On the 30th of August 2022, Prime Minister Anthony Albanese held a press conference with Minister for Indigenous Australians Linda Burney and gambling ad spokesperson Dr Shaquile O’Neal to announce a referendum on the proposed Indigenous Voice to Parliament, an advisory body of First Nations people who talk to Indigenous groups on a state and local level to try represent the diverse opinions of Indigenous people.
Eleven months later, the referendum bill passed, leaving many to wonder whether the ‘Yes’ campaign will ever start?
Referendums in Australia are extremely hard to pass, they require a majority vote and a majority of states showing a majority support. There needs to be a large showing of popularity across all walks of life, and right now the Voice is polling at less than half. In case you don’t understand basic mathematics, that means it’s on track to lose.
Recently, comparisons to Brexit have been made, as the demographic breakdown of voting intentions is looking eerily similar. This is unsurprising because the ‘Yes’ campaign is hell bent on making the exact same mistakes as the ‘Remain’ campaign did. Despite the best efforts of history teachers everywhere, humanity never actually learns from the past.
According to annoying people online, there is just one reason that the ‘no’ vote is rising; racism. While racism is ingrained in Australian society so much that it’s basically a prerequisite for most commercial news media jobs, it is only one factor of the ‘no’ vote’s rise and certainly isn’t the biggest.
Peter Dutton is the least popular Liberal Party leader since Scott Morrison (which isn’t long but if you look over the entire history it still leaves Dutton as one of the most hated major party leaders ever). While his lies and racist rhetoric might be inexplicably bolstered by a racist clickbait hungry media, the cut through of those racist lies isn’t there. Even if every single person who approves of him plans to vote no, that is still roughly half the current no vote.
So, where is the rise in the ‘No’ vote coming from? Well, the actual biggest factor comes from the complete ineptitude of those who are meant to be running the ‘Yes’ campaign.
When Albanese announced the referendum, the Voice was at its most popular despite an unofficial no campaign lurking around since 2017 when then PM Malcolm Turnbull publicly started the ‘third chamber of government’ fear mongering when the Voice was initially proposed to him. With a long history of misinformation to clear up, people were expecting the ‘Yes’ campaign to launch strong last year, but in reality all we got was that one bizarre Shaq photo-op that unfortunately lives in my head rent free.
The ‘Yes’ campaign started 2023 shooting itself in the foot by refusing to launch until Peter Dutton endorsed the Voice, thinking that on matters of Indigenous representation the most important endorsement was a former QLD cop with an extremely low approval rating. For months one untrustworthy cartoon supervillain feigned confusion knowing many were actually confused, pretending he might endorse something everyone knew he wouldn’t in an obvious attempt to slow down the launch of the ‘Yes’ campaign and inexplicably it worked.
The biggest factor in the fall for support has been real confusion amongst voters around the details of what the Voice will be. This issue is one that could be combated by simply just informing the public but the response to this confusion has been at best nothing and at worst antagonising.
The response to good faith questions about the details has been to treat them as bad faith questions from racists due to Dutton’s bad faith questions and racism. Instead of getting ‘bogged down in the details’, Albanese just says vague nothings like ‘what it is is an opportunity’ and ‘what it is is the right thing to do’ before smugly brushing everything off saying ‘actually, there is 200 pages of detail’; then random people online will respond by accusing confused voters of just being a lazy racists who don’t matter.
Imagine what it would be like for those confused people who genuinely want answers.
This ‘just say vague things about inclusivity, avoid answering questions and assume anyone who may be confused are lying racists’’ strategy is also what the Remain campaign in the UK employed, so is it any wonder that the polling now mirrors Brexit?
Voters also see this lack of engagement apply to good faith criticisms of the proposal, including some from Indigenous Australians. These include wanting to focus on Treaty and concerns over how the Voice will be chosen, whether it will actually change things, the lack of finalised details (since the government refuses to commit the 200 page recommendation they keep pointing to) and more.
On the rare occasion that questions are answered, there is an air of smug disrespect. PM Albanese once mocked the idea of consulting the Voice on environmental matters, comparing it to consulting them on the Rabbitohs line-up, but in reality it makes sense that voters would assume that you would ask the Voice before letting Rio-Tinto blow up sacred Indigenous rock shelters.
Like all proposals there are important nuances here that voters can see, nuances that lead to differing opinions on the Voice. To ignore the nuances means ignoring concerns that voters might have in a situation when the default answer will be ‘no’.
As Nessa Turnbull-Roberts said, “There’s almost three campaigns in a way, the yes, the no and the racist no.”
As far as I can work out, to date the ‘Yes’ campaign has not yet taken the drastic step of actually launching a campaign. The closest thing to educating the public on the Voice is a purple book that most voters won’t read because most people don’t read. Where are the uplifting ads? Where are the campaign set pieces that place the campaign on the news bulletins each night? Where’s the political theatre?
To circle back to Dr Shaq, the reason he was at that press conference was because he was meant to be the voice for the Voice’s social media campaign, a bizarre choice considering Indigenous celebrities and activists exist. But even those ads haven’t appeared. What are they waiting for?
Yes23 was criticised by grassroots Indigenous campaigners for not wanting to bring them on, instead focusing on getting the endorsements of the big banks, Coles, Woolworths and Qantas. If you are trying to get people to listen, why would you ignore grassroots campaigners and focus on Qantas who is associated with losing things?
If ‘Yes’ wants to have any chance of winning they must change their approach; Labor needs to commit to what the Voice will look like and the ‘Yes’ campaign needs to focus on grassroots campaigns and ads to educate the public in simple, easy to digest terms.
They also need to have honest debate and treat good faith criticism with the respect that it deserves, the disrespectful hand waving may fly well with the stock standard panellists on Insiders but voters don’t have the rotted brains of political commentators and want to see honest discussion because they don’t trust politicians or their spin* (*bullshit).
Between the interest in the Voice, before this half-assed campaign, and Dutton’s bumbling mess of a ‘Racist No’ campaign, there is a real chance for a late turnaround for the ‘Yes’ campaign if they actually engage with disengaged voters and the ‘No’ campaign properly.
As we get closer to the vote, the commentary around the referendum will increasingly focus on this being ‘Albanese vs Dutton’ and the ‘implications’ for both alleged leaders. And while Dutton is probably planning his Steven Bradburry victory lap, Albanese’s team is probably trying to find a way to blame a potential loss on the Greens. Somehow.
Whether ‘Yes’ makes the necessary changes or not, remember that you also have your own voice. You have the power to make this discourse better or worse and you have the power to help shape the country for the better or for the worse. This shambles of a so-called ‘debate’ has only achieved one thing: emboldening racists in a country where racists were already really fucking emboldened.