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When Yolngu and Anangu people performed a dance around a campfire near Uluru six years ago during the national dialogue that called for a First Nations Voice, the message from one of Australia’s greatest Indigenous leaders was simple.
“Our fire was lit by our ancestors and lives through our song and our dance,” Yunupingu told hundreds of delegates and observers after the performance. “You can now go and light a fire in the nation for all of us, for our children, for all Australians.”
Indigenous leader Noel Pearson signs the canvas used for the Uluru Statement from the Heart’s artwork in 2017.Credit: Alex Ellinghausen
It was the last week of May in 2017, and the ambition at the Indigenous convention was as vast as the rock behind them. Also, in retrospect, as unmoveable. Within days of Yunupingu’s words, the 250 delegates rejected the idea of symbolic change to the constitution – recognition alone – in favour of the Voice.
On this day, May 26, they made their decision. They wanted a meaningful referendum with a practical outcome. This masthead’s late, great correspondent Michael Gordon was there to witness the decision, with photographer Alex Ellinghausen alongside to capture a moment in history. Gordon reported the overwhelming sentiment of the dialogue: the need for a proper settlement and real change.
The great hope around that campfire has waned over time – and this week faced an aggressive attempt to snuff it out completely. The denunciation by Opposition Leader Peter Dutton in federal parliament on Monday sought to frame the Voice as a symptom of “identity politics” that favours one group over another. He called it an attempt to re-racialise the country – a warning of catastrophic division that sounds absurd to many but spreads the sort of anxiety and fear that can destroy a referendum.
Dutton made a similar claim of disaster about the apology to the stolen generation in 2008. “It would beggar belief that they would be contemplating an apology that could open the government up to serious damages claims without knowing what those claims would be,” he said before abstaining from the apology. It took 15 years for him to admit he got that wrong.
Some of the most compelling speeches in reply came from those within Dutton’s ranks. The former shadow attorney-general, Julian Leeser, rubbished the idea that the Voice would elevate those it was designed to help. “Some say the Voice will give Indigenous Australians a place of privilege,” he said. “Does anyone really believe that Indigenous Australians occupy a place of privilege?”
Tasmanian Liberal MP Bridget Archer also dismissed the idea the Voice would divide the country by race – a basic repudiation of her party leader.
A speech on Thursday from Anthony Albanese acknowledged the Voice would make little difference to everyday life for most people but a big difference to First Nations people. This is not an easy message: the Prime Minister asks Australians to think of others when they cast their votes.
“This referendum is about two things: recognition and listening,” he said. “Recognising Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in our Constitution – and listening to them so we get better outcomes. It is the means to the end. The end is about closing the gap.”
Beneath all this, however, there was no momentum for either side. The No advocates smashed the glass and rang the alarm bells, while the Yes case refused to panic. They did not budge. There were no sign of nerves on the Yes side about changing the constitution to give the Voice the right to give advice to executive government – that is, federal agencies and departments rather than parliament alone. This is the concept that galvanises conservative critics, but the Yes campaigners insist it means nothing to most voters.
Even if it looks safer on political grounds to delete executive government from the bill, it stays. This decision honours the spirit from six years ago because it asks Australians to vote for meaningful change. At the same time, it highlights the determination or stubbornness of the Yes side – the “crash through or crash” approach.
October 14 is the leading option for referendum day. The Yes campaigners know the vote can be held on that day without interfering with football finals, but the date also has the advantage of being preceded by four weeks when federal parliament does not sit. The previous Saturday, October 7, also works. The final weeks of the campaign will not feature Dutton thundering in parliament.
This means there is time for both sides to intensify their campaigns from July onwards, once the Senate has passed the referendum bill by June 22. (The bill will pass because even those who oppose the change will vote for the right of Australians to have their say.)
The No side has a few figureheads – Coalition Senator Jacinta Nampijinpa Price and former Labor president and Liberal candidate Warren Mundine – without a broad campaign on the ground, at least so far. This means it may have to rely on social media and digital campaigning.
The Yes campaign, meanwhile, is underpowered. Its efforts remain invisible to most Australians – so much so that only 29 per cent of voters in the latest Resolve Political Monitor said they had seen a Yes advertisement. This is better than the No campaign – seen by 18 per cent – but it offers a reality check for everyone involved.
The Yes case only has 53 per cent support on the “yes or no” question in the Resolve Political Monitor – a number which is dangerously low and could be a losing position when there is a double majority to achieve and five months to go.
The Yes case has endorsements from sporting stars and celebrities, business councils and unions, super funds and universities, yet opinions are split on whether famous faces really make a difference. Some inside the Yes camp believe the referendum will be won with a “conversation” strategy – that is, mobilising thousands of volunteers on Australian streets to talk people around.
We are yet to see the campaign for the Voice recapture what Michael Gordon called the “spark and inspiration” at Uluru. The parliamentary bickering saps the energy out of the debate and spreads dispute, doubt and division – the forces that lead to defeat. The movement is yet to galvanise the millions of Australians it needs to believe in, and vote for, recognition, reconciliation and practical help on closing the gap.
Success for the Yes campaign may depend on whether it can do what Yunupingu asked at the campfire six years ago: to light a fire in the nation.
David Crowe is chief political correspondent.
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