“Let her and Falsehood grapple; who ever knew Truth put to the worse, in a free and open encounter?”
– John Milton, Areopagitica (1644)
The Voice referendum was the first constitutional referendum to be held since 1999. No Australian under the age of 42 had ever voted in one. In that 24-year period, the world has changed beyond recognition.
In November 1999, Australians voted in two simultaneous referendums, one on becoming a republic and the second on inserting a preamble into the Constitution.
The preamble proposition was vague and inoffensive in wording. It acknowledged God, democracy, tolerance and honoured “Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders, the nation’s first people, for their deep kinship with their lands and for their ancient and continuing cultures which enrich the life of our country”.
The preamble was proposed by then prime minister John Howard and drafted with the assistance of the poet Les Murray. Labor supported it and there was no formal “No” campaign or media attack. Nevertheless, the preamble referendum lost more decisively than the bitterly contested one on a republic.
Weirdly, final figures for the preamble in 1999 were almost identical to the result of the Voice referendum in 2023: 39.3 per cent voted “Yes” and 60.7 per cent voted “No”.
In 2007, Howard promised that if re-elected he would initiate a referendum to recognise First Nations people in the Constitution. He lost and the referendum never happened. In the 2023 referendum campaign he encouraged “No” supporters to “maintain the rage”. What rage would that be? About what?
In the 21st century there has been a paralysis of will. We have seen decades of delay and obfuscation on major global issues.
Since 2016, Donald Trump has changed the nature of political discourse beyond recognition. With Trump, the concept of truth is irrelevant. Assertions are completely transactional. Evidence is discounted or dismissed as “fake news” and gut reactions and instinct override analysis and the need to take account of contrary views. There were Trumpian elements in the 2019 and 2022 federal elections but the referendum on the Voice in 2023 took it to another level.
In 1687, Isaac Newton published his Laws of Motion in Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica. The third law – “Every action has an equal and opposite reaction” – seems curiously applicable, not only to physics but to history and the social sciences.
Everything is in motion. The tide retreats, then comes surging back.
We have lived through attempts to break down misogyny, hierarchy, racism and fundamentalism, to end censorship and free up religious debate, to promote and foster multiculturalism. Now we are living through the inverse, the hostile reaction: revival of white supremacy, justification of hate speech and trolling as essential elements of freedom, the demonisation of minorities, sharp attacks on expertise, the denouncing of evidence or reasoned argument.
The “Yes” case was well intentioned and hardworking, but the “No” case was masterful and far more strategic. Dishonest, too.
“Yes” argued passionately, supported by at least 30 outstanding new books on history, anthropology, archaeology and culture, which sold in their thousands. Yet the books were no match for the dark messages sent to individuals in their millions on social media.
There were six principal reasons why the “No” campaign triumphed. The first was its shameful, morally bankrupt slogan: “If you don’t know, vote ‘No’.” The “No” campaign essentially argued “Why bother? Nothing to do with you. Don’t bother to find out. If you know nothing, welcome aboard the ‘No’ campaign.” Many “No” voters never understood what the referendum was about, and there was no imagination, sympathy or understanding.
The second boon for the “No” campaign was its public faces: Senator Jacinta Nampijinpa Price and Nyunggai Warren Mundine to the right, Lidia Thorpe to the left. They gave a leave pass to the unsure and disengaged, promoting uncertainty and confusion. The argument for these people was: “If the Aboriginal community is divided about the Voice, how can I make a judgement?”
The third key point for “No” was its exploitation of the idea of “division”. This masterstroke was Trumpian. Words were taken and turned to mean their opposite. “Yes” became characterised as a vote for division and “No” was a vote for unity. It did not matter that the inverse was true.
Price and Mundine argued the Voice would entrench division along racial lines, giving privileges to First Nations people that would be denied to other Australians. “Division” became the central theme of the “No” case and proved to be a winner.
Price exploited the “unity” issue relentlessly. If she saw a conflagration in the distance, she was eager to help by bringing more petrol. She said the Australian Electoral Commission had interfered with the referendum process and insisted most First Nations people in the Northern Territory were opposed to the Voice. Many believed her, but polling on October 14 indicated remote communities voted “Yes” at a rate of more than 70 per cent.
Fourth among the factors that favoured “No” was Australia’s curious relationship with the Constitution. This document, unread and unrecognisable in the context of constitutional practice as it has evolved, was invoked during the campaign as a Holy Grail – revered, unknowable, untouchable. Each assertion by the “No” campaign that the Voice would be “risky” was demonstrably false, but the country’s worship of its ill-understood Constitution was enough to scare people away from change.
Fifth, the government and Yes23 were very vague about the structure and powers of the Voice itself, even in broad outline, and that looked shifty, although it followed normal practice in referendums.
Finally, the media overall played a shameful role. This was a campaign defined by Murdoch and Musk. The lies circulated on social media were strategically targeted: First Nations people would be given free houses, free cars, free education at private schools. The “Yes” campaign was allegedly being run by the United Nations, or by Jews, or by condescending urban elites. The Voice would apparently push millions of people off their land. Taxes would rise exponentially to pay for Aboriginal welfare and the country itself would be forced to adopt an Indigenous name.
The government and the “Yes” campaign failed to attack these lies head on. The ABC was overly cautious and News Corp was brutal.
Elon Musk, the world’s most powerful individual, has created “shadow rule”. His algorithms determined our choices in ways we were not even aware of. He is already more powerful than Rupert Murdoch ever was with print media and television.
In the end, the “No” vote had many components. There were citizens with a sketchy grasp of Australian history, who knew even less about colonial and First Nations history, and less still about the Constitution. There were people disillusioned about government institutions and processes, reacting against decisions on which they already had negative views.
Many of these voters have no experience of First Nations people. They do not know them as friends, they do not meet them in their communities. Some of these were Coalition loyalists who stuck with their leaders. Some were economically stressed voters who saw the referendum as a distraction from mortgage rates and rising costs of living.
There were those seduced by conspiracy theories on social media, there were Christian fundamentalists, there were parts of the mining lobby and many mine workers. Supporters of overtly racist parties and advocacy groups probably comprised about 12 per cent of voters; the messages of these groups resonated with many more.
There was also the impact of progressive opponents of the Voice, notably Senator Lidia Thorpe, who insisted it compromised too much with colonial structures. She is part of the Blak Sovereign Movement and argued a treaty and truth-telling had to come before a Voice.
Thirty safe Labor federal electorates voted “No”. In the aggregate, about 30 per cent of Labor voters were against the Voice. Probably most will return in a general election but heroic leadership will be required.
There was no distinction between a principled “No”, a racist “No”, an irritated “No” and an unengaged “No”. People who voted “Yes” generally understood the issue and welcomed the chance to close the gap and bring the country together.
Liberal democracy depends on rational debate, where evidence is testable, both sides use a common language and accept accountability for misleading.
If democracy is to survive, it will require each of us to commit to hard knowledge, rational calculation, basic values and an obstinate will to end avoidable suffering, to paraphrase Leszek Kołakowski.
The question I’m left with is: are we up to it?
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on October 28, 2023 as "The paralysis of will".
This month marks 10 years since the first edition of The Saturday Paper. The paper is as audacious now as it was then: a rejection of conventional wisdom about what makes the news and who will read it.
To celebrate those 10 years - and the issue-defining journalism produced in them - we are offering all new subscribers a two-year digital subscription for the price of one. That's $298 worth of journalism for $109.
Get more of the best journalism in the country - and celebrate the success of a newspaper built on optimism.
Select your digital subscription