Op-Ed: It’s clear Albanese’s Referendum is dividing rather than uniting

The Albanese Government made a political calculation to spend its first 18 months in office making its top priority a divisive, risky and elitist constitutional change.

It has persistently refused to engage in good faith withindigenous critics of the Voice proposal, or to answer the many legitimate questions the Australian public is asking about how the Voice will work and how extensive its remit will be.

And the Prime Minister’s obsession with celebrity and corporate power to market the Voice is disrespectful and further dividing the country.

Over the next six weeks we’ll be bombarded with wall-to-wall advertising spruiking the Voice, funded by the likes of Qantas, BHP, and CommBank’s multi billion profit off the back of increasing its margins of mortgage holders.

Instead of methodically addressing the questions Australians have about the Voice and providing answers, Albanese has chosen an experiment into whether you can buy a new chapter of our nation’s constitution with tens of millions of dollars in corporate donations.

Despite the electorate making clear that the Government needs to better explain how the Voice will work, the Government’s response is even more marketing stunts. Look, it’s Shaq! Alan Joyce and a painted plane! John Farnham! Why do you need to know the details?

Perhaps the reason the PM keeps reverting to celebrity and CEO appearances for his marketing is that Australians have noticed the Government is trying to sell two completelydifferent messages to different parts of the electorate.

On any given day, they say the Voice will be powerful and change the face of the nation, and that the international community will look down on us if we don’t vote Yes. Thevery next minute, they’re telling Australians “it’s just an advisory body”.

On one hand, Albanese claims there’s already enough information available about how the Voice will work, while on the other hand he’s admitted it will take over a year to draft the legislation to create the Voice if the referendum is successful.

Telling the Australian public to vote yes to putting a powerful new body in the constitution, and then just leave the details of how it will all actually work for the government to figure outover the next 12-18 months is hardly a sound case for constitutional change.

The Government also claims the Voice won’t get involved in most policy areas and will avoid contentious debates like changing the date of Australia Day. Yet under the model he himself has put forward, he has no say in what the Voice advocates or intervenes on. The constitutional amendment clearly allows the Voice to make representations on any area of executive government decision-making.

Another of the disingenuous arguments of the Labor Government is that without the Voice, there’s no way to hear Indigenous voices.

Yet the largest of a dozen Commonwealth Indigenous agencies, the National Indigenous Australians Agency, has 1,224 employees including 52 senior executives on salaries above $200,000. It has Indigenous leadership and reports directly to Indigenous Ministers. It has an annual income of over $284 million and one of its formal responsibilities is “to provide advice to the Prime Minister and the Minister for Indigenous Australians on whole-of-government priorities for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. Why isn’t the Government listening to the advice it’s already getting?

In any other area of public governance, the idea that adding a new advisory body on top of a massive under-performing bureaucracy would quite rightly attract significant scrutiny and scepticism. You certainly would not propose adding that body to the constitution without showing taxpayers and voters how it will work and proving it will deliver results.

This Government refuses to acknowledge that there is an enormous amount of scepticism from indigenous Australians that this body will either represent them effectively or achieve any improvements.

It is clear that Albanese’s referendum is dividing Australia, not uniting us. If the referendum sneaks over the line backed by a massive corporate advertising blitz, that division will only continue.

*This opinion piece appeared in the Mercury newspaper on 7 September 2023.