who was really seeking consensus? But this is not the end. Silent reflection annd and prayer for humility come next.
  • Joan Seymour
    followed this page 2023-10-19 00:34:57 +1100
  • Brett
    commented 2023-10-18 17:56:35 +1100
    A pretty balanced wrap up of what happened, methinks, with the possible exception of its overly kind description of politicians’ role in this costly debacle. It is well-known that Australian referendums (or -da, if you prefer) are hardly ever carried without bipartisan support, so why did the PM drag us into one without first securing bipartisan support? Apparently because he made a promise to do it, to win votes in the last election. He could’ve legislated to create a “voice”, let Australians see how it works, then put it to the people in a referendum. Instead he chose the path of division (as lesser politicians do), then said before voting day that he won’t offer the try-before-buy option if Australia said no to amending the constitution. So much for really meaning it: apparently his statements are not from the heart.
    I do hope those who have fomented division do not spoil renewed efforts to “close the gap”, which appear to have gained momentum with this vote. We should all learn this week that widening the divide doesn’t help close the gap, and seething over the failures of the past won’t help us build a united future. Divided, we fall.
  • Michael Cook
    published this page in The Latest 2023-10-16 20:32:32 +1100