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Paul Bongiorno: There’s more at stake this Saturday than the fate of the Voice

It is not too early to ask the question how such a simple and positive proposal to reconcile our nation with its ancient and foundational history has become mired in rancour and naked prejudice.

The elements of the answer are as disturbing as the historic injustice the referendum seeks to address by finally giving constitutional recognition to a dispossessed Indigenous people with a guaranteed advisory say in their affairs.

Top of the list has to be the partisan politicisation of the referendum and the shameless descent into Trumpian politics, distorting reality, ridiculing common sense and amplifying grievance.

It is more than a robust contestability of policies and ideas that are fundamental to a democracy like Australia.

It is the embrace of post-truth tactics that threaten to stunt the adoption of creative policies and new ideas that can progress the country as it confronts the existential challenge of climate change, the achieving of a fairer society and enhancing of social cohesion.

The troubling prospect is that the success of these tactics will set the template for electoral success going forward.

Albanese pays a price

Few hard heads in the Labor Party doubt that the government is already paying a price for Anthony Albanese’s commitment to the reconciliation pathway in the Uluru Statement from the Heart.

The evidence of the national polls is mixed – all have Labor in an election-winning position though losing ground, with Albanese still much more preferred than Peter Dutton.

No doubt this is motivation in itself for Dutton to keep pursuing his high-powered negativity in the hope it will eventually have the same success against the government he appears to be having in his rejection of the referendum.

It should be remembered that Dutton shocked some in his party room when he imposed rejection of the referendum as official federal Liberal policy forcing his shadow attorney-general, Julian Leeser to go to the backbench.

Unlike John Howard in the republic referendum or most of the state Liberal parliamentary parties, Dutton allowed no choice for his shadow ministers.

After the history-making Aston by-election loss Dutton was desperate to score a win anywhere, at any cost.

The precedent of no referendum since federation passing without bi-partisan support was too tempting to ignore.

True to form

The Liberals in opposition have a habit of not supporting referendums put up by Labor governments – the one exception was during World War II.

In this case they are opposing a referendum that owes more to their initiatives than to Labor.

As a wrecking project it appears to be working.

The opinion polls this week point to the referendum being dead on arrival.

Besides Newspoll and Resolve another poll released by Sky News suggests ‘Yes’ will only prevail in 22 of the nation’s 151 electorates.

If it comes to pass it will be a dismal outcome for something the Coalition put on the agenda in 1999 and revisited in 2007.

Then prime minister, John Howard, faced with a backlash for his refusal to say sorry to the Stolen Generations, tried to claw back support, promising one month out from the election that he would immediately begin work on a referendum should he be re-elected, to complete “the unfinished business of our time”.

He described that business as “the place of Indigenous people in the profound, compelling and unfolding story of Australia”.

Howard spoke of a “special but not separate place within a reconciled, indivisible nation”.

This is a direct refutation of Peter Dutton and his shadow minister for Indigenous Australians, Jacinta Nampijinpa Price’s claims that constitutional recognition that is more than symbolic would divide the nation by race.

Price appears to be against any sort of constitutional recognition, she doesn’t support Dutton’s flagging of another referendum on the issue if this one fails.

‘Past injustices’

Howard, who has urged Australians to “maintain your rage” against the referendum, has, however, not resiled from his sentiments of 16 years ago that he recognised “the parlous position of Indigenous Australians does have its roots in history and that past injustices have a real legacy in the present”.

This is the sort of common-sense Senator Price has no qualms denying as she presses the buttons that trigger prejudice and resentment against her people.

Dutton is already desperate to lay the blame on the referendum’s looming defeat on Albanese, even though he is employing every ruse he can to encourage a ‘No’ vote.

Dutton says the failure of the Prime Minister to give exact details on the Voice – the guiding principles have been out there for months – is a major reason for people voting ‘No’.

Dutton

Dutton backs Indigenous recognition but not the October 14 proposal.

Nit-picked to death

Can we seriously believe that if an exposure draft of a bill to establish the Voice was put up, that it would not have been nit-picked to death?

Besides, Dutton, though he is now promising to legislate local and regional voices if he wins government, has given no details of what these might look like.

Albanese says if the Voice is rejected on the weekend, he will not seek to legislate one because that would be defying the will of the people.

He can expect recriminations, especially if the referendum is rejected as comprehensively as the polls are suggesting.

But the Prime Minister can hardly be condemned for having the courage of his convictions and standing up for a proposal that would, as he says, reconcile the nation with its past as it confronts its future.

Paul Bongiorno AM is a veteran of the Canberra Press Gallery, with more than 40 years’ experience covering Australian politics

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