The Voice referendum resulted in a defeat, similar to several other proposals since the Federation that became buried in contention, partisanship, and opportunism. The “yes” side’s clean sweep of the states has occurred before, with a quarter of all referendum votes going to the “no” side. There will be many post-mortems and “what if” scenarios, with many questions about the outcome.
Indigenous opinion in Australia is divided, regardless of the proportion on each side. Despite Opposition Leader Peter Dutton’s bipartisan support, the Nationals would still say “no” to the proposal. Even if both parties had agreed, other political right elements would have said “no”, leading to a split. Crafting a message with broad appeal was challenging, as over 96% of non-Indigenous Australians were asked to offer concessions.
Settler Australians often associate equality with sameness, which they view as democracy. However, the creation of an Indigenous Voice was seen as a potential solution to promote division and inequality.
The “no” case argued that the Voice would create disunity, but a “yes” vote was needed to accept both the problem and the solution. The “yes” leaflet outlined three goals: constitutional recognition for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, listening to Indigenous advice for better government decision-making, and improving health, education, employment, and housing outcomes.
The Voice proposes constitutional recognition for Indigenous people and a platform for self-expression, aiming to bridge the gap. However, voters must accept the need for additional representation, as some may assume existing Indigenous parliament members can do so.
The “no” vote in the Australian election was largely due to the prominence of Indigenous people, such as Jacinta Nampijinpa Price and Lidia Thorpe, who were the de facto leaders of the “no” campaign. This was a significant factor in the “yes” campaign, as it undermined the moral and political authority of the “yes” case. Despite some white Australians denying the existence of Aboriginal disadvantage, even those who acknowledge it needed to accept the Voice’s effectiveness in closing the gap.
The Voice was also advisory, which Prime Minister Anthony Albanese emphasized to reassure non-Indigenous voters that it would do little to change existing political arrangements. The “no” result will be deeply disappointing to many Australians, particularly Indigenous people who have worked for years to achieve constitutional change. Many will have broken hearts, as they have endured some of the worst impulses and nastiest instincts in the country’s history. Healing will be a long journey.