In a series of interviews, campaigners for the Voice to Parliament lay out the struggles of dealing with a disingenuous media as support drops below 50 per cent. By Martin McKenzie-Murray.

How the ‘Yes’ campaign is responding to sliding support

A woman with long grey hair speaks at a press conference, flanked by supporters and with the Australian flag in the background.
First Nations referendum working group member Marcia Langton speaks to the media.
Credit: AAP Image / Lukas Coch

This week, The Saturday Paper had several conversations with significant figures in the “Yes” campaign for the Voice referendum, though most were conducted off the record. Naturally enough for a historic vote, there are high stakes and great tensions. Nobody wants to “blow up” the campaign, or to fuel media reports of bickering.

It’s clear there is considerable scepticism from campaigners about the media’s sophistication and good faith when reporting on the Voice. Most campaigners are aware of the media’s appetite for reporting disputes, and its inability or disinclination to distinguish between petty disagreements and substantial ones. This disincentivises those who may have substantial disagreements about strategy, say, from ventilating them in good faith, knowing the media’s instinct will often be to crudely – or cynically – boil the arguments down to a base rancour. Those whom The Saturday Paper spoke to were acutely sensitive to how Black arguments are viewed through a white prism – often as “seagulls fighting over chips”.

The polling is now only adding to the media froth as the numbers show a conspicuous decline in support for the Voice, and a drop below 50 per cent this month for the first time. Some campaigners are “spooked”; others are calmer. As usually happens in campaigns, the interpretation of the polling is hotly contested, and might loosely be accorded three categories: those who see it as a semi-useful but fickle instrument; those who dismiss the data outright as wrong; and those who think it accurately reflects sentiment, and obliges some strategic reconsideration.

Marcia Langton is among the first group. “There are at least four polls, and they use different methodologies,” says Langton, who is a distinguished professor at the University of Melbourne, an anthropologist, geographer and member of the Indigenous Voice to Parliament working group.

“Most reported polls have the smallest samples. Each have different questions. So there’s a lot of bias. Some are feeling spooked by it. But those of us who have been around a long time are not [spooked] because polls don’t always reflect what people will put down on the voting paper in the booth.”

By contrast, frustration over media reporting was consistent and recurring, in a week that the prime minister warned the media not to “confuse” the public about the Voice.

“Misinformation and disinformation is undermining liberal democracies across the world,” says one campaigner. “And it’s happening here. And we seem to be helpless to correct it.”

Langton calls for much more fact-checking. “I don’t have time to deal with constant lies. Last year, I asked Dutton publicly, and others, to not bring racism into the debate. What happened then? They dragged out Jacinta [Price]’s father, who opined that I was the racist. That became the factoid that the rest of the media went with. I was merely pointing out that race is a social construct and has nothing to do with actual Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, who are not a race but hundreds of ancient polities with their own languages and traditions. Not a race. But we’ve been lumped together as a race in the constitution under the race power.”

In the great volume of daily reporting or commentary, which hews to the latest polling or political agitations, the coverage can seem myopic – rarely rising above minutiae and shorn of historical context. “We’ve been fighting for this for a long time,” one campaigner tells The Saturday Paper. “There are hundreds of pages of detail. There have been expert panels, and councils, and reports. There were the dialogues with community, over years, and a consensus position reached on the Voice. There have been political commitments going back several governments. But now we’re told there’s no detail, or there’s this pretence that this has just been sprung upon Australia. The Uluru statement is now six years old.”

Their point is about the rolling deferrals of successive governments: it was John Howard who promised a form of constitutional recognition 15 years ago, and Tony Abbott as prime minister promised to redress “the echoing silence in the constitution” – even if his preference was for symbolic recognition. As prime minister, Malcolm Turnbull established the Referendum Council to help right “a great wrong”, but it was also Turnbull who expressed fear the Voice would be “seen as a third chamber of parliament”. Turnbull has since argued “the proposed constitutional amendment only empowers the voice to give advice and make representations”.

“Yes” campaigners are also acutely aware of the inherent asymmetry between the sides. The burden of persuasion rests with them. Contrastingly, promoting messages that exhaust or confuse the public is very low cost and low effort. And there’s an additional asymmetry, some campaigners say: the media’s preference for bad news over good.

