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Michael Bradley

Dutton is committed to wrecking the Voice — it will fail unless Albanese fights back

I find myself in uncomfortable agreement with Ben Fordham. Questioning Prime Minister Anthony Albanese about the Voice referendum, Fordham expressed exasperation, feigned or not:

Just answer the question … You’re losing people when you constantly point to reports. You’re always talking about, ‘Go and read the 260-page report.’ This is a radio show.

This is a radio show. That is the first marker of success for Opposition Leader Peter Dutton’s deliberate campaign of wrecking. At least the Nationals came right out and said it, a hard No because that’s what an unapologetic redneck would say. Dutton is playing a game of deceit. But the only relevant point is crystal clear: the Liberal Party will not be turned — it will try to destroy the Voice.

The strategy with which Albanese brought the Voice to the Australian people was a good one: it was honest, upfront and (most importantly) faithful to the Uluru Statement from the Heart, which asked for Voice, Treaty, Truth — in that order.

To seek change as ground-shifting as the Voice, you need to be honest and you need to try to build the widest constituency of support. In the context of Australian constitutional reforms, that means bipartisanship. So it was wise to come out open-handed, asking the Coalition to join hands in the cause.

But now we know that is never going to happen. We know that even if the polls shifted radically in favour of the Voice question being answered Yes, Dutton would only triple down on his mission to wreck it. This is a cast-iron fact.

Dutton has also settled on a strategy that is likely to work if the government maintains its tactical approach.

This was neatly encapsulated by Nick Cater in The Australian (again, a new experience for me): “The government has decided to leave the details for another day. It is not working.”

Cater went on to expose the open secret of the lie the No camp is set on pursuing:

The absence of detail does nothing to dispel the sneaking suspicion that the Albanese government is pursuing a radical agenda by stealth, that is changing Australia in incremental steps, weakening the authority of parliaments and empowering unelected bodies unconstrained by electoral mandates. Maybe we’re jumping at shadows. Without the fine print, however, it is impossible to know for sure.

That is nonsense, but it is cutting through. Why? Because the No camp is not just a fringe and it commands media support that far outstrips its relative size. The Voice proposal is nothing like the 1967 referendum question, nor the marriage equality plebiscite. Those were no-brainers, for everyone except pure bigots.

By contrast, the Voice can be easily mischaracterised as the opposite of a recognition of legal equality. It is painted by racists as racist. The more serious point, however, is that it is not a question of equality but of equity. It is, therefore, nuanced and philosophically complex.

If there was bipartisanship, the “lack of detail” wouldn’t matter and the entire debate could focus where it should: on the question of principle.

However, there is and will be no bipartisanship. The Liberals are disingenuously demanding “the detail”, and Albanese is not going to succeed if he continues just calling bullshit on that. Yes, it is bullshit, but if Fordham can so easily make you look shifty, you are cooked.

It is, therefore, time to change tack to find a way to neutralise the attack. That is not easy, because simply caving in and providing “the detail” demanded by Dutton’s 20 questions will only invite him to ask another 200.

Albanese must accept that Dutton is his enemy on this, and needs to give up on the higher road strategy of calm, rational explanation and insistence that he’s being asked the wrong questions. The government has to ask itself what fears the No camp is playing to really (hint: yes, Australia is a racist country but racism is not the real risk here), as well as provide what the people harbouring those fears need to be calmed.

The 260-page report does exist, and nobody’s going to read it. If they did, they’d understand the necessity of the Voice. They wouldn’t lose this one chance to change our country, permanently, for the better.

Albanese’s task now is to take those 260 pages, distil their essence and deliver that to the right brains — the emotional, triggered brains — of the fearful. To still their fears, neuter Dutton’s shamelessness, and engage their empathy for a righteous cause.

It’s like Helmuth von Moltke said: no plan survives first contact with the enemy.

Albanese’s plan was good, and now it’s not. This is now a radio show. Find your sound bites.

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