Just how scared and angry are we? Australians are about to find out

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The truth of politics often reveals itself in minor moments. Last week, former prime minister John Howard urged those against the Indigenous Voice to parliament to “maintain the rage”. This was an allusion to Gough Whitlam’s statement on the steps to parliament after he had been effectively dismissed by the governor-general.

Whitlam, though, had urged his supporters to “maintain the rage and enthusiasm” for the campaign ahead. Howard stressed only the negative.

Ilustration: Jim PavlidisCredit:

It appeared to be an offhand statement; but then unguarded statements from normally guarded people can tell you quite a lot. It was interesting in part because, so far, it has often been the Yes campaign that has been accused of being “aggressive” and angry.

Howard said, too, that “Australians don’t want to be bullied”. Peter Dutton last week spoke of people being “bullied into voting Yes”. One video from Advance Australia, a group campaigning hard against the Voice, was directed at Yes campaigner Thomas Mayo, portraying him as aggressive and divisive. As Liberal MP Julian Leeser said, Mayo was being made a “trope for the ‘angry Aboriginal man’ who wants to tear down the country”.

Historically, those who don’t want change have been described by conservative politicians as calm and quiet. Scott Morrison famously contrasted “angry noisy voices” with his “quiet Australians”. He was drawing on a distinction first used by Richard Nixon, who contrasted rioters with “quiet Americans”, “the non-shouters”. This is a tremendous act of political manipulation, simultaneously praising those who don’t want change, while making it somehow invalid to get upset.

The implication, of course, is that there is nothing to be upset about: the world is fine as it is. If you are angry or frustrated, the problem must be with you.

The first few days since the referendum date was announced have felt oddly muted. Howard’s comments were a reminder of the roiling emotions underneath this referendum – the very deep emotions both sides must contend with. And they were a reminder, too, of the lies that dominate political discourse. Those who want change are, their opponents often say, driven by anger, grievance, resentment, guilt and shame: all the negative emotions.

In fact – as the Trump years made clear – these are precisely the emotions that often drive those who are terrified of a changing world. They are pre-emptively aggrieved at what they imagine might be taken from them. As the Voice debate has demonstrated, these emotions are so close to the surface that they can be summoned by something so inoffensive as a structure for gathering advice.

Howard has always known the effectiveness of anger and fear in campaigning. In 2001, he won an election after declaring, during the campaign: “We will decide who comes to this country and the circumstances in which they come.” That year he had refused to allow the Tampa, carrying refugees, to dock in Australia. Then the September 11 terrorist attacks occurred. Then there was the children-overboard scandal, in which the government made nasty, false claims about refugees.

Howard has always claimed he would have won the election without any of these events. It is obvious, though, that he did not think this at the time: the government, in effect, put a scare campaign demonising refugees at the centre of its re-election efforts. It was only after victory had been achieved that these elements were minimised, in an attempt to rewrite history.

Howard’s triumph told us something about campaigns, and something about politics, and something about Howard; but it told us, too, about our own feelings towards refugees. We didn’t like them; or we were scared of them. If the Voice proposal is defeated, there will be many conclusions, but this surely will be the most important: it will be a statement about Australia and the attitudes of non-Indigenous Australians. As Indigenous author Jackie Huggins said last week: “This is a referendum on what people think of us.”

If the forces of anger triumph, though, then we will do our very best to deny what that says about us, just as Howard did after 2001. One aspect of this denial is now coming into view, in the huge attention given to the quality of the campaigns themselves, as though they are the most decisive factor. In the coming weeks, and after the result, we will see a huge amount of campaign analysis.

Much of this campaign coverage will be rubbish. Already, you can read miles of print recommending what the campaigns should be doing – even though much of it is already being done. A greater danger than foolish advice or inaccurate observation, though, is the excuse our obsession with campaigns gives us to avoid looking ourselves squarely in the eye. Just because the campaigns are the only things providing “news” does not mean they are the most important things. The most fundamental fact in the result – whichever way it goes – is likely to be our own maturity as a country. Are we ready to take this next step?

Referendum results are significant. Howard was canny in opposing the republic referendum; one effect of that defeat was that we continued living in Howard’s Australia for a very long time. And it is no surprise Howard is against this new proposal to change the Constitution, not only because of his fairly predictable stances on such issues, but because a Yes victory would decisively signal that we had entered a new, post-Howard era.

Like all votes, though, referendums do not just affect what happens next; they reflect the country as it is. The likelihood is that the next six weeks won’t make the difference; they will merely bring us to the date on which we will know the truth. What sort of Australia are we living in? Or, to put it in terms that follow from Howard’s call to “maintain the rage”, just how scared and angry are we? On October 14, we will find out.

Sean Kelly is a regular columnist and a former adviser to prime ministers Julia Gillard and Kevin Rudd.

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