Paul Bongiorno: No one emerges a winner from a very grubby, politicised referendum

A disappointed Voice supporter digests the Yes campaign's loss.

A disappointed Voice supporter digests the Yes campaign's loss. Photo: Getty

If anyone needed convincing, the weekend’s almost clean sweep rejection of the Voice referendum is further proof that the withholding of bipartisan support is a guaranteed death blow.

Only the Australian Capital Territory voted Yes. Canberrans, perhaps more than anybody else, are clearer-sighted when it comes to sifting the fake from the real in politics.

But there is another side to this failed referendum, and that is the habit of conservative parties to oppose constitutional change put up by Labor governments, even change they initiated.

Former Howard government treasurer Peter Costello once told me there would never be a republic in this country unless a Liberal Prime Minister put it up.

Ironically his prime minister John Howard did put up such a proposal in 1999 only to argue against it.

But Costello’s observation is particularly pertinent in the wake of Saturday, and Albanese’s toying with the idea of revisiting the republic next term.

That is now surely dead as John Howard last week said it would be, if the Voice failed as dramatically as it did.

Deep sense of embarrassment

You know there is a deep sense of embarrassment about Saturday’s result when the main architects of the failed opportunity at national reconciliation, the federal Coalition, are now hellbent on blaming Albanese for the stunning rejection of Indigenous Australians.

This takes more than chutzpah, it’s like the housebreaker blaming the property owner for not putting locks on the door.

Peter Dutton says the hurt and pain felt by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders is due to the incompetence and arrogance of Albanese for putting up a “referendum we didn’t need to have”.

This from the man who until Monday morning boasted constitutional recognition had been Liberal Party policy since 2016 and during the campaign said such recognition would be overwhelmingly supported.

Dutton now says “it’s clear the Australian public is probably over the referendum process for some time” and he has walked away from holding another one any time soon.


In it to win it: Prime Minister Anthony Albanese was during the campaign unswayed by claims from the No camp and Peter Dutton.

Crazy brave move

There is no doubt Albanese in political terms was crazy brave in persisting with his promise to implement the Uluru Statement from the Heart in full this term when all the signs were the Coalition would never support it.

In its nine years of government the Coalition set up the process, asked Indigenous Australians what sort of recognition they wanted, and then didn’t get around to progressing it.

In fact, then PM Malcolm Turnbull and his Coalition deputy Barnaby Joyce rejected the Voice as a “third chamber of the Parliament”.

Both later withdrew this characterisation, with Turnbull becoming a high-profile campaigner for the referendum.

However, that was as clear an indication of where the Coalition’s predominant prejudices were.

Judgment in question

Albanese’s leadership authority in the government has taken a hit in the sense his political judgment is now seen to be more fallible than it was before.

If the euphoria of election night had fed his confidence he could deliver anything he had promised in the campaign, the weekend brought him back to earth with a thud.

Had Albanese paid more attention to the Calma-Langton report it would have tempered his ambition.

The two Indigenous leaders advised it would take at least three years to put in the groundwork to legislate a Voice and a referendum should not be held until a national consensus had been achieved.

A desperate Peter Dutton, after the shock Aston byelection defeat and with the Nationals already against the referendum and his party room resolutely antipathetic to anything that would make Australians uncomfortable with their settler history, was never coming on side.

Dutton’s 15 questions to the Prime Minister ahead of his final rejection were never serious, one of them even asked where the building housing the Voice would be in Canberra.

Albanese was gracious and humble in accepting responsibility for the referendum result that he “had not hoped for”.

He said he “absolutely respected the decision of the Australian people and the democratic processes” that had delivered it.

Trumpian response

Dutton in his response could not resist an anti-Albanese political rant – a dead giveaway of his purpose in opposing the referendum.

Already reported for seeing the defeat of the Voice as a stepping stone to bringing down Albanese at the next election, Dutton was Trumpian in describing the Prime Minister’s concession speech as arrogant.

Dutton was patently wrong when he said “you can hear the words almost of contempt for the Australian people dripping from what he (Albanese) is saying”.

Former Liberal leader John Hewson took to X (formerly Twitter) to slam his successor.

Hewson accused Dutton of a “lack of grace, dignity and empathy” and said the Opposition Leader “couldn’t help himself in turning it into a political campaign speech just as he politicised the Voice proposal”.

Senator Patrick Dodson last week at the National Press Club said the day after the vote that: “People are going to have to look in the mirror and say what have we done?”

A statement from Indigenous Australians who supported the Voice thanked Albanese rather than blaming him, and said they are in mourning and hurt.

They will talk now “not of recognition and reconciliation” but “only of justice and the rights of people in our own country”.

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

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