I started work on this book in 2021, completed the final version in April 2023, and it went to press in June 2023. There is inevitably a time lag with book publishing, and very limited opportunities to update once the final ms is submitted. Given the contemporariness and topicality of so much that this book investigates, it seemed a good idea to issue occasional updates as circumstances change and history moves on.
Over much of the period during which I was writing The Shrinking Nation, the popular and political support for The Indigenous Voice to Parliament looked strong and stable. There were even moments when bipartisan political support seemed possible. Looking back over what I have written, however, I have to admit that the picture I present is more positive and hopeful than it would be if I were writing it now. Regrettably, the hope that the proposed referendum on a Voice to Parliament might reflect the better version of politics so many voted for in the 2022 federal election has significantly diminished over the last four months. The latest Resolve poll now has popular support for the ‘Yes’ vote dipping below 50% for the first time.
Unfortunately, the forces at work here are familiar ones – we have seen them obstruct the political response to progressive social change over at least the last two decades. As The Shrinking Nation argues, these forces include the obdurate defense of the status quo, the re-purposing of politics around the maintenance of power rather than service to the nation, the nation’s entrapment within a hyper-partisan model of politics, the media’s recourse to covering politics solely as a game, and the entrenched skepticism Australians have developed about the capacity of the political class to do anything sensible in the service of the national interest.
What is also at play, it seems to me, is low level of intensity and visibility in the prosecution of the ‘Yes’ campaign to this point. While the ‘No’ campaigners have been vigorously planting the seeds of doubt in the minds of the electorate, the ‘Yes’ campaign has been comparatively muted in its response. When questioned about this, some of its representatives — including Albanese — have pointed to what is coming: the acceleration of their campaign once the date for the referendum is set and we head into ‘the final quarter’. There is a real danger that it will all be over before then.
Most of the early television ads, intent as they seem to be not to spook the horses, are underwhelming in their tone and execution. What appears to be an attempt to ensure there is nothing threatening about the proposed change to the Constitution risks undermining the recognition of the issue’s importance. And television, in any case, won’t do it for them. Television advertising on political or social issues, while still important, no longer does enough on its own to shift the dial, even when it is well done.
The trends in the opinion polls suggest that what has been done so far may be too little, too late. The task for the ‘No’ campaign is simple: to sow sufficient doubt within sufficient numbers of the public to make the ‘No’ response defensible. If enough people are unconvinced about how this is all going to work out, then there is some rationality in not accepting the proposal being made. And the creation of doubt is much easier than establishing a popular understanding of what Peter Dutton keeps calling ‘the details’. As I noted in The Shrinking Nation, the creation of doubt is a longstanding and successful strategy for those opposing progressive change and has been a constant component of the artillery deployed over decades of culture wars. It has to be confronted early, loudly and comprehensively, if there is any chance of dispelling it. That hasn’t happened here yet.
Regressive attitudes to race are implicated in this campaign, but are not directly invoked. At the level of party politics, opposition to The Voice is, I would suggest, not just a matter of simple racism although it is certainly accompanied by a chorus of dog whistles. Regrettably, it more cynical than that: it is driven by the calculation that a defeat on this issue would significantly damage the current government. Australia may have made great progress in its acceptance and acknowledgement of its First Nations people, but there is still enough of a residual reservation about their claims to recognition to furnish the Coalition with a support base for the stance it has adopted. The future cost of implicitly legitimizing such a socially destructive and politically regressive set of attitudes is apparently no impediment to their plans.
Not all opposition to The Voice is of this kind, of course. There is a significant section of the First Nations constituency which sees this proposal as a low priority when compared to other investments government should make — the finalization of a treaty, for instance, or a major renovation of its programs aimed at Closing the Gap. The political and media context that has been created for a reasonable discussion of such positions, however, is not a promising one . It has become a crudely polarized field of debate within which any kind of nuance gets lost. I would guess that while many Australians might be aware that significant minority of Indigenous Australians do not support the Voice, few would be know the reasons why.
Once again, Australia is in danger of demonstrating that it is simply not up to having a rational, informed, and respectful debate over issues that are crucial to its future as a civilized, diverse, and equitable society. Doing this kind of thing properly, sadly, still seems beyond us.