Paul Bongiorno: Key question for voters on the Voice – What’s next, if not now?

Voters should ponder the next step on reconciliation if the Voice referendum on October 14 fails, Paul Bongiorno writes.

Voters should ponder the next step on reconciliation if the Voice referendum on October 14 fails, Paul Bongiorno writes.

Reported research among No voters has found a belief that saying Yes to an Indigenous Voice to Parliament will result in no practical benefits for First Peoples.

So if the referendum fails, there will be no change – just a return to the way things were before the sound and fury of the campaign.

That is a completely deluded view.

The referendum is a watershed moment in relations between Australians of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander heritage and the rest of us.

Its failure will be an undeniable setback to reconciliation, which has been making real gains over the past 50 years.

You can’t ask almost 18 million citizens to make a judgment on whether First Peoples should be accorded recognition of the special place they have in the history of our shared continent in the Constitution and expect its rejection to be without consequence.

In that the one political leader who is playing a major part in the referendum’s failure, Peter Dutton, got it right when he said a couple of weeks’ back “whatever happens, our nation will be bruised”.

Dark matter

And no one has been more shocked and bruised by the dark places the campaign has gone to than the daughter of one of the leading No campaigners Warren Mundine.

Garigarra Riley-Mundine told Guardian Australia that it doesn’t “take a lot for things to fall apart”, and mistrust and distrust is pushing her people to the brink.

She is particularly hurt by her father telling the National Press Club that the Uluru Statement from the Heart was a “symbolic declaration of war” when all “we are asking for is a voice” to unite this country and empower communities to have a say in addressing their situations.

It does well to remember that what has been put to voters in the referendum was asked for by Indigenous Australians as a response to a request from then Liberal Prime Minister Tony Abbott.

They framed the sort of recognition that would have more than symbolic value – a recognition that enshrined their right to be consulted on matters that affect them.

The Coalition showed no appetite to put this framing to a referendum, which should have acted as an amber light to Prime Minister Anthony Albanese and the Indigenous leadership that it would not support it.

The Nationals’ Senate leader, Bridget McKenzie, on the weekend reminded us that it would be “unprecedented” if the referendum succeeds without bipartisan support.

She, like Dutton, claims if the question was about recognition alone “95 per cent of Australians will be voting Yes”. That doesn’t survive a moment’s scrutiny.

It is clear the Dutton-led Opposition wouldn’t support any proposal from the Labor prime minister. He has been widely reported as seeing the defeat of the referendum as a stepping stone to winning the next election.

Dubious strategy

However, the last Newspoll saw Dutton’s ratings plummet with regular Liberal Party pollster Mark Textor saying on Facebook: “So poll murder-suicide confirmed. No electoral benefit in being a “No” wrecker, worse it’s just sure death. As I predicted.”

It begs the question what role, if any, Dutton sees for himself in healing the bruised nation after the referendum?

He appears to be firmly in the mould of Tony Abbott in the belief that the best way to return to the treasury benches is to oppose everything the government puts up.

For now, the Opposition Leader is doing his best to feed voters’ scepticism that the Voice is not going to help Indigenous people at the grassroots level.

“Definitely not” is his prediction.

Albanese’s rejoinder is that No is more of the same and flies in the face of experience that shows when people are allowed to invest in finding their own solutions, the chances of success are greater.

The Yes campaign’s latest video plays into this sentiment: “A No vote means no progress” it says over dramatic pictures of infant mortality and incarceration of Aboriginal teenagers.

The Prime Minister joined independent and Greens MPs campaigning in Tasmania on Monday for the Yes position.

Considerable obstacles

His focus is on overcoming the considerable obstacles to Yes success rather than what comes next.

He believes, however, that the campaign has raised awareness of Indigenous disadvantage. It is being spoken about, he says “not on the fringes but on the front pages of newspapers”.

A referendum defeat has meant in the past the nation has moved on past the rejected proposition – the republic is the most recent example, but the gap between First Peoples and the rest of us will not go away.

Some can hear Albanese’s referendum night speech if it goes down.

They believe he will say he proposed the constitutional change with the best intentions and to keep faith with Indigenous and Torres Strait Islanders. It was always doomed without bipartisan support and he will attempt to move forward in a way that doesn’t involve what the people have rejected.

There will be no painless way out of such a calamitous outcome for our nation and its First Peoples.

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

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