OPINION: It was the referendum ‘doomed to fail’, the referendum ‘we never should have had’, were among comments heard in the wash up to last weekend’s result.

The referendum question’s intention had merit – constitutional recognition with advice from those it’s chosen to represent – but at what cost?

There are a few alternate versions of the saying ‘by failing to prepare, you are preparing to fail’ – the same could be said of the referendum – poor planning and communication about what it sought to achieve was at the crux of the issue.

There was arrogance on the government’s behalf – leaders were foolish in the belief the referendum would succeed on moral grounds alone.

The federal government did little to appeal directly to those seriously doubting the motivations of the referendum question. Instead, it campaigned to its base, preaching to the already converted. At best, it was an exercise in vanity.

Sure, election polls have proved wrong in recent years – remember Labor’s ‘unloseable’ 2019 election – and many are now doubting the accuracy of future polls. But there was a general consensus during the referendum, at least around Gunnedah and probably I suspect many regional areas, that the no vote had big support.

Not all no voters disagreed with the proposition for constitutional recognition, but the idea that there was no clear path forward with no detail – spooked the majority of voters who were still on the fence.

We knew why the detail couldn’t be produced – because it would be legislated after the referendum – but it wasn’t enough. The constitutional process was confusing and poorly explained.

The moral argument that this is ‘good for the nation’ was heard loud and clear but Australians didn’t buy into it. Maybe five years ago in the time of pre-COVID, pre-hyper suspicion, it may have had more success. But not now. People are more vigilant and willing to scrutinise information presented to them – just look at our awareness now about scams and suspect activities.

This sense of doubt fed into the ‘no’ narrative for the referendum and people were asking ‘what are we really getting?’

It will be interesting to see how Australia and the government responds to the fallout of the referendum defeat. What will be the government’s legacy from this?

How will indigenous leaders and our political representatives convene to chart a new path forward toward better life outcomes for Aboriginal people – if at all?


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