A couple of weeks ago Australia voted in a once in a generation referendum. Leaving aside whether you voted yes, no (or informal), it is undeniable that the whole referendum process has had the undesirable effect of dividing the country. The strain on the country’s collective mental health has been evident and the pain felt by many indigenous Australians in the aftermath of the result clear; and also unfortunately with this has come the risk of stalling or going backwards on the much needed process of reconciliation and closing the gap.
However, as Prime Minister Albanese has commented in the wake of the resounding electoral defeat; the vote should not be taken as a vote against progress and desire for aboriginal reconciliation, it should only be considered a vote that has rejected the specific manner in which the desired outcome was to be achieved.
However this result should not have come as a surprise; given it was very clearly indicated by every single poll (of which there were a plethora) conducted in recent times on the subject. Indeed, ever since election night immediately post his victory for the top job when Mr Albanese undertook to implement the Uluru Statement from the Heart and hence hold a referendum, the mood of the nation has been fastidiously checked by news organisations and pollsters on a regular basis. And what that showed was that Australians initially were broadly supportive, with approval ratings higher than those that could simply be attributed to party allegiances. The concept was a winner. However, what followed over the long path that was required in order to bring this winning concept to reality was a steady decline in support, perhaps as the voting public found out more detail, their attention was taken up by more pressing matters (eg cost of living), and a well orchestrated “no” campaign was implemented.
Regardless of this very clear data being published, the Labor Government decided to press forward, refusing to alter course in any way which could have provided some small concessions to improve support (eg splitting the question) or indeed more major concessions which could somehow have helped achieve bipartisan support, an absolute requirement for success when you look back at the prior history of referenda in this country. One must admit that Mr Dutton deserves a mention here to shoulder some of the blame - he would not have made any such concession process easy. But the reality is that big ideas ultimately wont achieve their desired outcome if they can’t be implemented.
The end result of 60:40 was just about bang on what the polls predicted, if not a little worse for the yes campaign, and the introspection and blame game will now ensue. A healthy dose of blame will be apportioned to the role of the Liberals I am sure; yet perhaps more importantly will be the internal soul searching to understand what went wrong on the government side.
Aside from the Voice, there is also another Labor lead ideological issue which is achieving similar polling results. And that is the issue of whether to remove the ban on nuclear energy in this country and separately but relatedly, to remove the ban on uranium mining that exists at State level in various Australian jurisdictions. According to multiple recent polls and surveys, including “left leaning” ABC polls, support for the Labor side of the argument is only approx. 40%, whereas support for the Liberal led policy to remove the bans sits at approximately 60%. Similar numbers to the Voice.
Again, the support levels from within the electorate to remove the respective bans should not come as a surprise to policy makers. Like the Voice, which had a long period of elevated public scrutiny and debate, the decision by the Federal Government (announced by the previous Liberal Government in September 2021, and confirmed by the current Labor Government) to purchase nuclear submarines has catapulted the topic of the extent of Australia’s participation in the nuclear industry into the spotlight. As a result there have been numerous and regular polling on topics relating to the popularity of the AUKUS deal itself, as well as others to views on nuclear more generally. All of these polls continue to show strong community support for Australia to more actively pursue this technology and remove the bans that continue to stifle the industry and hamper Australia’s ability to reach Net Zero targets.
Yet notwithstanding very, very clear and repeated signals from the voting public, the Labor government has refused to even consider a change direction and has doubled down on its ideological “anti-nuclear” crusade, calling the potential for nuclear in Australia nothing more than “a distraction”. It has tied itself in knots and wasted government time and resources concocting a justification to remove the ban for the purposes of submarine propulsion only whilst retaining its objection to the technology for more benign power generation purposes.
It is time for Labor policy makers and strategists to tone down the self confidence and listen a little to the Australian people. And what they are asking for can be achieved relatively easily. Amend four words (“a nuclear power plant”) in s140A(1) of the EPBC Act to allow nuclear industries to be considered for development in Australia. This amendment would not in any way open the floodgates to unfettered industry development nor would it suggest that any projects would indeed be developed. And any such projects would still have to meet Australia’s stringent environmental and safety requirements; and would not shortcut in any way those usual processes that any major projects go through in order to achieve approvals. But lets at least have the opportunity to participate in the industry that the rest of the world considers is essential for meeting global net zero targets, an industry that could deliver thousands of new and highly skilled jobs, and could help improve our abysmal performance in the innovation arena.
Labor strategists may fret about the potential of losing some votes from their Left; but if they actually listen to the voting public they could see that they would stand to pick up a larger chunk of votes from the sensible centre than they risk losing on the left. Voting patterns are changing and its time that outdated ideological restrictions move with the times.
Your call, Messers Albanese and Bowen. Will you take the opportunity?