Setting Voice Referendum Up to Fail

The approach taken by Labor and the Coalition towards the referendum on an Indigenous voice to parliament is a case study in how the politics of blame works in Australia. Both major parties have adopted separate political strategies leading into the referendum, diminishing the chances of consensus and increasing the likelihood of failure. Anthony Albanese’s strategy is to try and shame the Coalition into supporting the voice without providing the finer details, which risk splitting the Yes vote. In contrast, Peter Dutton’s approach is to demand a definitive model beforehand so Australians know exactly what they will be voting for. This sets up a political impasse that cannot be resolved without one side shifting ground. But it also means both parties will have a reason to heap responsibility on to the other if the vote is lost, an outcome that will mire the nation in a period of ugly political recrimination.

If the referendum fails, Dutton can blame the result on a lack of detail while Albanese will blame the opposition for bogging down the debate. With only 8 out of 44 referendums having succeeded, the politics surrounding the voice are being informed more by how blame can be apportioned for a defeat rather than what compromises can be struck to achieve success. So far, the Liberal Party hasn’t reached a formal position on whether it will support the proposal and Labor doesn’t know how the voice will operate. This is not a recipe for success. The 15 practical questions put to Albanese by Dutton will need to be answered at some point. These are fundamental issues the parliament will need to deal with in the event of a successful vote. Who can serve on the voice, will members be elected or appointed, how many will make up the body, what are the functions and powers of the voice? Will there be a definition of Aboriginality to determine who can serve on the body?

Dutton is right to say these questions are not unreasonable. His appeal for Albanese to provide the “basic detail” will resonate with those who are supportive of a voice but uncomfortable at supporting a new body without knowing how it will operate. Will Albanese answer Dutton’s 15 questions? Will he sit down with the Opposition Leader to work out what model the Liberals could support, where there is scope for agreement and where Labor could make concessions? Don’t count on it. The politics of the voice referendum is not being conducted in this manner. Labor believes the details can be worked out later. This is a high-risk strategy. If the voice is defeated, Albanese may have a much harder time than he thinks in managing the politics of blame or sheeting home responsibility to Dutton. After all, he is the Prime Minister who championed the voice and raised expectations, all while ignoring demands to explain how the new body was supposed to work.

Source: Compiled by APN from media reports

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