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Guy Rundle

After defeat, the Yes commentariat identify their true enemy: the Australian people

Many Indigenous leaders of the Yes campaign have declared a week of public silence, and who can blame them? Some will be politicking, creating new alliances for the post-referendum era. Some will be in genuine mourning, shellacked by the scale of the defeat. Some simply need, and have earned, a long sleep. Loss in any political contest is rejection on a scale few of us are likely to experience, and this one is a multiple of that. Going quiet this week may or may not be a good idea politically, as the No camp establishes its agenda and cements its version of history. But for some, it may be simply existentially necessary.

But as your correspondent noted, once the Voice became a referendum question, it became a white object, requiring 54% of the national vote to get across the line. Even the notion, argued by some, of non-Indigenous commentators stepping out of the way, could not be anything but a political act. In any case, it was one that would be impossible, had it been tried. The right wasn’t going to stop and would have filled the vacuum.  

The less credible reason for the flood of Yes commentary was that, well, I would refer you to the “white object” point. For progressives/the knowledge class, there was, until a few months ago, belief that success was inevitable, and that it would crown a series of recent successes, from the same-sex marriage plebiscite, to the 2022 federal victory, the Greens surge, the Aston byelection win, and the reelection of Dan Andrews.

The stonking defeat handed to this most progressivist/knowledge class of proposals — change through recognition, and more talking, more elite convocations — should remind them how provisional their hold on power in the body politic is.

The thumbnail 40% result was basically, I would say, 75% of the 25% who comprise the knowledge class — so about 18% of the vote, with non-European migrants and migrant-descended adding another 3%, Indigenous people another 2%, Gen Z (those who aren’t in the knowledge class group as students) another 4%, older liberal middle classes another 3% or so, and the final 10% coming from the 20-30% or so of the otherwise uncategorised non-tertiary educated who may have voted for it (those figures overlap a little). 

On the No side, it is a relative monolith of the non-tertiary-educated. Which presumably divides into four reasons: brute racism against anything that would help “the blacks”; indifference to the issue, and no sense of being bound up with the Indigenous population of this continent; a conscious support of inherited institutions and the formal equality of the current arrangements; and a category of its own, but also overlapping all the others — a belief in the disinformation about taking your house, etc. 

So there’s an interesting inversion. The Yes vote came from multiple sources, by social class, but had essentially the same vision. The No vote came from a relatively monolithic mainstream but had apparently very different reasons for rejecting it. The conclusion has to be made that the material-historical meaning of the vote has to be seen in “class” terms: it was a revolt against this march to “class” dominance by the knowledge class, led by the cultural producer elite at their core. 

This was a big play from the knowledge class, carried along by an essentially “sealed” morality, an inability to see abstract values — “I have a moral duty to extend concern to all humans because morality must be universal and general — as an expression of their class and its way of thinking.” Universalist morality is not a universal truth, like a scientific law. The other morality — that moral obligation is attached to my own people, my own group, and that loyalty is morally better than equality of treatment — is that of people whose lives are more bound in the particular. The elite of the knowledge class has been trying to discredit this sort of thinking, to portray it as not a morality at all, for decades. 

The attachment to the Voice was the final move in this recent historical passage. By achieving the Voice and implementing it in the constitution, the knowledge class would determine not merely the politics of the present but the meaning of Australian history as all leading up to the moment of the Voice, a sort of Paddle Pop Hegelianism.

The refusal of this by the electorate has made the cultural producer elite — the core of the knowledge class — and its commentariat very, very angry. Their first move has been to repeat the Democrats’ post-2016 play, dropping in a simplistic false-consciousness model, treating the mainstream as a blank slate onto which anything can be projected. This was a denial of the obvious truth: the Yes campaign was a shambles, the line put the “mess” in “message”, and the No campaign easily outpaced it. The second stage, which began last week, was simple hatred and disdain directed at the mainstream of the country.

Thus Sean Kelly in the Age/SMH:

I have been struck by the widespread conclusion, based on polling, that Australians were persuaded by the argument that the Voice would divide the country. Voters may well say this was what persuaded them. But it is likely that most were instinctively against the idea; of the reasons they were able to choose between to justify their choice, this one sounded most attractive.

Well, the Voice would divide the country. That is its intent! This was the great blind spot of the Yes campaign, run with to the end. The division — between Indigenous peoples and non-Indigenous Australians — was essential to recognition. It was the enactment of recognition. We weren’t creating a Voice, a separate assembly for, say, the benefits-dependent disabled, whose powerlessness, invisibility and suffering would match that of many Indigenous groups. We proposed to specifically recognise the separateness of Indigenous peoples by recognising no other social groups as requiring or deserving a voice assembly of their own. That was the essential mechanism of the Voice.

The Yes case — that this was really a higher unity, arising from the imposition of division — was gobbledygook, and sussed by the mainstream as such. When it was pinged by the voters, Kelly and others resorted to the idea that it wasn’t their real intent, which moved beneath the murky surface of real psych 101 stuff. 

