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Best of 2023: Why did the referendum fail?


The 2023 Australian Indigenous Voice referendum has been rejected as expected — with the meaning and consequences now up for debate. This debate may be as crucial as the referendum debate itself to determining the future of reconciliation and what it means to be Australian in the 21st century.

It is important to start by acknowledging that there is much hurt and pain at the result. Some will feel rejected and angry. I share in the disappointment at the result. However, we must be careful not to over-react based on such disappointment.

The worst reaction would be to argue that Australia is a nation of racists and that Indigenous peoples now need more radical solutions. This would be a disastrous outcome that betrays the work of reconciliation over the past 50 years.

This interpretation is also ideological, not empirically-based, and seeks to avoid deeper scrutiny of the result that might challenge the assumptions that led to this failed referendum. In particular, it avoids the glaring question: how could the country have shifted so substantially from initial polls of over 70 per cent in favour of altering the Constitution to recognise Indigenous people through the creation of an Indigenous advisory body (the Voice to parliament) to a final result of only 40 per cent? 

This is a remarkable shift in voter support. It is even more remarkable in the light of so much political, academic and celebrity support in favour of the ‘Yes’ campaign.

At the same time, the result should not be overstated. The numerical result in this referendum (40 per cent-60 per cent) is similar to the same-sex marriage plebiscite, though in reverse (a little over 60 per cent voted in support of legalising same-sex marriage). In the case of the plebiscite, a similar margin was widely celebrated as a convincing, even overwhelming, win. I thought the hyperbole in the wake of that plebiscite was exaggerated — for it ignored the substantial number that voted against the plebiscite — so we should not repeat the same misleading hyperbole again. There is still substantial support for reconciliation and recognition of Indigenous peoples in Australia – though it was fractured by a problematic proposal and campaign. Thus, clear, evidence-based explanations for the result are needed for the reconciliation movement to move forward, while acknowledging the pain of the outcome.

Racism is plainly an insufficient justification for the shift in the voting pattern described above (from over 70 per cent to 40 per cent): did more than 30 per cent of Australians suddenly become racists after initially supporting the referendum? It seems highly unlikely – though this is not to discount that racism still exists and may have influenced a small minority of voters. Disinformation, too, seems an insufficient explanation. While it is likely a factor, it alone can’t explain such a large shift.


'This result need not be a cause for despair, inaction or a shift to radicality.' 


While empirical studies will in time indicate the variety of factors motivating voting patterns, there are some initial conclusions that can be proposed for reflection, especially to avoid mistakes that have been made.

The result is primarily a message to the political class: the majority of Australians will not accept changes to the Constitution that are unclear, lack bipartisanship and provoke divisions. While this should have been clear from past referenda, it has now been starkly reaffirmed.

The constitutional expert Anne Twomey argues this inflexibility on the part of Australian voters makes our Constitutional arrangements potentially brittle. While this danger exists, this high bar for change is largely a strength — as the longevity of Australia’s constitutional arrangements shows. Broad-based consensus and bipartisanship, based on clear proposals, seems appropriate as a prerequisite to change the Constitution. It has avoided that sort of partisan and authoritarian manipulations of the Constitution that have been common in many other countries.

It is also important to note that this referendum result actually shares much in common with the 1999 Republic referendum. In both cases, there was initially strong polling for the broad concept of change that was being proposed. However, voting sentiment eventually coalesced to reject the proposals based on dissatisfaction with the meaning of the change, the model that was proposed and disunity amongst advocates for change.

The latter is likely the single biggest factor that went against the success of the Republic and Voice referenda: the main advocates and interested parties were divided, rather than united. Despite a large amount of support for the Uluru Statement from the Heart, the Indigenous communities and advocates were not united. This was demonstrated by the effectiveness of campaigners such as Senator Jacinta Nampijinpa Price and Nyunggai Warren Mundine. Though representing a minority, they highlighted convincing counter-arguments that led to serious doubts about the legitimacy of the Voice. [In the case of the marriage plebiscite by contrast, the advocates for change were united around a common message of equality, which mimicked the campaign for change in 1967].

The arguments of the ‘No’ side particularly centred on the legitimacy of granting special political rights to Indigenous peoples under the Constitution – limited though these rights were to be. The lack of engagement from the ‘Yes’ campaign around this issue, and their seeming over-confidence, fatally undermined the referendum.

This year’s result also paralleled the 1999 referendum in another important way: voting patterns. Those outside affluent, inner-city areas were unconvinced of the referendum proposal, while those in inner-city areas tended to vote ‘Yes’. This has implications for the politics of reconciliation going forward: if the lessons of this year’s referendum are not clearly learned, then reconciliation will languish like the republic issue has. I’m confident this can be avoided with the right approach and goodwill.


'Past wrongs must be addressed within the larger vision of a positive reconciliation movement built on a genuine mutual regard, acceptance, and goodwill. This means avoiding the perception of grievance politics.'


An important issue that the reconciliation movement must acknowledge and address is that a politics of shame will not move reconciliation forward. This kind of politics re-emerged periodically during the referendum debate — like in Marcia Langton’s comments about ‘No’ voters being racist — which, understandably, concerned voters. That attempts to shame and guilt the ‘other’ are not good foundations for reconciliation should have been clear from the Howard years but is now reaffirmed. Shame only causes negative and divisive reactions.

