Australia's referendum failure could lead to more divisive politics, analysts say

Australians vote in Indigenous Voice referendum

(This Oct.14 story has been refiled to remove an erroneous byline)

By Kirsty Needham

SYDNEY (Reuters) - Australia's decision to deny constitutional recognition to its First Peoples could herald a more divisive "Trump-style" politics at the next national election, while pushing the prime minister to pivot to cost of living issues, some analysts said.

Prime Minister Anthony Albanese misread the public mood, analysts said on Sunday, as he took responsibility for the referendum result, in which only the national capital voted "Yes" from among eight states and territories.

More than 60% of Australians voted "No" to altering the constitution to recognise Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island people through the creation of an Indigenous advisory body.

While Albanese said he respected the decision and his government would seek "a new way forward", some analysts saw the conservative opposition buoyed by its success in opposing the landmark vote.

For Albanese, the referendum loss would be "a personal as well as a political blow – he's very committed to equity for First Nations peoples", said Chris Wallace, a specialist in political history and leadership at the University of Canberra.

Now he is expected to pivot to addressing cost of living issues pressing on voters, which had made it harder to win the referendum, she added.

Australia had rejected the "prime minister's referendum", said opposition party leader Peter Dutton, adding that his conservative Liberal party would look to form policies to take to the next national election, due in 2025.

Dutton had opposed the referendum to cement his political position, and showed himself to be "an effective, even superior campaigner", said Mark Kenny, a professor at the Australian National University.

"He's going after the blue-collar Labor base in the suburbs and regions, informed by the teachings of Trump and Farage," Kenny added. "Australia may be in for a much more aggressive and divided style of politics seen in the U.S. and U.K."

Albanese made an error of judgment in pursuing a referendum that lacked cross-parliamentary support, as Liberal coalition partner the Nationals opposed it a year ago, said Kenny, who is with the university's Australian Studies Institute.

Elected in 1996, Albanese saw the failure of the 1999 referendum for Australia to become a republic. Despite that experience as a lawmaker "he squandered it, misreading the mood spectacularly," Kenny said.

No referendum has passed in Australia without bipartisan backing.

Moderate voters abandoned the Liberal party at last year's election, switching to so-called Teal independent candidates in key inner city seats, and installing a Labor government for the first time in nine years.

Analysis of Saturday's referendum result showed outer metropolitan suburbs in the most populous states of New South Wales and Victoria voted "No", while the inner city seats that switched from Liberal to independent last year voted "Yes".

Dutton may not try to win back these Teal seats at the next election, Kenny said, adding that almost all of Labor's rural and outer-suburban, working class seats voted "No".

On Sunday, Nationals lawmaker Bridget McKenzie criticised "Yes" voters as "very privileged, highly educated Australians in wealthy suburbs".

Former Liberal Prime Minister Tony Abbott, who will join the board of Fox Corp next month, praised Dutton's "courageous" campaign against the referendum in an interview with Sky News.

Abbott said what had been rejected was a change in the system of government, not the Aboriginal people.

However, Simon Banks, managing director of government relations firm Hawker Britton and former chief of staff to three Labor leaders, said there would not be calls for Albanese to resign, and Dutton instead had "the biggest political problem".

He added, "Dutton has made the task for the Liberal Party to recover the so-called Teal seats significantly harder. Meanwhile national opinion polls show no significant adverse electoral impact for Labor."

The latest Newspoll, published on Friday, shows Labor still two points up on the 2022 election result, and Albanese's popularity dipping only slightly, preferred by half of voters to be prime minister, compared to Dutton's 30%.

The Liberal's "wrecking ball campaign" was easy to run, Wallace said, but "to win the next election, it will have to replace Dutton with a more likeable leader".

(Reporting by Kirsty Needham; Editing by Clarence Fernandez)