Voice Loss Heralds Labor’s Third Great Split

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19 October 2023
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In this article, John Roskam contextualises and disseminates the findings of the IPA’s research into the Voice to Parliament.

The IPA has been researching the consequences a potential Voice to Parliament would have to the political freedom, liberty, and equality of Australians since the Uluru Statement of the Heart was first being drafted.

Two earlier schisms divided the parliamentary party. This time it’s Labor MPs who have split from the people who vote for them.

The Labor Party has gone through two splits in its history. And while it might not know it yet – it’s now going through its third. Conscription was the cause of the first split in 1916; communism the cause of the second in 1955; and culture is the cause of the split occurring at the moment.

The difference between the two earlier splits and the current one is that in the first two it was Labor’s parliamentary party that split, while Saturday’s Voice referendum result reveals that it’s Labor MPs who have split from the people who vote for them.

Make no mistake, “seismic” is the best word for the many consequences of the referendum outcome. Indigenous policy will never be the same as it has made the Coalition’s overt and sometimes tacit support at the federal and state level for the measures first put in place by Gough Whitlam and Herbert Coombs 50 years ago unsustainable. Within just four days of the 69 per cent No vote in Queensland the Liberal National Party reversed its previous endorsement of state-based treaties.

The short-term and medium-term political repercussions for Anthony Albanese of the defeat of the referendum are hugely significant. There are no parallels between Anthony Albanese’s Voice referendum loss in 2023 and Bob Hawke’s referendum losses in 1984 and 1988. For one thing, Hawke understood Australia – Albanese doesn’t.

For one thing, Hawke understood Australia – Albanese doesn’t.

Albanese has made the Voice the centrepiece of his first-term agenda. In his victory speech on election night in May 2022 he said, “I begin by acknowledging the traditional owners of the land on which we meet. I pay my respects to their elders past, present and emerging. And on behalf of the Australian Labor Party, I commit to the Uluru Statement from the Heart in full.”

Albanese wanted both his prime ministership and the ALP to be defined by the Voice – and they will be. The referendum was not a solitary frolic of the prime minister. The Voice embodied the ideology of identity politics and critical race theory that’s been embraced by the Labor Party and the labour movement. All of the ALP owns the Voice and the idea of the country’s culture and society the Voice represents, just as much as does Anthony Albanese.

Sitting on a TV panel during the referendum count on Saturday night, Communications Minister Michelle Rowland, who is also president of the NSW branch of the ALP, said something revealing: “I don’t think I’ve met a single person in the Labor Party who doesn’t support this [the Voice] either.”

That’s how political parties break, perhaps not overnight, but eventually. Sixty-one per cent of Australians voted No to a proposal supported by every federal and state Labor MP. (In contrast, the views of Liberal MPs on the Voice reflected the diversity of opinion among the public – most Liberal MPs opposed the Voice, some supported it, and a few were afraid to reveal their position.) Meanwhile, 40 per cent of Labor voters chose No. “Out of touch” doesn’t come close to describing the Labor Party’s relationship to the Australian electorate as evidenced by the Voice referendum. It continues an obvious trend. The ALP’s primary vote of 32.6 per cent at the 2022 federal election was the party’s lowest vote since 1903.

In August, Albanese launched the Yes campaign at the Playford Civic Centre in the working-class suburb of Elizabeth in Adelaide, in the federal seat of Spence. At the federal election, Spence voted, on a party-preferred basis, 63 per cent Labor, 37 per cent Liberal. On Saturday, Spence voted 73 per cent No. At the polling booth 400 metres from the civic centre itself the No vote was 74 per cent. It was a trend repeated in similar suburbs across the country.

Elizabeth is the home of “the Howard battlers and then some”. The side of politics, either Labor or Liberal, that will fight hardest for what the people of Elizabeth want and need, will be the side that won’t only win the next federal election – it will be the side that deserves to win it.

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