Nothing To Fear But Fear Itself

By Niki Savva

The Voice referendum result resides with all of us. Are we a frightened people unable to see through the scares and lies?

When Peter Dutton ran for the Liberal leadership in 2018, he twice asked Ken Wyatt to vote for him. Dutton told Wyatt he wanted him on his frontbench. Wyatt told Dutton both times that he would not vote for him. Furthermore, he told him that if he became leader, he would not serve under him, he would quit the ministry.

Beyond expressing concern for the sexual abuse of children, Dutton showed little interest in Indigenous issues, according to Wyatt.

When we spoke a few days ago, Wyatt was as unsurprised as he was unimpressed by Dutton’s conduct of the No campaign in the referendum.

Wyatt dismissed the fevered commentary about Jacinta Nampijinpa Price becoming prime minister. He reckons for a leader to succeed, she – or he – must be capable of, and be seen to be working for, all Australians. He believes neither Dutton nor Price has shown they can do that.

Going down in history as two of the people most responsible for destroying a referendum which Wyatt is convinced would help Indigenous people is no qualification for national leadership in Wyatt’s view.

Born on a mission station, and his mother forced to hand over her wages to bureaucrats then ask for money back to buy essentials, Wyatt was the first Indigenous person to become Indigenous affairs minister under Scott Morrison. He quit the Liberal Party in protest in April.

Clinging to hope that Yes would triumph, Wyatt worried defeat would deter future governments from considering new approaches. He accepts Anthony Albanese would have no mandate to legislate a Voice but pledged he and fellow Yes warriors would not give up fighting for better ways to address Indigenous disadvantage.

In the postmortems that will inevitably continue for decades, we can and we will blame No campaigners for playing filthy dirty, for putting politics above everything else, for using loud hailers to whistle up the neo-Nazis , racists and bigots with lies and misrepresentations.

The demons unleashed by tactics to foment conflict , for short-term political gain at the expense of vulnerable Australians, will live on long after Saturday’s vote.

We can and will blame the Albanese government for choosing the wrong time or the wrong words or for mismanaging the campaign, for doing it now or even for doing it at all.

The miserable fact is that no matter the wording, the content, or the timing, we were always destined to get to this point. A few Yes campaigners, including Wyatt, firmly believe this.

There was never going to be bipartisanship. Releasing exposure draft legislation would only have given the Noes more ammunition. Legislating the Voice alone would have once again been whitefellas telling blackfellas what was best for them. Delaying the referendum until the next election would have guaranteed the loss of both the election and the referendum.

Yes advocates say the Noes tapped into a deep well of racism, others that the referendum has created a hell of a mess.

The Noes blame Yes for dividing Australia, which is a bit like claiming black is white. They claim it’s the biggest change to the Constitution ever proposed. Wrong. That was the republic. Their most potent argument against that was if it ain’t broke don’t fix it. Those same people, notably Tony Abbott, know this system is broken, offer no solution and instead seek to destroy the Voice by claiming it will encourage ‘‘ separatism’’ .

As if such a modest change to set up an advisory body creates a new apartheid. Confronted by tough questioning, they scream bias. In fact, they have had a good run. Too good.

As the most prominent, the most effective and most polarising participant in the black-on-black conflict , Price has called the shots for the Coalition. She says upfront what many of them think, but few dare to say. The photo of Price acting as barista in a Perth cafe with Dutton smiling awkwardly behind her like a coffee caddy says it all. Not only has she given white folk an excuse to vote No, she has absolved them of any guilt or shame for past wrongs by insisting colonisation had benefited Aboriginal people.

Another of the many low points of this campaign was when the media and others perversely condemned Indigenous leader Marcia Langton for calling out racism, rather than condemn the racism itself. We live in dangerous times when Ray Martin cops more abuse from the Noes for using words like dinosaurs and dickheads than does a neo-Nazi who threatens to kill a senator.

Dutton questioning the integrity of an institution as highly regarded as the Australian Electoral Commission was inexcusable. It opened the door wide for conspiracy theorists to harass and abuse the commission and its staff.

This is a defining moment for Australia. Almost every other country on earth has reached an accommodation with its original inhabitants. We should at least be honest enough to admit that if we don’t , this debate will have simply exposed what lurks just beneath the surface. Blaming Albanese for that is bizarre. Ultimately, responsibility for the result, and everything which delivers it, resides with us.

The central issue, as it was on the republic, is not what the world thinks of us, as important as that is. It is what we think of each other.

Come Sunday, we will either see ourselves as measured, generous people, ready to set aside the daily woes of our lives – only for a few minutes – to consider the place and state of Indigenous Australians, prepared to say Yes to something that will cost us nothing, but could measurably improve their lives.

Or as a frightened, resentful people unable or unwilling to see through the scares and the lies, prepared to use the ballot box to punish the government and in the process punish Indigenous people trapped in cycles of poverty and abuse.

Niki Savva is a regular columnist.
Copyright © 2023 The Sydney Morning Herald

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