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Voice referendum results point to shifting fault lines in Australian politics

Voice to Parliament fails

It was Martin Luther King Jr, prophet and martyr of the civil rights movement in the United States, who famously remarked, “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice”.

Yet there are times when justice seems to become more distant rather than closer.

Saturday was such an occasion in Australia. The nation failed to grasp an opportunity to help redress the most grievous injustice in its history, the dispossession and exclusion of First Peoples.

As Prime Minister Anthony Albanese repeatedly said during the referendum campaign, the 2017 Uluru Statement from the Heart was a generous and gracious outstretched hand from Indigenous Australians.

That hand was spurned by Saturday’s No vote.

The bleakness of the referendum result is not just confined to how much of a blow it is to the reconciliation project in this country.

Shifting voting patterns

The voting pattern points to unsettling trends in Australian politics, of a possible realigning of fault lines in the contest for power.

As the May 2002 federal election vividly demonstrated, the voter bases of the major parties are crumbling.

Labor’s victory in that election, on a primary vote of just 32 per cent, was effectively the product of a progressive alliance. That alliance comprised not only Labor voters, but supporters of the Greens and independents (the Teals), the latter breaking through by seizing leafy inner urban electorates from the Liberal Party.

At that time, that result was heralded as the rise of “a new politics”, of a national consensus in favour of progressive policies, including climate action, integrity in politics (an anti-corruption commission) and reconciliation with First Peoples.

Yet the 2022 election result also potentially portended something else.

Progressive blow

In the outer suburbs – and this was particularly noticeable in Victoria – there was a turning away from Labor as numbers of its traditional voters opted instead to support a melange of minor parties (several of them right-wing populist outfits) and independents. This suggested a possible fragility to the alliance that had brought Labor to office.

Polling on the Voice referendum identified divisions that seemed to indicate similar chinks in the country’s progressive constituency. According to those polls, support for the Voice was strongest among the highly educated and the young – those mainly clustered in inner urban areas.

On the other hand, opponents of the Voice were more likely to live in the outer suburbs and regional and rural areas. They had lower education attainment, and were older. The results of Saturday’s referendum were consistent with these findings.

In some ways, this pattern merely replicates voting behaviour at the 1999 republic referendum. Then the Yes vote was concentrated in inner metropolitan areas, particularly in Sydney and Melbourne, while support for the republic fell steeply away in the outer suburbs and regional and rural electorates.

At the time, there was talk of Australia being divided into two nations, one cosmopolitan, confident and progressive, the other provincial, apprehensive and conservative.

A quarter of a century on, this divide has not healed: Arguably, it has become more pronounced.

Dutton defines strategy

As evidenced by his preparedness to further alienate the teal-held seats by opposing the Voice referendum, by his obduracy over climate change and his waging of war against what he derides as “woke” politics, Liberal leader Peter Dutton appears to be banking on a fundamental and enduring realignment of the voting public.

In other words, Dutton’s strategy seems to be aimed not at winning back affluent inner-city, formerly blue-ribbon, Liberal electorates. Rather, he is focused on cleaving away working-class outer suburbs from Labor.

His calculation is that by taking ground in the outer suburbs, combined with holding seats in regional and rural areas, he will be able to forge a winning majority, a conservative coalition of support whose defining features are economic and cultural insecurity.

The parallels with constituencies that supported Brexit and Trumpism overseas are self-evident. Dutton’s strategy is a gamble but, as the results of the referendum show, it is not without rationale.

The Voice referendum campaign suggested something else about the current competing forces in national politics.

Albanese spoke a language of optimism and generosity during the campaign. I was especially struck by his conscious use of the word “kindness” in his final appeals to the Australian public on the eve of the referendum. He declared that voting Yes would be an act of kindness towards First Peoples, a generous act of the heart.

The Prime Minister was also not afraid to display emotion during the campaign, shedding tears at a moving ceremony by Indigenous women at Uluru.

All of this evoked the style of leadership that we saw across the Tasman Sea when Jacinda Ardern was New Zealand’s prime minister, a leadership in which empathy and compassion were signature notes.

Dutton offers something radically different.

His is a hard-man leadership, devoid of nuance. In his world, vulnerability is weakness, and fear is a prime driver. He unambiguously taps a sense of grievance and, as often demonstrated during the referendum campaign, is unafraid to be an agent of misinformation (which is then amplified through the noxious channels of social media).

Dutton is, in short, the local incarnation of a right-wing strongman populist.

It is often said of Australia that the centre holds better in this country than it does in other parts of the world, such as the United States.

That a phlegmatic national temper and institutional buffers such as compulsory voting keep at bay the kind of bitter and destructive polarisation that afflicts other societies.

Yet the rancorous debate we have just endured over the Voice suggests we ought not to be complacent about this.

It also indicates the confident proclamations of the dawning of a “new politics” after the last election were overly optimistic. The project of progressive politics in Australia, in fact, remains brittle.The Conversation

Paul Strangio, Emeritus professor of politics, Monash University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons licence. Read the original article.

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