It was possible to hear in Anthony Albanese’s faltering voice the burden of his mission: a mixture of hope for success and dread of failure.
“This is a risk, having a referendum,” he said.
“Usually, they don’t succeed.”
And there it was. The dread: the knowledge of the 44 referendums proposing constitutional change put to Australian electors since federation, and only eight of them approved.
“But the people here can’t wait,” he said of those gathered around him, the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders who had driven the quest for a parliamentary Voice for their people in the Constitution, and the determination was back.
“They can’t. They’ve waited so long. They’ve waited a long time for justice, this is something where they’re making such a modest request. I do feel a responsibility.”
He was, thus, making this personal, beyond the politics of the usual.
Albanese reminded the silent gathering, those patient and hopeful people of the First Nations behind him and the press of journalists before him, that he had begun his prime ministership on May 21 last year with the promise of a referendum.
“I knew what I was doing, I knew the weight that was there and I knew how that would be received by people.”
Here, again, was the hope and the trepidation: “how that would be received by people” – a phrase containing both.
But swiftly as he had allowed the implied prospect of defeat to intrude, he turned to the higher purpose a prime minister might seek.
‘I’m not here to occupy the space,” he said.
“I’m here to change the country. There’s nowhere more important in changing the country than in changing the constitution to recognise the fullness of our history.
’I want this for all Australians. We’ll feel better about ourselves if we get this done.
“The truth is, Australia will be seen as a better nation in the rest of the world. Our position in the world matters.”
The prime ministerial voice might have cracked a bit beneath the weight of his aspiration, but he wasn’t about to cut short what he had come to say and to do.
Recognition and consultation were the fundamental principles of the constitutional change he was proposing, he declared.
“We share this great island continent with the world’s oldest continuous culture. Our nation’s birth certificate should recognise this and be proud of it,” he said.
“Secondly – consultation. Not a radical notion. A sensible and practical proposition that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people should have a say in the decisions and policies that affect their lives, not just because it’s common courtesy and decency to ask people before you take a decision that will have an impact on them, but because when you reach out and listen to communities, you get better results.”
There would be no stepping back, he declared, but even there it was possible to discern the prime minister’s burden, the hope of success and the terror of failure.
“To be very clear – because I was asked this question this morning – are there any circumstances in which this will not be put to a vote?” Albanese asked, and it was merely rhetorical.
“ The answer to that is – no.”
Here, his voice wavered close to the edge.
“To not put this to a vote is to concede defeat. You only win when you run on the field and engage and let me tell you – my government is engaged. We’re all in.”
Outside, the corridor to the prime minister’s office was lined with staffers and members of the referendum working group, and as Albanese left the press conference, they applauded and cheered.
They were, as the prime minister had promised, all in, prepared – and now, required – to share the burden of his mission.
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