Nevertheless, this does not mean that the tragic events of the past can’t be accepted and confronted — the 2007 apology showed that we could accept such events with honesty and goodwill. But these events must be handled without recriminations and shaming. And they certainly must not be perceived as being used for political or financial advantage.

Rather, past wrongs must be addressed within the larger vision of a positive reconciliation movement built on a genuine mutual regard, acceptance, and goodwill. This means avoiding the perception of grievance politics. It also means getting to know each other more deeply — beyond surface level platitudes — while affirming the positive values of Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples as we seek a common future together.

While Indigenous leaders like Noel Pearson tried to provide such a vision later in the campaign, Australians largely did not see this from the ‘Yes’ campaign. Instead, they initially experienced condescension and derision, resulting in division that turned voters off. When the ‘Yes’ campaign realised that such negativity was leading them to quickly lose support, their rhetoric shifted. But it was too late. Platitudes about ‘kindness’ and ‘reaching out in friendship’ fell on deaf ears. The damage was done.

Instead, many Australians found a more positive vision offered by advocates such as Jacinta Nampijinpa Price. They found her messages clear, her honesty refreshing, her national pride affirming, and her vision for an Australia of equality, friendship and a ‘fair go’ attractive. She especially found an audience in disillusioned ‘Yes’ voters, migrant communities and even some Indigenous groups.

Some have argued the process became politicised, with Indigenous leaders like Senator Price becoming pawns of the reactionary right-wing. While Indigenous leaders have been engaged in, and even used by, both sides of politics, we should not ignore what each has actually said. Price has emerged as a leading and formidable voice alongside Pearson, Dodson and Langton. Whether one agrees with Price’s political views, her positivity towards her fellow Australians and her nation won over more than the negativity of her opponents. This is a key lesson for the future of the reconciliation movement.


'If voter intentions are understood properly and the lessons are learned, it could be a chance for a reset in the reconciliation movement in Australia: away from shame, ineffective special treatment, and activist ideology towards a spirit of friendship and humility where wrongs can be admitted and difficult issues tackled within a positive vision of reconciliation and nationhood, based on common values and future.'


While Price’s comments about the positive effects of colonisation are disputed, the country will be diminished if we don’t learn from her strengths. A hope-filled vision of Australia that both acknowledges the past and seeks for a positive future in friendship and common purpose is what most Australians seem to be seeking. Price and her allies provided this vision more effectively than the ‘Yes’ campaign. While the past must never be denied or ignored, certain negative versions of Australian history and identity that appeal to an unhealthy victim-politics are now under increasing challenge.

Price’s vision also appealed to key Australian values such as equality and a fair go. Paul Kelly has argued this does not mean rejecting the special provisions and measures that Indigenous Australians have accrued over the last 50 years. While he is largely right, this result will likely place scrutiny on special provisions and expenditures that are ineffective or too inequitably based on race.

This referendum has fundamentally put into question what Australians mean by equality (equality of rights or equality of outcomes?) and how Indigenous Australians are consulted and represented in our political system beyond ad hoc or legislative arrangements. Unfortunately, the details of these points were not sufficiently addressed by the government and advocates of change. They were instead left to ‘No’ leaders like Senator Price who formulated cut-through arguments that popularised the fundamental liberal principle of non-discrimination based on race. These arguments combined effectively with suspicions about the increasing power of certain activist groups — who have constructed increasingly negative and extreme narratives about Australia — and an inflationary crisis that led to a sense that ordinary Australians were not being listened to by their leaders.

Some responded that this detail was not needed. But not showing how Indigenous peoples and groups were to be represented by the Voice begged too many questions. Like Price, Nyunggai Warren Mundine was able to fill this gap and insist that each Indigenous group have its own representation rather than a representative Voice. These critiques also played into doubts about the health and effectiveness of such representative bodies — the ghost of ATSIC, for example, was in the background but not addressed — leading Australians to be wary of establishing a permanent, constitutionally-enshrined body.

This referendum result now means asking serious questions about how to move reconciliation forward and practically ‘close the gap’ on Indigenous disadvantage. The Prime Minister has already sought to re-focus on these issues, but this referendum has shown that he and his Indigenous affairs minister, Linda Burney, have already been eclipsed by the new leadership of advocates like Senator Price. Senator Price wants to ask uncomfortable questions of the government, local communities and families. Like Noel Pearson before her, she argues that Indigenous families and communities must take responsibility for their lives and dysfunction, especially before asking for more political influence and representation. In this way, she may be shifting the political pendulum on Indigenous affairs away from progressive activists and academics.

Overall, this result need not be a cause for despair, inaction or a shift to radicality. In fact, if voter intentions are understood properly and the lessons are learned, it could be a chance for a reset in the reconciliation movement in Australia: away from shame, ineffective special treatment, and activist ideology towards a spirit of friendship and humility where wrongs can be admitted and difficult issues tackled within a positive vision of reconciliation and nationhood, based on common values and future.




Joel Hodge is a lecturer in theology at the Australian Catholic University. 

Main image:  A member of the public casts an early vote at a polling centre in the central business district on October 09, 2023 in Sydney, Australia. (Lisa Maree Williams / Getty Images)

Topic tags: Joel Hodge, Voice, Referendum, Indigenous, Australia, AusPol, Reconciliation



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