The voices of those so long silenced in our democracy may well speak very loudly during this term of parliament.
The Uluru Statement from the Heart will help define the Albanian government and the future of the Peter Dutton-led opposition.
It will tell us much about our democracy.
The Uluru Statement’s time has come. Anthony Albanese’s first commitment in his victory speech on election night was to pledge a referendum to enshrine a voice for First Nations people in the Constitution.
It lands at the crossroads of political upheaval shaking democracies worldwide and now here, in Australia. The federal election has broken open our politics. Does it make a referendum harder — not easier — to win?
It is already an uphill climb. A “yes” campaign must win a double majority: a majority of voters and a majority of states.
Only eight out of 44 referendums have been carried. For the last successful yes vote, we have to go back to the 1970s.
Historically, without bipartisanship a referendum is dead. And when it comes to a First Nations voice we know where the Liberal-National coalition sits: it has already rejected it twice, under the Turnbull and Morrison governments.
Albanian is sailing into fierce political headwinds. When asked during the election campaign whether he would take the voice to the referendum, Scott Morrison replied: “Why would I?”
So, why would Peter Dutton?
Dutton may ask: What would Howard do?
At first glance, history does not bode well for supporters of the Uluru Statement. In 2007, Peter Dutton boycotted then prime minister Kevin Rudd’s apology to the Stolen Generations.
He later said he regretted that decision, that he did not appreciate what it meant to Indigenous people. Would he have a similar change of heart to supporting the voice?
The voice referendum will tell us what sort of leader Peter Dutton will be. Will he be tempted to wager a political culture war?
In a party room largely stripped of moderates, Dutton could play to his conservative base and see this as an opportunity to inflict political damage on Anthony Albanese.
This may be about more than recognizing Indigenous people in the Constitution; it could be how Dutton sees his pathway to power.
He says his mentor and model is John Howard. As Dutton faces a Liberal Party identity crisis today, he would be reminded that Howard faced a similar existential challenge in the 1980s.
Then, a split between “wets and dries” (moderates and conservatives) banished the Coalition from power for more than a decade.
Howard resets the party. He appealed to “Howard’s battlers” — a disaffected old Labor working class. He sought to make Australia relaxed and comfortable. He pivoted to values and identity: Gallipoli, ANZAC Day, Don Bradman. He campaigned against the Republic. He refused to apologise to the Stolen Generations and derided the “black armband” view of history.
On the voice referendum, Dutton may ask, What would Howard do? And on this, John Howard has already given him the answer. Perhaps a surprising one.
Ahead of the 2007 election, Howard pledged himself to put a referendum to the Australian people to formally recognize Indigenous Australians in the Constitution. He wasn’t proposing an Indigenous voice; his recognition of him was even more modest and symbolic. But he did acknowledge that the Australian people, as he said, “want to move”. Of course, he lost the election to Kevin Rudd.
The referendum has never happened. Over to Peter Dutton.
How do voters feel?
A successful referendum may hinge more on Peter Dutton than Anthony Albanese. Albanese, elected with a dismal primary vote of around 33 per cent, has a tenuous mandate. He can’t carry the voice referendum on his own dele. Albanian would be spending precious political capital. The stakes are high and personal for him.
He need only consider the fate of the former British prime minister, David Cameron, who now says his great regret was calling a referendum on Brexit.
The British people voted to leave the European Union. Cameron lost his leadership of him.
Peter Dutton may make the vote for the voice a referendum on Anthony Albanese himself. So where do the Australian voters sit?
The federal election has certainly updated politics as usual. Some say it has marked a change in our politics, an end to major party dominance.
Yes, the primary vote of the two major parties has plummeted. Over the past 30 years it has dropped from a combined 90 per cent to less than 70 per cent.
But was this truly about change or was this catharsis? A catharsis is the release of repressed emotions. That’s what this election felt like.
We have seen this catharsis crack open political fault lines around the world. The tremors have now reached us.
Here, some pundits say the message to the major parties is that people are fed up with the politics and division. They want a kinder politics and an end to culture wars.
Really? What we have seen here is the politics of disruption.
The teals here are not so unlike the Trump supporters in the US. Yes, they want different things. They are urban, elite and less unruly. But they come from the same sense of abandonment, disillusionment and desperation. The psychology is the same.
Catharsis is about being heard. All around the world political catharsis has led not to more unity but ever more division.
A gift, not a weapon
The most successful politicians have been those who have exploited division. They have campaigned on values and culture. Nationalism has played big.
The strongman has been ascendant. Donald Trump typified that in the US; elsewhere Viktor Orban in Hungary, Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil, Narendra Modi in India, Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Turkey, Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines have read from a similar script.
Joe Biden defeated Trump. But Trump still received the highest number of votes of any sitting president. Polls show he — or his anointed successor — is poised to return the Republican Party to the White House.
These are the Peter Dutton calculations will be making. Does he play to division or try to recapture the centre?
Which John Howard will he hear — the one who refused to say sorry or the one who finally accepted the people wanted to move on Indigenous recognition?
Polling shows consistent and growing support for an Indigenous voice. Perhaps on this — like marriage equality or climate change — the people are ahead of politics.
Political philosopher Duncan Ivison believes so. The Uluru Statement, he argues, presents an opportunity for “a re-founding of Australia”.
The authors of the Uluru Statement from the Heart never intended it to be a political document but a gift to the Australian people. It offers an opportunity for all to walk together for a just and truthful future.
At a time of political division, it speaks to a place beyond politics. That may be its pathway to success — to take it out of the hands of Peter Dutton or Anthony Albanese.
Otherwise it could die a political death.
Stan Grant is the ABC’s international affairs analyst and presents China Tonight on Monday at 9:35pm on ABC TV, and Tuesday at 8pm on the ABC News Channel, and a co-presenter of Q+A on Thursday at 8.30pm.