It is very rare in Australian political history for the demands of a lobby group to be endorsed on the very night a new government is elected. It is even more rare for the leader of the victorious political party to declare publicly that he would do exactly what the lobby group wanted, in full. Yet this is the gift which, on May 21, 2022, Anthony Albanese gave to a small group of academics and political lobbyists who wanted to change the Australian Constitution in their favour, in order to set up an entity they would control. It is no wonder that in the early days of the subsequent campaign for the required referendum, the group imagined themselves invincible. What a head start they had on any likely opponent. However, the hubris and arrogance they subsequently displayed became a large part of their undoing. The two members of the group who did most to bring themselves down were Megan Davis and Marcia Langton. Davis’s principal role was confined largely to drafts of legal documents that generated unintended consequences. Langton’s contribution was the low opinion of white Australians she expressed in television interviews.
Megan Davis, a professor of law at the University of New South Wales, was one of the authors of the Uluru Voice from the Heart. While Albanese was insisting publicly that the Voice was only an advisory group, just a modest change and a gesture that amounted to no more than “good manners”, Davis was undermining his case, bragging about the power she and her colleagues would gain from the Voice. In her book published in early 2023, Everything You Need to Know About the Voice, co-authored with George Williams, Davis wrote about the dramatic change it represented to the Australian Constitution and the power it would give those behind it. They wrote:
It is a change to the structure of Australia’s public institutions and would redistribute public power via the Constitution, Australia’s highest law. The reform will create an institutional relationship between governments and First Nations that will compel the state to listen to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in policy and decision-making.
As a member of the Prime Minister’s Referendum Working Group, Davis helped draft the question that the referendum would put to voters and the constitutional amendment that would result from its approval. In March 2023, when Albanese announced the question concerned, the product was not what the Labor government had expected. The constitutional amendment proposed by the working group said that there would be a new chapter added to the existing eight chapters of the Constitution. Titled “Recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples”, the new chapter had three clauses, the second of which said: “The Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice may make representations to the Parliament and the Executive Government of the Commonwealth on matters relating to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.”
The jarring note in all this was one that the government had not anticipated. This was the right of the Voice to make representations to the “executive government”. Instead of confining its political advice and recommendations to Parliament via the relevant minister, the Voice would be able to approach departments and institutions of the public service, as well as more independent commissions, authorities and agencies of the Commonwealth. With the executive government at its disposal, the Voice would have unprecedented powers and an almost unlimited ability to cause problems for any government. Moreover, in disputes between the government and the Voice, any resolution would be the responsibility of the judges of the High Court. Albanese sent the draft back to the working group but Davis stuck to her guns and refused to change the wording. A quickly assembled parliamentary hearing called for opinions from a number of constitutional lawyers but this resulted only in an apparently innocuous change of words.
The most damaging result of what seemed like a minor squabble came from another source. It was revealed during the subsequent public debate in the press that the whole idea behind the Voice and constitutional change had not originated deep within Aboriginal culture but came from three white men—academics Greg Craven and Damien Freeman and Liberal politician Julian Leeser—plus one Aboriginal man, Noel Pearson. They had devised the concept a decade earlier and had created a model that they expected would get bipartisan political support.
The quartet were affronted by the demand for access to executive government. Their original version of the proposal was designed to simply advise Parliament about Aboriginal ideas for reform, and was carefully couched in a way that provided no room for High Court judges to get involved in disputed cases. The acceptance of the constitutional amendment moved Craven to take his grievances to the media, writing furious op-ed pieces in the press that cast a dark shadow over what had been until then a pro-Voice campaign full of light.
After Opposition Leader Peter Dutton used the internal dispute as a reason to declare that any prospect of bipartisanship over the Voice had now ended, Julian Leeser, then shadow spokesman for indigenous affairs in the Coalition, resigned that position and went to the backbench. This made room for Jacinta Nampijinpa Price to take his place. She quickly turned herself into the star player of the opposition’s campaign. In short, by the start of April 2023, the insistence of Megan Davis of a radical stand on the powers of the Voice had resulted in the Coalition’s creation of the formidable opposition that contributed greatly to the victory of the No case on October 14.
At the height of this disputation, in the last week of March 2023 Newspoll showed the Yes case had long been steadily fixed at around 53 per cent, with the No vote at 39 per cent. The next Newspoll at the end of April found the Yes case had dropped to 46 per cent, and the No vote was up to 43 per cent.
Marcia Langton, a professor of anthropology at the University of Melbourne, is a long-time and well-known campaigner on Aboriginal issues. Over more than fifty years as an academic and activist, Langton has never been known to mince her words. In fact, part of her attraction for the media is that she can usually be relied upon to abuse, with a scowl, those she doesn’t like. So it was no surprise that in an appearance at Edith Cowan University in September, part of her speech became a matter of media debate on both sides of the fence. She said this to her audience: “Every time the No case raise their arguments, if you start pulling it apart you get down to base racism—I’m sorry to say that’s where it lands—or sheer stupidity.”
