The Age/SMH Resolve Strategic poll on the Voice referendum was a dramatic reminder that progressives should always be ready for a profound kick in the guts.
The referendum campaign is not lost yet but it looks increasingly likely that it will be – despite the massive campaign launched by the Yes campaign.
That campaign was launched in the spirit of the better angels of our nature. It now seems to be overwhelmed by the worst aspects of our political culture.
The case for optimism was exemplified by a report of a speech by Julian Leeser, the Liberal MP who resigned from Shadow Cabinet to campaign for Yes.
The Guardian (22/8) reported Leeser had told a Liberal meeting in his Bradfield seat “that Australia’s political parties are at their best when they represent the totality of Australian life”.
“There was a conference in Sydney claiming to represent conservatives which included speakers who said things like ‘if you want a voice, learn English’, and a comedian who in his acknowledgment of country paid tribute to ‘violent black men and rent seekers past, present and emerging’. That was passing for humour,” Leeser said.
“Our future is not in American glitz, and red Trumpian hats, or a political diet of anger. It isn’t. Our future, just like our past, is found in the decency, the effort and hard work of the cities, suburbs and towns of this country.
“It is found in serving the decent aspirations of Australians and not the media-generated culture wars,” he said. But what if he, the blog and many others of us were and are wrong?
Australia has prided itself on many things – such as significant milestones in global voting legislation and yet there is another side to Australia – a side which hardly illustrates the better angels of our nature.
Our national origin was as a prison with it, and subsequent settlement, secured by systematic massacres and displacement of the Indigenous inhabitants. We spread diseases, poisoned waterholes and took children from their parents.
Our White Australia policy was maintained for decades despite our future – now belatedly being recognised – as being linked with Asia.
We have defied international law to deny refugees rights and imprisoned those lucky enough to make it to shore or apprehended on boats near the shore. And then we boasted about what we had done. We even imprisoned on an island an Australian citizen with psychiatric problems because we mistook her for a refugee.
Our capital cities are full of homeless people sleeping rough. Meanwhile we plough billions into creating successive property booms – aided by generous tax concessions which benefit the well off while denying housing to the young.
Our tax system doesn’t really have to be rorted that much – although it is – because a series of legal distortions from negative gearing to capital gains tax generosity and favourable treatment for share dividends benefitting the wealthy make much rorting legal.
Our resources have made a boom possible but at no point did we tax the companies who benefitted properly or adequately. Not for us Norway’s massive national fund accumulated from its oil and gas riches but instead capitulation to a few billionaires and foreign companies aided by the illiberal Liberal Party.
Despite being one of the countries most at risk from climate change, when we tried to address the problem with the sensible policy of putting a price on carbon, we repealed the attempt after a huge dishonest campaign.
At the same time our native flora and fauna have been systematically neglected and been subjected to habitat destruction.
We corporatised our universities and condemned a generation of students to be taught by casual staff. Ministers intervened to block funding to scientific research they didn’t like – not on the basis of knowledge but simply on the basic of ideology. Stalin had the same approach when he supported Lysenko over scientific reality.
We massively subsidise elite private and religious schools while starving Government ones of resources and dictating what they teach and how.
Our public health system is under pressure while tax concessions and other benefits favour the private system.
Inequality is increasing in a society which traditionally believed it was characterised by egalitarianism.
The Voice gave us the opportunity to demonstrate the better angels of our nature. It could conceivably still win in a massive last push. But instead, it seems all the worst devils of our society are prospering – aided by the resort to the sort of misinformation and disinformation which is characteristic of US politics and is increasingly Australia’s.
In the 1950s and sixties progressive and artistic Australians escaped to other countries to avoid the deadening conformism and wowserism of Australian society. Sadly, the options for that are limited as too many other places have the same problems, are too cold or would be difficult for the largely monolingual Australians.
Too pessimistic? Sadly, possibly not. On October 14 we will know whether it is or not.