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  • Written by Ben Wellings, Associate Professor in Politics and International Relations, Monash University

The fact that altering the Australian constitution requires a vote by the Australian people means that Voice referendum will become a vote about Australian nationhood.

This also means that the underlying question of the referendum is value-laden rather than strictly constitutional: what kind of nation does Australia want to be on the morning after the vote?

This discussion about nationhood is part of the logic of creating a winning coalition out of diverse constituencies that on their own are not big enough to secure a “yes” vote. But it should also be embraced tactically by the “yes” campaign to counter claims that the Voice is divisive.

Progressives tend to be wary of the politics of nationhood. But this doesn’t mean this political terrain should be abandoned to the forces of reaction.

Nationhood is something that conservatives are far more comfortable with than their progressive compatriots. For conservatives, nationhood is not a problematic category. Instead it speaks to unity, togetherness, and a purpose higher than that of the individual.

Read more: The Voice: what is it, where did it come from, and what can it achieve?

It is for this reason that the “no” campaign has pitched many of its arguments in the frame of unitary nationhood. The message that enshrining a specific form of representation for a particular group in the constitution is divisive resonates with deep-rooted Australian notions of egalitarianism.

So “no” campaign strategists are sticking with this argument as an important corollary to the “Don’t know, vote no” message.

Criticisms of the (very small) sums spent on Welcome to Country ceremonies in the past financial year speak to the emergent “national conservative” base in parts of Australia. But the idea that the Voice contradicts Australian egalitarianism is a heavy-hitting argument, presumably with much wider traction among undecided voters.

The threat of the Voice being ‘divisive’ is a key plank of the ‘no’ campaign. Dean Lewins/AAP

For this reason, the “yes” campaign would be well advised to contest this vision of Australian nationhood with a vision of its own. That vision should be inclusive, tolerant and open to plural understandings of sovereignty. Crucially, these values should not be opposed to the idea of Australian nationhood, but made central to it.

We saw that inclusive, tolerant and pluralistic Australia during the World Cup. Of course, sport and politics are very different things. But the positive energy around support for the Matildas shows there is a desire for Australia to present an inclusive vision to the world and importantly, to ourselves.

This vision of Australia is there to be mobilised for positive change that represents an important step towards justice for Indigenous peoples. Justice in the Australian idiom translates to “fairness”. This language about Australia as a “fair nation” will be amplified as we approach the final weeks of the referendum.

Emphasising fairness doesn’t mean denying there is racism in Australia. It means acting in a way that seeks to work with the grain of Australian nationhood to win undecided small-c conservative voters to the cause of the Voice.

And it shouldn’t be forgotten that referendums are ultimately a numbers game. Every vote counts. This makes the creation of the “winning coalition” – a sometimes unusual alliance of voters who would not otherwise vote in similar ways – especially important.

Not everyone thinks about politics all the time. Their engagement may be focused only a few weeks, days or even hours prior to a vote. This means that positive messages about inclusive nationhood, for Indigenous Australians, descendants of settlers, or more recent migrants, can act as an important way to bring undecided voters to the side of change right up to polling day.

Progressives, millennials, centrist conservatives – and not least Indigenous peoples – cannot form a winning coalition in Australia on their own to pass a double-majority referendum. Potential “yes” voters from different backgrounds need a unifying vision to bind them in a temporary alliance to win the referendum, after which they can go their usual political ways.

Visions of inclusive nationhood will become the vehicle for such an alliance. They will create positive connections between diverse voters across Australian society and bring centrist voters to the “yes” camp.

Read more: Establishing a Voice to Parliament could be an opportunity for Indigenous Nation Building. Here's what that means

If this sounds naïve, then that may be a price to be paid for winning the vote. Politics is about compromise. Lost referendums in other countries – notably the Brexit referendum in the United Kingdom – suggest that leaving the potent force of nationhood to the opposition is to provide it with an open goal.

Harnessing nationhood may sound like riding the tiger to some people. There are of course grounds to be wary of nationalism. But nationhood is largely an empty vessel. It can be filled with diverse ideologies and messages, and not just illiberal ones. It has been famously described as “Janus-faced”, meaning that like the Roman god of time, transitions and doorways, it faces forwards and backwards – it can be progressive as well as regressive.

Framing the Voice referendum in the politics of Australian nationhood will help position the “yes” campaign in the “sensible centre” of the debate. It will complicate the “no” campaign’s promotion of a reactionary vision of Australia. It will help shape the nation that we want to be the day after the vote.

Authors: Ben Wellings, Associate Professor in Politics and International Relations, Monash University

Read more https://theconversation.com/why-the-yes-campaign-should-embrace-the-politics-of-nationhood-212006

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