Why Albanese, not Dutton, is the greatest threat to stifling the Voice

The Voice to federal parliament, Anthony Albanese’s passion project for the first term of his government, is poised between narrow victory and heartbreaking defeat.

The published opinion polls all point in the same direction, with the Yes vote drifting lower and the undecideds rising. There is a gnawing sense of dread within Labor ranks that the referendum is doomed. Not because Australians are opposed to the idea of an Indigenous Voice enshrined in the Constitution, but because they are confused by the detail.

Illustration: Simon Letch

The prime minister remains optimistic because he thinks Australians will do the decent thing when they are asked to vote Yes or No later this year. And he doesn’t appear to be worried about the prospect of a scare campaign from Peter Dutton.

The opposition leader is aware of Albanese’s calculation, although it is not yet clear if he accepts it. Albanese doesn’t need the conservative side of politics to walk alongside him. In fact, a polarised debate with Dutton running a hard No campaign might help the Yes case more than it harms it. Put bluntly, the Coalition’s base is more likely to split than Labor’s, delivering Albanese a form of bipartisanship by default. The realignment of the electorate which brought Labor to power last May provides a plausible path to victory at a referendum without the support of the Coalition.

The greater danger to the Yes case may be Albanese himself, and it lies in the very paradox of his strength as a collegiate leader. The PM knows he can’t run the campaign for a Voice on his own. But he won’t inspire a grassroots movement to carry the Yes vote from inner-city electorates to the regions without first making the case.

Here is where Albanese’s leadership model becomes problematic. He is not a details man. His closest supporters concede this. It is not meant as a criticism. On the contrary, it is an essential element of his character which allows him to trust his ministers to run their portfolios. And it helps the PM keep his end of the contract he struck with the electorate last May for a more humble form of governance. Australia doesn’t need another mansplainer-in-chief who micromanages his ministers, and treats the Commonwealth public service as an extension of his political office.

An underrated part of Albanese’s leadership model is it releases him to devote more working hours to the serious business of international diplomacy. He is the first leader on either side since Bob Hawke who hasn’t triggered a form of the old Aussie cringe in the media that demands he fly economy class, or cut short his trip to deal with a crisis at home. The two eras are, of course, not compatible. Hawke operated in a more benign security environment in the ’80s.

Hawke, to his regret, passed up the opportunities at the time for reconciliation. He promised land rights and then a treaty with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders, but withdrew both offers in turn because he judged the politics too difficult. Land rights in the form of native title became Paul Keating’s passion project after the 1993 election. Although Keating was less popular than Hawke and carried the baggage of the early 1990s recession, he had the more unified Labor Party. Hawke had blinked, in part because West Australian Labor premier Brian Burke threatened to campaign against land rights.

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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