Two men, two paths: Albanese and Dutton’s ruthless contest over Australia’s future
29th August 2023

By David Crowe

Voice choicesCredit: Stephen Kiprillis

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Australians are being asked to choose between two futures in a decision on national power that will be shaped by a ruthless personal contest between two leaders.

Anthony Albanese begins the formal campaign for the Indigenous Voice with a bid to cement the reform, trounce his opponents and finish a personal mission from the night he won office last year.

Peter Dutton heads toward the referendum with an opportunity to defeat the Voice, diminish the prime minister and turn the No voters against Labor on other fronts.

For both leaders, this campaign is about defining their legacies as well as shaping the nation’s furure. Credit: Fairfax Media

The personal contest will shape the race to the referendum – expected to be October 14 – because the prime minister and opposition leader so easily dominate daily media coverage.

The Voice is bigger than both leaders because it is, or should be, about the best way to help some of the most disadvantaged people in Australian society.

Voters are accustomed to the campaign drumbeat of a federal election in which the attention on the two leaders can give way at times to a dispute over competing policy details.

The policy debate on the Voice, however, has been narrowed from the start.

The fundamental strategy for the Yes side, agreed by Albanese with Indigenous leaders, is to seek approval for the Voice in theory before deciding how it works in practice.

How will First Nations people choose the members of the Voice? How many members will there be? How many staff will those members have? Will there be local and regional Voices beneath the peak national body?

Once the Constitution specifies that the Voice must exist, how will federal legislation determine how the Voice offers its opinions to parliament and government?

The referendum campaign will be clouded by the mystery over how the Voice might work. The Yes campaigners want to keep the debate on high principle without venturing any opinions on what comes after the vote. Who do they want to be on the Voice? They would prefer to take that question later.

The No campaigners use the mystery to spread fear, uncertainty and doubt. One peak group, Fair Australia, claims the Voice will be “expensive” when this is impossible to know because the size and cost of the new body has not been decided. It claims it will be a “Canberra politicians’ voice” when the location and composition of the body are not known.

Fair Australia also says the Voice opens the door to separate parliaments and Indigenous-only seats in parliament when this can only be speculation.

The compulsory vote asks Australians to choose between two paths whether they are ready or not. The deadline forces a decision on history even if voters cannot be sure if the Yes side has a plan that works or the No side has a plan at all.

The compulsory vote asks Australians to choose between two paths whether they are ready or not.

Albanese seeks to reassure Australians by calling the referendum a “modest request” that offers a better way to consult on policy. He links the Voice to the core issue: the entrenched disadvantage for First Nations people. He argues for consultation with the Voice to help close the gap in the outcomes on health, education, life expectancy, incarceration and more.

Prime Minister Anthony Albanese at the official opening of this year’s Garma festival. Credit: Rhett Wyman

“When you listen to people about matters that affect them, you get better results,” the prime minister told an FM radio station on Tuesday. “That’s all that this is about. An advisory group, a Voice, so that can get better results.”

Dutton says No to a constitutional Voice because the change would be permanent and the government cannot be trusted.

“The Voice is in the Constitution, it can’t be abolished. If the Government gets it wrong – as many people believe they will – you can’t undo the Constitution,” he said in Brisbane on Monday.

Dutton argues for local and regional voices without any detail on how they might work as an alternative to the government model. The Coalition party room is divided on the basic concept of whether a national Voice should be set up in legislation without being in the Constitution.

Opposition Leader Peter Dutton with the newly promoted Kerrynne Liddle (left) and Jacinta Nampijimpa Price on Tuesday, April 18, two weeks after announcing the Liberal party would formally oppose the Voice. Credit: AAP

Both sides say they want to close the gap. Which side has a better way? This is an essential question in the campaign to come.

The evidence shows the old way of doing things has failed to lift First Nations people out of their poverty, which means a Yes vote would start a debate in parliament on the federal legislation needed to build a new approach to consultation.

A No vote, however, would be followed by a policy vacuum. How could Albanese set up a legislated Voice if a constitutional Voice had just been rejected at the ballot box? Would Dutton bother with proposing a policy at all?

Defeat at the referendum would also mean defeat for Indigenous recognition in the constitution, and Yes campaign leader Noel Pearson has described this as a setback for reconciliation that would last a generation.

A No vote, however, would be followed by a policy vacuum.

“I shudder to think of an Australia that rejects recognition. All I can see is a future of perpetual protest and struggle,” Pearson wrote in January.

This seemed to be a dire forecast at the time, when support for the Voice was at 58 per cent in the Resolve Political Monitor. That support fell to 46 per cent in the latest survey.

Defeat for the Voice is now the more likely outcome – and this has implications beyond the Voice itself.

A defeat for the Voice certainly wrecks any idea of a referendum on the Republic in the near future. A defeat could also weaken Labor’s confidence in prosecuting reform.

Dutton, after spending most of this year slowly building to outright rejection of the Voice, is close to a referendum victory that would cement his leadership over a weakened Liberal Party and embolden him to repeat a thundering No against other parts of the Labor agenda.

Albanese, after pledging change on the night he won the election, faces an immense challenge in rescuing the Voice. This is a personal mission for the prime minister, which means defeat must have personal implications. If the lack of detail about the Voice becomes a reason for its failure, that is on him.

The truth is that this vote is not really about a “modest” request. The referendum is about the nation’s direction. It is about reconciliation.

Australians are being asked to decide between two paths toward closing the gap. One of them leads to the Voice, with its details unknown. Another leads to business as usual, with claims of a better way.

The campaign begins with a hard deadline for a decision. Australians have to choose a path, even if that path is impossible to map.

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