Albanese has every state and territory leader, Labor and Liberal, in favour of the Voice. Keating didn’t enjoy that luxury with Mabo, as Liberal governments in Western Australia and Victoria, and a Labor government in Queensland, played the role of spoilers. Keating’s advantage was that the High Court had forced federal parliament to deal with the issue after it struck down the colonial lie of terra nullius (that there was no one here before British settlement).
Keating created a reform movement with Indigenous leaders, while Gareth Evans, the government’s leader in the Senate, negotiated the legislation through a more volatile upper house than the one Albanese faces today. Remember that Keating and Evans were men of detail.
Albanese is mindful of his place in Labor history. Although he wants to govern like Hawke, he may need a little of Keating’s intellectual ambition to secure the Voice.
This is the double edge of the referendum. The idea for the Voice originated outside the political system, and survived the indifference and/or active sabotage of three Liberal prime ministers in Tony Abbott, Malcolm Turnbull and Scott Morrison. But carriage of the argument for change starts with Albanese. He has to establish the purpose of the Voice in the public mind before he effectively delegates the campaign to Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians, across community, sporting, cultural and business groups.
This triggers within the government a bigger question, which is whispered now but might grow louder if the polls keep slipping. Will the referendum chew up too much of this term for little or no reward? A defeat would be devastating, but a narrow win built around a risk-averse question may be difficult to legislate.
The nation that rejected the republic with a No vote of almost 55 per cent in 1999 was divided on what was referred to as the 40-40-20 formula, representing supporters of the Coalition, Labor and minor parties. The minor parties themselves were split almost evenly between One Nation and Australian Democrat voters. John Howard saved the monarchy by holding a large portion of his base, and adding One Nation and some Labor voters who opposed the model on offer. The republic vote comprised most of the Labor base plus the Democrats, according to exit polling at the time for the Australian Election Study.
It helped that Howard as PM wrote a question that was designed to fail: “To alter the Constitution to establish the Commonwealth of Australia as a republic with the Queen and Governor-General being replaced by a President appointed by a two-thirds majority of the members of the Commonwealth Parliament.” It was inviting Australians to say No to the politician’s republic.
Today, the electorate comprises a third Labor, a third Coalition and a third minor parties. The maths intuitively favours the Yes case because Albanese is more likely to split the Coalition vote if Dutton opposes the Voice outright. He gets those votes anyway if Dutton is a soft No. Of the minor parties, the Greens and teals are already in the Yes camp – echoing the role the Democrats played in 1999.
Albanese’s instinct, reinforced by those closest to him on this issue, is to keep the question simple. Recall the draft he issued at the Garma Festival in Arnhem Land last July: “Do you support an alteration to the Constitution that establishes an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice?”
But will a simple question inspire a mass Yes campaign? The risk, which is underlined in the polls, is one of complacency. If Albanese eschews detail and runs on the vibe of the thing, he could talk himself out of this historic opportunity.
The goodwill he assumes in the Australian people has to be activated. It can’t be taken for granted, otherwise Albanese may find himself – to borrow a tune from Neil Young – “alone at the microphone” for the Yes case. And that is a voice he doesn’t want to hear.
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