No, thanks

| October 15, 2023

Prime Minister Anthony Albanese has pledged to continue to battle Indigenous disadvantage and promote reconciliation, in the wake of the sweeping defeat of his referendum to put a Voice in the Constitution.

“We intend as a government to continue to do what we can to close the gap, to do what we can to advance reconciliation, to do what we can to listen to the First Australians,” he told a late night news conference at Parliament House.

Flanked by an emotional Linda Burney, the Minister for Indigenous Australians, Albanese invoked Winston Churchill’s words, “Success is not final. Failure is not fatal. It is the courage to continue that counts’.”

“I want to say that while tonight’s result is not one that I had hoped for, I absolutely respect the decision of the Australian people and the democratic process that has delivered it.

He said that “as prime minister I will always accept responsibility for the decisions I have taken, and I do so tonight. But I do want Australians to know that I will always be ambitious for our country, ambitious for us to be the very best version of ourselves.”

Opposition leader Peter Dutton said Australians in their millions had rejected “the Prime Minister’s divisive Referendum”.

“What matters tomorrow is that this result doesn’t divide us as a people. What matters is that we all accept the result in this great spirit of our democracy.”

Dutton repeated his commitment to a royal commission into child sexual abuse in Indigenous communities and an audit into spending on Indigenous programs “so we can get the money where it is needed”.

The referendum’s defeat was clear early after the polls closed, and the result was definitive. By 11pm the “no” vote nationally was about 59% and “no” was ahead in every state and the Northern Territory. The ACT recorded a solid “yes” vote.

While the result is a major rebuff to Albanese, it is a devastating blow for the many Indigenous Australians who had invested their hopes in what was always – given the history of referendum failures – a long shot.

Many reacted angrily or sadly. A group of Indigenous people who supported the Voice called for “a week of silence” to “grieve the outcome” and urged that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander flags be lowered to half mast.

Megan Davis, a leader of the “yes” campaign, turned her X account black. University of Canberra chancellor Tom Calma lashed out at Dutton, questioning “how accurate he is in the information that he has provided to the Australian population”.

Some Aboriginal leaders said they must just press on.

The balance of the reaction among Indigenous people over coming days will be crucial in the extent to which the referendum’s defeat sets back reconciliation.

If history provided a pointer to the loss, there were a number of specific factors. Once Dutton declared in April that the Liberals would oppose the Voice being put into the Constitution, the referendum was doomed. No referendum has been carried without bipartisan support. As well, the “no” side started with an advantage because it was easier to argue a negative. The “yes” campaign was not convincing enough to counter it, especially because the detail of the Voice was to be left to parliament.

The Indigenous people in the Uluru Statement from the Heart insisted the Voice should be enshrined in the Constitution. That put up the highest hurdle for enacting it.

The more modest alternative would have been a legislated Voice, but Indigenous leaders rejected that because it could always be abolished by a hostile government, as had happened before.

Albanese could have gone down either of two compromise paths. He could have had a constitutional convention, seeking a bipartisan way forward (which he may or may not have been able to achieve).

Alternatively, he could have argued to Indigenous leaders that he would not be able to deliver a constitutional change and attempted to persuade them to accept a legislated voice, perhaps with an undertaking of a later referendum.

But he had locked himself into the full Uluru statement before the election.

He defended his determination to run the referendum at his news conference, declaring that as “a conviction politician” he had a “duty” to put the request from Indigenous people.

Broad patterns of yes/no voting are notable in the result. Younger and older voters split. More highly educated and wealthier voters were more progressive. Regional and rural people went to the “no” side. No also found more favour among outer-suburban voters.

Most Labor seats voted “no”, including Barton, held by Burney. Western Sydney was dominated by “no”, including the seats held by ministers Chris Bowen, Tony Burke and Jason Clare.

There were strong “yes” votes among progressive voters in inner city seats. “Yes” was favoured in teal seats, a likely guide to the difficulty Dutton will have in regaining these seats. Not all booths in areas of high Indigenous enrolment were in by late Saturday night, but those that had been counted showed a strong “yes” vote, according to a Guardian analysis.

The ABC’s Antony Green pointed out that the referendum pattern resembled that of the 1999 republic referendum, with high status electorates showing support.