It is quite clear from a recording of the speech, broadcast on Sky News by Sharri Markson, that Langton was criticising No campaigners rather than No voters. But some newspapers reported her comments as attacking the voters, and she was within her rights to claim they misreported her. Nonetheless, Langton and her supporters from Nine newspapers and the ABC tried hard to portray Langton as the victim who deserved sympathy. This was in the last weeks of the referendum campaign and some of the more desperate writers for the media tried to turn it into a reprise of Hillary Clinton’s fatal “deplorables” debate against Donald Trump in 2016—a very long bow if ever there was one. It did not take off.
However, it is pretty clear now that another of Langton’s earlier comments, where she also tried to play victim, did have a big effect on the vote, but this time a blunder that turned out to give great support to the No campaign. The comment in question was made by Langton in a soft interview she had with Helen Trinca of the Weekend Australian in April 2023.
Up until then, the question of Welcome to Country had not been raised as part of either the Yes or No campaigns. But it is obvious now that things were changing rapidly. There are now a great many people who cannot stand the Welcome to Country ritual foisted on gatherings at just about every public function they are likely to attend, from kindergarten performances before a handful of parents and grandparents, to football grand finals where the crowds are in the tens of thousands. It’s not only the sentiments expressed that annoy listeners, who sometimes can be heard complaining that it is humiliating to be welcomed to your own country, as if you were an alien of some kind. It is also the obligation on every speaker at every public function to take up so much of its time. And, above all, it is boring beyond belief to insert these essentially meaningless sentiments into occasions where there are no Aboriginal people present, and certainly none of the so-called “elders, past, present and emerging” to receive the respectful accolade. Until this referendum, many people felt, but did not want to say aloud, that the Welcome to Country was offensive.
Now that the dust has settled, it is also clear that people can now more openly confess their feelings about these procedures and that the great majority of them—and certainly the 61 per cent of the population who voted No—wish the whole idea of changing Australian culture in favour of Aborigines was abandoned completely.
This is how Langton came to be the inadvertent author of a such a popular people’s movement. In her interview published in the magazine section of the Weekend Australian on April 8, 2023, Langton said:
I imagine that most Australians who are non-Indigenous, if we lose the referendum, will not be able to look me in the eye. How are they going to ever ask an Indigenous person, a Traditional Owner, for a welcome to country? How are they ever going to be able to ask me to come and speak at their conference? If they have the temerity to do it, of course the answer is going to be no.
When this was published, it gave great cheer to many voters. If the No vote wins, they will not have to sit through any more Welcome to Country ceremonies. Moreover, if identities like Langton stopped the practice, this would set a powerful example to all their followers.
By August 2023, headlines around Australia were promoting the idea openly. Some No campaigners decided to come clean and confess they were sick and tired of the ritual too. At a rally for No voters in Melbourne, Tony Abbott said he was “getting a little bit sick of Welcome to Country ceremonies”, because Australia “belongs to all of us, not just to some of us”. He was greeted with a standing ovation, rousing applause and cheers.
Soon after, Peter Dutton said in an interview with radio station 2GB:
I do get the point that when you go to a function and there’s an MC who I think appropriately can do recognition, you then get the next five or ten speakers who each do their own Acknowledgement to Country, and frankly, I think it detracts from the significance of the statement that’s being made.
Jacinta Price joined the fray, saying in an interview with the Australian: “the practice sent an unwelcoming message to the majority of Australians”. She connected the ritual to the main argument of the No case, arguing that it was yet another factor that divided the nation:
There is no problem with acknowledging our history, but rolling out these performances before every sporting event or public gathering is definitely divisive. It’s not welcoming, it’s telling non-Indigenous Australians “this isn’t your country” and that’s wrong. We are all Australians and we share this great land.
There were other symbols of this kind which have long been sitting ducks that emulate these patently insincere welcomes. For those of us in Sydney, the worst was the decision of Premier Dominic Perrottet to take down the flag of the state, which is a near replica of the national flag, from the top of Sydney Harbour Bridge and substitute an Aboriginal flag. Perrottet did this as a desperate gesture to increase his fading popularity in the lead-up to the state election on March 25, 2023. Instead, it provided a virtual guarantee that he would lose the election, which he did.
In fact, there are now audible mutterings among crowds at functions these days about the elevation of the Aboriginal flag to the centre of proceedings, displacing the national flag. This is another cultural phenomenon that politicians ignore at their peril. Prime Minister Albanese is a repeat offender and, if he doesn’t change his ways he will pay a price similar to Perrottet.
The same goes for the equally offensive movement to replace all the place names of major cities and regional centres in Australia with Aboriginal names, as if we haven’t done enough in the past with the national capital named for the Kamberri clan, and countless others in towns and suburbs throughout the country. The most recent book by Megan Davis and Pat Anderson lists their current demands: Sydney is to become Warrane; Melbourne Naarm; Adelaide Tarndanya; Brisbane Meanjin; Hobart Nipaluna; Perth Boorloo; Darwin Garramilla; Cairns Gimuy; Broome Rubibi; Dubbo Thurbo; and so on.
Who do these people imagine they are? The referendum of October 14 has given them a good reminder. It has done more than show them that, even with the complete support of the governing Labor Party, they could only rustle up 39 per cent of the population to support them, while 61 per cent stood opposed to their big plan for constitutional change. It was also a referendum that tested popular support for dividing the country into two classes: in a way a modern loyalty test for Australia. It deserved to fail badly, and it did.