Yes proponents analyse defeat of Voice referendum

Dr Damien Freeman and Fr Frank Brennan SJ discussing their books A failure of process, a shift in the nation’s temper, a lack of reliable information and the city-regions divide were among factors contributing to the defeat of the Voice to Parliament referendum, leading Yes proponents said at the launch of two new books at the Australian Catholic University on 2 July.


A failure of process, a shift in the nation’s temper, a lack of reliable information and the city-regions divide were among factors contributing to the defeat of the Voice to Parliament referendum, leading Yes proponents said at the launch of two new books at the Australian Catholic University on 2 July.

Fr Frank Brennan SJ and Dr Damien Freeman, the authors of Lessons from Our Failure to Build a Constitutional Bridge in the 2023 Referendum and The End of Settlement, both published by Connor Court, were joined by senior ACU staff and academics, members of parliament, and a large, engaged audience for the launch at North Sydney’s Peter Cosgrove Centre.

Dr. Freeman and Fr Brennan were joined by Kelly Humphrey, ACU Pro Vice-Chancellor (Indigenous), and Dr Lisa Buxton, executive officer of the Archdiocese of Sydney’s Aboriginal Catholic Ministry, for a panel discussion.

ACU Chancellor, The Hon Martin Daubney AM KC, travelled from Brisbane to launch the two books, and in extensive opening remarks compared them to the Lamentations of Jeremiah, written to mourn the sack of Jerusalem in the sixth century BC.

Like Jeremiah’s Lamentations, the chancellor said, the books by Freeman and Fr Brennan “will themselves stand as important historical-social records which provide both context and meaning to the events which Australians watched unfold in the months leading up to the referendum in October 2023.”

The two new releases “don’t make for comfortable reading,” but like the prophet’s poems of grief, express a spirit of “yearning for reconciliation and the belief in God’s faithfulness,” Daubney said.

Describing Freeman’s The End of Settlement as “a book for our times,” the chancellor said it had deep lessons to teach about the risks of polarisation, and the abandonment of agreement-seeking “settlement politics.”

 

Dr Damien Freeman and Fr Frank Brennan SJ discussing their books
Dr Damien Freeman and Fr Frank Brennan SJ discussing their books at the Australian Catholic University on 2 July. Photo: Adam Wesselinoff.

Fr Brennan’s book, Lessons from our failure to build a constitutional bridge in the 2023 Referendum could have been more elegantly titled, “I told you so,” the chancellor quipped.

During the panel discussion the four speakers discussed the two new releases, gave their own views on the causes of the Referendum’s defeat and expressed their personal sadness and hopes for the future.

“In the lead-up to the Referendum there was a sense of hope, a sense that people wanted more information … I don’t think people knew much about the history leading up to the Referendum, or anything about petitions,” Dr Buxton said.

“Post-Referendum there is certainly devastation, grief within some communities, a sense of hopelessness — frustration.

“Not just in our communities, I don’t think. People who were allies voting alongside — there’s devastation in non-Indigenous communities, and especially in our Catholic communities. They don’t seem to see a way forward at this point.”

ACU Pro Vice-Chancellor (Indigenous) Kelly Humphrey noted that during the campaign engagement was high in the cities, but in regional NSW there was minimal education and conversation about the Referendum.

“I think that led us to a challenge … We really need to have a strong platform that can communicate messages to all people, in all areas of Australia,” Humphrey said.

Fr Brennan agreed, saying that in Melbourne the Referendum was assumed to be a “slam dunk.”

“Australia is very big country, and that may be the way it looks around the University of Melbourne. In the north of Australia, it’s a very different Australia, a very different situation,” he said.

Conversations between constitutional conservatives and indigenous advocates during the process of generating the Voice idea led to a mutual understanding between the parties, and the willingness to reach a “settlement” between the parties, even where they did not entirely agree, Freeman said.

But the “temper of the times” turned as the process dragged on, he added.

 

ACU Pro Vice-Chancellor (Indigenous) Kelly Humphrey.
ACU Pro Vice-Chancellor (Indigenous) Kelly Humphrey. Photo: Supplied.

“I’m not really sure by the end people really wanted to find something we could all live with. Increasingly, as the process went on, there was less and less willingness to listen to one another, to try to understand where other people were coming from, to accommodate different sorts of concerns that might have been legitimate concerns,” Freeman said.

Questions from the audience ranged from technical remarks about alternative proposals, to aggrieved questions about why the vote was allowed to proceed, once it was clear the Referendum lacked the support to prevail.

Sydney barrister and writer Gray Connolly asked Fr Brennan why the vote went ahead when it was clear it would fail, leading “to the absolute catastrophe for the social cohesion of this country of last October.”

“Why was there no effort in Canberra to either pull the Referendum when it was not going to succeed, or try to come up with a model that most of us could live with?” he asked.

Fr Brennan’s “speculation” was that the Albanese government didn’t want a “slither of light” between the government’s view and that of its Indigenous-led Referendum working group.

“I suspect the key leadership of the Referendum working group said, ‘It’s this or nothing, and no we’re not going to start down the slippery slope of compromise.’” Fr Brennan said.

In closing remarks, Catholic Schools NSW CEO Dallas McInerney reminded the audience that the Voice proposal had originated on ACU’s North Sydney campus, and was evidence “of a university in full fidelity with its mission,” as taught by St John Paul II in Ex Corde Ecclesiae.

“In that document he reminds, in John Paul’s instance, commands sometimes — that these universities orientate themselves beyond their walls,” McInerney said.

He added as a “cause for hope” that domestic and international history showed that shifts in political paradigms do happen, such as Brexit, the end of white rule in South Africa, and the reunification of Germany after the fall of communism.

“All examples where the political structures and societal norms were taken to their very limit. But the pressure withheld, the change came and … settlement was reached,” McInerney said.

 

Book Launch at Australian Catholic University
From left: Front: Dr Damien Freeman, ACU Pro Vice-Chancellor (Indigenous) Kelly Humphrey, Executive Officer of the Sydney Aboriginal Catholic Ministry Dr Lisa Buxton, CSNSW CEO Dallas McInerney. Behind: ACU Vice-Chancellor Professor Zlatko Skrbis, ACU Chancellor The Hon Martin Daubney AM KC, Fr Frank Brennan SJ. Photo: Adam Wesselinoff.

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