At a press conference on Friday, the Prime Minister implied that only a Coalition government could secure a change to the Constitution recognising Indigenous Australians:
The indigenous people of this country are different from anybody else because they were here first and they have a very special place and I think we have an opportunity to honour that place in a respectful, symbolic fashion by putting something in the Constitution. But you won’t do that unless you are able to unite conservative Australia with the rest of the country and conservative Australia will not vote for something that is built on shame and repudiation.
The SMH reported it more strongly: ‘”I don’t believe Labor could unite conservative and progressive Australia on this issue,” he said.’
Certainly, the record of Constitutional referendums that don’t have bipartisan support is a dismal one. And it is Coalition supporters that are least sympathetic to traditional Aboriginal politics. A Newspoll in 2000 on an apology found that while 60% of Labor voters favoured an apology, only 22% of Coalition voters were in support. The 2004 Australian Election Survey found that 60% of Liberal identifiers thought that land rights had gone too far, compared to 30% of Labor identifiers.
The relationship between voters’ partisan loyalties and their views on issues is, however, not straightforward. The idea that a Coalition government can lead its supporters to a ‘Yes’ vote assumes that they take their issue beliefs from their partisan loyalties, rather than the other way around.
Even if partisan loyalties do influence issue opinion, declining levels of partisanship undermine the capacity of parties to steer issue opinion. Looking at the AES question on this, the proportion of voters who ‘generally think’ of themselves as Coalition supporters is around 40%, down from high 40s in the late 1960s. And the proportion of supporters who are ‘very strong’ in their support has dropped from about 30% to 20%. If you vote Liberal because they are lesser of two evils you are not going to change your opinions as the party leaders change their opinions.
Also, as I have argued before, there are many examples of voters persistently rejecting ideas or policies favoured by both the major political parties. People have their own values and experiences to guide them in their political views, and they are subject to many more sources of opinion that just politicians, so we need to be very cautious in attributing great significance to the power of political parties to change what voters think.
I would think that a simple statement of the plain historical fact that Indigenous people were in Australia prior to European settlement would be something that people could assess on their own. And provided it was not seen as an apology, or as a legal basis for further Aboriginal claims on the Australian state, I think it would probably pass regardless of who proposed it.
While the left-intelligentsia is quick to read racism into any opposition to ethnic claims, this is a misunderstanding. It’s the idea of national unity that is powerful in both public opinion and conservative thought, which is why special rights for ethnic groups, including Aborigines, rarely find favour in public opinion, but the 1967 referendum received overwhelming support. It was understood as including Aboriginal Australians in the national community. If a 2008 Referendum was understood the same way, it too would pass comfortably.