In The Monthly, Rachel Withers repeated, in the last few days ahead of the vote, the one trick many Yes advocates used, of taking Yes Indigenous leaders on trust, while asking No campaigners to prove their credentials:

Conservatives Nyunggai Warren Mundine and Jacinta Nampijinpa Price have been essential spokespeople for the No campaign, using their platforms to claim a Voice isn’t necessary, while Blak Sovereign Movement leader Lidia Thorpe leads the progressive No, who want a Treaty instead of a Voice. But these leaders have received far more coverage than the people they claim to speak for. 

Withers tellingly left out all those Indigenous figures — Gary Foley, Celeste Liddle and Michael Mansell among the most prominent — who made it clear that, while they would not advocate for No, they felt the Voice proposal to be a mix of a nothing burger and a stitch-up. Ignoring these voices, with a more complex take, was essential to the Yes elite’s presentation of the issue, as one of obvious justice versus a malign and sinister cabal.

This faint whiff of totalitarian thinking ran through much of the Yes commentariat’s efforts. It had started early. In June, Age columnist Jenna Price stated:

There is only one way forward and that’s all-out war. If we want to pass the Voice referendum (which, honestly, should not even be up for discussion) we will need a leader to lead us to the vote.

That is the totalitarian mindset in essence: the other side of the argument should not even be thinkable, and thus arguable. Price was suggesting that Tim Wilson would make a good Yes spokesman. Bless. One could multiply such examples indefinitely (too many of them, alas, from this publication). 

Katharine Murphy rounded this all out for Guardian Australia readers, with an obsessive trilogy of articles, a Duttoniad. On September 23, Dutton was a “one-man insurgency”. On October 7, as defeat approached, he was “the exploding fire hydrant of politics, pushing his party to the angry fringes”, and on October 14, referendum day, he was “Australia’s figurehead of fear and fake news like Trump but without the charisma”. The last article’s ludicrous, desperate comparison was a clue to her hopelessly incorrect analysis. Pushing the Coalition to the “angry fringes”? No won in more than 30 Labor seats and Yes won in a single Coalition seat. That fringe looks more like a wave. Sadly, this Duttomania has had a fair expression in this publication, replacing Scott Morrison derangement syndrome as an explanation for all ills. 

There are many causes for the failure of the Yes campaign, but one of them is this absolute insularity of the progressive mindset. That’s a passive thing, an attitude among the wider knowledge class. Among the progressive commentariat it’s been an active enforcement, a truly self-destructive strategy, to reduce the pace of debate by steadily labelling every idea or attitude it doesn’t like as a symptom of something else, or a product of a cabal.

This has been made visible by the failure of the Yes case, because this is what contributed overwhelmingly to its failure. These publications should be arenas for forthright debate and acute self-scrutiny. But they are serving their commercial demands by publishing pabulum, in the same way that The Australian does, for its sunstruck readership of ageing Queenslanders. Guardian Australia and others tell people exactly what they want to hear so they will continue to read it over whatever ridiculous novelty-ethnic breakfast they are having in Thornbury on a Saturday morning. The eve of the referendum had seen a plethora of “this decides what sort of nation we are” pieces. Even Niki Savva got into the act:

Come Sunday, we will either see ourselves as measured, generous people, ready to set aside the daily woes of our lives … prepared to say Yes to something that will cost us nothing, but could measurably improve their lives. Or as a frightened, resentful people …

Which followed on from Peter Hartcher’s “A frightened nation? Yes or No?” a week earlier, which had the same cod cultural analysis, with the usual method: create a false abstraction of what the Australian nation is, drawn pretty much from the high Hawke era. Render any departure or dissent from it as a neurotic reaction to the received truth. Find that, in Jon Faine’s words, the nation failed the civics test. Yes, you know what’s coming don’t you, a bit of Brecht: the people, as audience, have failed the progressive commentariat. It is time to dissolve the people-audience, etc, etc… In recent days, the unquestionable split between the tertiary-educated and others in the vote has led Kos Samaras to try and tie it to economic class — which doesn’t work — and people like Patricia Karvelas and Waleed Aly to tie it to the “lack of information”.

That just goes to show that being educated doesn’t make you smart. The Voice wasn’t a right/wrong answer. It’s not exams, which progressives love, and everyone else hates. It’s not how the contents of thought differ, it’s the form of thinking that differs, and the different moral systems that arise from that.   

Will this utter debacle for progressives serve as some sort of wake-up call to editors and proprietors of these publications that, for the good of the country in general, and left and genuinely progressive and liberal thinking in particular, they must create centres of forthright and uncompromising debate, so that ideas and strategies are genuinely tested against reality, before being applied to the world?

Or will they now retreat further into a self-justifying, incurious and complacent disdain for the beliefs of two-thirds of the people they share this continent with? If they do, and imagine that they will not now meet a more concerted and organised resistance to their worldview, then they may themselves be taking that long sleep.

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