The Voice vote has failed: in the nation, in all six states, in the Northern Territory—everywhere except the ACT. The government-proposed, establishment-endorsed Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice to Parliament and Executive Government, which would have enshrined an indigenous advisory body in a new chapter of Australia’s Constitution, has been roundly defeated. It will not be revived.
The referendum result wasn’t a defeat for Constitutional recognition of indigenous peoples, or for the aspirations of indigenous Australians. It was a defeat for the particular, poorly drafted, over-expansive proposed amendment that was put forward by Australia’s indigenous elite. And it was a defeat for a political class that assumed it could bully the rest of the electorate into submission.
Politically, Australia’s Voice vote resembles nothing so much as Britain’s 2016 Brexit referendum. Just as with Brexit, a country’s cosmopolitan establishment and the institutions they administer demanded that the rest of the country embrace their highly cultivated but ironically parochial political preferences.
All of Australia’s peak public institutions, from universities to corporations to government entities endorsed the Voice. More than that: they took it for granted that they could (and should) campaign for a Yes vote using money that had been entrusted to them for other purposes by stakeholders to whom they owed fiduciary responsibilities.
Incredibly, the cities of Sydney and Melbourne actually used taxpayer money to advertise for a Yes vote, exploiting legal loopholes that explicitly prohibited them from supporting electoral candidates without envisioning that they might instead take political positions on Constitutional amendments.
The sense of absolute entitlement exhibited by the Yes campaign was palpable—and repulsive. They did little to hide the fact that they considered all opposition to the Voice to be motivated by ignorance, ill-will, or outright racism. Yes campaigners can only interpret their resounding defeat at the polls to mean that they live in a country that exhibits widespread hatred for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. Cue post-referendum outrage on the model of Brexit.
Yet everyone who is active in Australian intellectual life desires meaningful progress for indigenous people. Everyone wants lower rates of incarceration and higher rates of employment for indigenous youth. Everyone wants to see more indigenous university graduates. Everyone wants to see reductions in domestic violence in indigenous communities. Everyone wants to “close the gap” in indigenous life expectancy. The only disagreement is on how to best accomplish these goals, not over the goals themselves.
Unfortunately, the highly-educated urban professionals who form the core of the Yes vote believe not only that their preferred solutions are the correct ones, but that theirs are the only moral ones. They openly disdain the opinions of those who live outside the urban cores of the capital cities, who lack advanced university degrees, or who are too world-wise (read: elderly) to be fooled by facile quick-fix policy rhetoric.
Look at the geographical distribution of the Voice vote, and the Brexit analogy is clear. The Voice won inner Sydney but lost the rest of New South Wales. It won inner Melbourne but lost the rest of Victoria. It won Brisbane but lost Queensland, won Adelaide but lost South Australia, won Perth and Freemantle but lost Western Australia, won Hobart but lost Tasmania. The Yes campaign did not prevail in a single electorate outside the centres of Australia’s capital cities.
The ACT, where the Voice won on a margin of more than 60 per cent, provides a snapshot of the Voice demographic. It’s a place where more than 40 per cent of the workforce works directly for the government, and most of the rest are government contractors, university academics, or university students. That’s the Yes vote in a nutshell. It’s also the core Labor vote.
That leaves it up to the Liberal Party to decide whether it wants to bid to regain its old Teal bastions, or choose instead to represent majority Australia. It’s the same challenge the British Conservatives faced after Brexit. Like their Conservative cousins, the Liberals may decide that the hoi polloi have nowhere else to go. If they do, they will (like their Conservative cousins) discover that they are wrong.
The floating vote is a fickle vote. If the policy choices they want are taken off the table, their votes will swing wildly between what they perceive to be undifferentiated alternatives — or they will seek out maverick third parties.
Australia went overwhelmingly for No on the Voice referendum, but only the Nationals have promised not to legislate an alternative Voice. Both the Liberals and Labor seem to be fixated instead on vying for the votes of a narrow metropolitan elite.
That is perhaps natural, considering that that’s where the majority of their politicos were born, bred, and wed. But it leaves 60 per cent of Australia up for grabs. The Nationals will capture part of it, but they will never become the default party of the outer suburbs.
The key question for the future of Australian politics is thus: does anyone want to represent the majority of the country? Obviously, Labor and the Libs want the seats. But do they want to genuinely represent the people who live in them by offering policy options that fall outside the historical Lab-Lib leadership consensus on how Australia should be governed?
In the wake of Saturday’s referendum results, the only clear answer to that question is: “No”.
Salvatore Babones is an associate professor at the University of Sydney.