A predictable, if overly one-sided result?
Updated: Oct 19
It is the fear of every tennis player to lose a set six games to love. If a player loses a traditional best of three sets match 0-6 0-6, commentators refer to a player losing by a ‘double bagel’. Such lopsided results are rare, particularly at the elite level of the game. There has not been a “triple bagel” defeat in a Men’s Grand Slam final. By my reckoning the only time it has occurred in a Women’s Grand Slam final was at the 1988 French Open. Steffi Graf, en route to her ‘Golden Grand Slam” defeated Natalie Zvereva 6-0 6-0. Following the match, legendary tennis commentator Bud Collins, in a way that would now not be condoned, touched Steffi Graf’s shirt in their post-match interview and said “I just wanted to see if you raised a sweat.”
Referendums are, also, a rare event in Australian politics. To be successful a majority of the nation’s six States must approve the proposed change to the Australian Constitution. In addition, a majority of the nation’s voters must also approve the change. This is the rarely achieved, but required ‘double majority’.
Even though they are rare, referendums often have lopsided results, political bagels if you will, when not one State (the votes of Territories are included in the overall national vote) supports the change.
Forty-five referendums have now been held in Australia. Only eight have been successful. Of the last nine referendum questions proposed-two in 1984, four in 1988, two in 1999 and last weekend’s Voice-eight have seen a 0-6 result, where not one State supported the respective proposals.
If there were a run of Grand Slam finals with such scores, questions would be asked about why tournaments were producing such uncompetitive matches.
The cruel fact about referendums in Australia is that emphatic defeats of proposals for constitutional change are often entirely predictable.
Saturday’s referendum’s result confirmed that our Constitution and electoral system have combined to create many barriers to a referendum’s chance of success. These barriers have now become seemingly insuperable.
Australia’s last successful referendums were in 1977. Before Saturday, our last referendum was in 1999. One wonders whether a government will be brave enough to sponsor a referendum for another decade or so. After another 6-0 defeat on Saturday, Prince William can almost be assured that he will be Australia’s Head of State. There is more chance of lasting peace in the Middle East than an Australian government proposing a referendum to make Australia a Republic.
So, what minor miracles have to occur for a referendum to succeed in Australia?
-The proposed change must have strong bi-partisan political support. Without it those opposed to the referendum can propose a ‘No’ argument and all voters must be provided with the official ‘Yes’ and ‘No’ arguments, reinforcing a sense of political division;
-The change must be a proposal that is modest and straightforward, the worth of which is self-evident;
-The practical effects of the proposed change must be clearly understood. Without such understanding the default position of opponents is often, “If you don’t know, vote ‘No’;
-The importance of the proposed change must be seen as genuinely important to most;
- The importance of a well-supported, clear and understandable change is reinforced by Australia having compulsory voting.
When asking people to change a nation’s political structure, a government must explain the design of the change, its necessity and provide confidence that the constitutional renovation is timely and necessary. Remember, surveys regularly conclude that most Australians do not have a competent knowledge about the Constitution which is the blueprint of our nation’s political architecture.
When all these factors are present, success is possible. Witness the nation’s most successful referendum ever in 1967. It was a 6-0 result for the government with a national ‘Yes’ vote of 90.77%.
The 1967 referendum proposed two constitutional changes. First, the removal of s.127 of the Constitution which prevented indigenous Australians being counted as part of the nation’s population. Secondly, it was proposed to amend the Federal government’s race lawmaking power to allow a Federal government to make laws in relation to Aboriginal affairs.
Both proposals had bi-partisan political support. There was no official ‘No’ Case. At a time of growing awareness of rights of indigenous populations around the world, the 1967 referendum presented a clear and logical imperative in the absence of political division. The removal of an offensive section of the Constitution was easily understood as was the wish to grant the Federal government power to make laws to assist indigenous peoples. Game, set and match.
Fast forward to 2023. No such clarity of purpose and design ever existed about the ‘Voice to Parliament.’ There was no bi-partisan political support. Nor was there unified support for the proposal amongst indigenous leaders.
There were vocal and strong ‘Yes’ and ‘No’ campaigns. Whilst there was bi-partisan support for constitutional recognition of Australia’s indigenous people, great division existed about the philosophical and practical worth of a constitutional advisory body for indigenous Australians.
Supporters of the ‘Yes’ case have decried the “misinformation” that they claim was argued by the ‘No’ case. Sadly, in an age of social media, all political campaigns can be contaminated by exaggerations and distortions; however, the greater problem for the ‘Yes’ case was arguably the lack of information about how the Constitutional body would operate.
Australians, as has been often observed, are a practical people. Before committing to the renovation, they want to know what the finished product will look like. ‘Yes’ proponents were asking Australians to vote from the heart first and to leave matters of the head to their lawmakers. There was not enough detail about how the Voice would operate and this clearly bedevilled the potency of the ‘Yes’ case.
The government proposed the referendum to honour its commitment made at the 2022 Federal election. Circumstances can hijack anyone. What appeared as a pressing national issue months ago, became portrayed as an increasingly unimportant concern as interest rate rises and inflation took hold of the national psyche as polling day approached. This can be seen in the turnout of eligible voters on Saturday being a dispiriting 78.88%, compared with turnout rates of 91.89% and 89.82% at the last two Federal elections.
Timing is everything. The eruption of conflict in Israel before the last week of the campaign clearly thwarted the ability of the government to focus entirely on the worth of the proposed referendum. The last week of a campaign is when many undecided voters are likely to be deciding their vote or deciding whether or not to vote.
There has been much commentary already about the political consequences of the referendum’s rejection. Only 32 of Australia’s 151 electorates supported the proposal. Just as in the 1999 referendum on Australia becoming a Republic, political fault lines exist between inner city and regional and rural electorates. Wealthier electorates comprise most of the 32 ‘Yes’ camps. In 1999, Prime Minister John Howard’s electorate voted in support of a Republic despite his strong personal opposition. This year the electorate of Indigenous Affairs Minister, Linda Burney, voted to reject her much cherished proposed change. Anthony Albanese’s electorate supported the proposal, but this will give him little comfort as he seeks to reassert his personal standing.
Whilst some sociologists have made conclusions about the racial attitudes of the Australian population, I sense that these are misplaced. History tells us that Australians have, once again, demonstrated a predictable, if not slightly exasperating, mix of conservatism, scepticism and reluctance in rejecting yet another referendum.
On the same night of Australia’s referendum when voters decided to reject change, New Zealanders embraced it by ousting a six year old Labour government and electing a Centre-Right coalition, led by Christopher Luxon. His political honeymoon has begun well with the nation’s adored All Blacks winning their way into the Rugby World Cup semi-final. Symbolically, Mr. Albanese’s national cricket team is not faring so well in the 50 over World Cricket Cup.
It has been a weekend of political ripples across the Tasman Sea. As the world anxiously awaits developments in the Middle East, it is well to remember that whether our referendum scorecard is 6-0 or 0-6, we all have the privilege of being democratic participants. Our Constitution lies at the centre of our charmed democratic existence.
Nevertheless, our Constitution and national psyche have, however, probably made it well-nigh impossible to effect constitutional change. The fear that the word “referendum” has now created amongst politicians is probably the most profound consequence of Saturday’s result.
In tennis matches there are regular changes of tennis balls to prevent a loss of bounce and pressure. In the months ahead, Australians may wish to ponder whether our seemingly entrenched aversion to constitutional change may, forever, prevent necessary and important changes to the bounce and pressure of our political system.