“Bad news sells,” one campaigner tells me. “We all know that. And we have a positive, constructive message. We’ve been doing hundreds of sessions, out in the community, explaining the history of this and the constitution. What this will mean, and how it will work. And people are getting it. They understand it. But there’s no coverage of these meetings.”

A related frustration expressed to The Saturday Paper this week is the attention given to Jacinta Nampijinpa Price and Lidia Thorpe, two Indigenous parliamentarians who, for very different reasons, oppose the Voice. “That’s the focus,” one campaigner says. “And there’s an imbalance there. It makes it seem as if they’re more representative of Indigenous feeling or opinion when there’s polling that shows at least 80 per cent of Indigenous and Torres Strait Islander peoples support the Voice.”

Which leads to another tension. As Rachel Perkins, the film director and co-chair of Australians for Indigenous Constitutional Recognition, explained to this newspaper two months ago, a central belief of the Yes23 campaign was to celebrate the referendum as a historic engagement of all Australians, and to engage the public locally – with grassroots campaigns, town hall meetings, barbecues. To cross the country, speaking with as many as they can. To get deep into remote communities.

This may seem obvious – the referendum is clearly and profoundly a matter for all voters – but emphasising this also served to diminish Peter Dutton’s insistent framing of the Voice as an insular product of Canberra elitism. He often refers to “the Canberra Voice”, as if it has not derived from a historically exhaustive consultation with Indigenous people but from smugly aloof factions based in the capital. It is mere virtue-signalling.

The “Yes” campaign still struggles against this political defining of the debate. While the referendum itself is a matter for all of us, its conception had to be legislated, and was thus necessarily subject to political debate. Regardless, the debate is often presented, narrowly, as Albanese versus Dutton – a hyper-partisan affair, the gravity of which distorts the intentions of the “Yes” campaign, and the broad, democratic reality of a referendum.

The media’s priorities, then, can be myopic – but they’re not entirely confected. Dutton has aggressively cultivated this partisan duality, “hoping to win political credit later, rather than considering what’s best for the country’s future”, a campaigner says. This week, Dutton said the byelection in Fadden, the Gold Coast seat vacated by Stuart Robert, would serve as an opportunity for voters “to send the prime minister a very clear message that they’re not happy with his Canberra Voice proposal, and they’re not happy that [Albanese] is continuing to keep details from Australians in relation to how the Voice will operate”.

There is a clear hypocrisy here, campaigners say, that the man who dismissed the Voice as Canberra frippery has invested so much of his political capital in it – ensuring it remains, in the minds of much of the public, an inherently partisan thing.

Marcia Langton, referring to the moderate Liberal member of parliament Simon Birmingham’s admission this week that he was “conflicted” on the question, and his refusal to say how he might vote in the referendum, tells The Saturday Paper: “There’s the problem of perception – even Birmingham can’t commit to a position. Anyone watching his musings will see that he’s disturbed by the prospect of an overwhelming ‘No’ vote. With the hysteria of the ‘No’ campaign, people like Birmingham are forced to consider the prospect of waking up … to the referendum losing. That will be a stain on the Liberal–National party and their allied political forces like Pauline Hanson and even Lidia Thorpe. Where do we go if it’s lost? That’s clearly front of mind for Birmingham. What’s the right thing to do for Australia? Not what’s right for the Liberal Party, but what’s the right thing to do for Australia?”

“It can be hard to escape the politics, when it’s Dutton v Albanese,” Thomas Mayo says. Mayo is the national Indigenous officer of the Maritime Union of Australia, a director on the board of Australians for Indigenous Constitutional Recognition, and co-author of the best-selling The Voice to Parliament Handbook. “But we will continue to be positive. I’m not deterred. I’m invigorated. I know that this is the best way to close the gap.” 

Mayo described – as others did – a kind of Sisyphean effort of litigating and re-litigating arguments ad infinitum, as opponents – he felt disingenuously – slung accusations of vagueness. “There isn’t a myth that hasn’t been busted,” Mayo says. “We’ve answered the questions, but the questions keep being asked.”

There’s that asymmetry again. But one campaigner says it’s ineffectual and naive to be frustrated that “politicians behave like politicians”, just as it is self-defeating to complain about the media. “I have problems with some of the media coverage – I’ve seen a lot of laziness,” they say. But they add that complaining about the media makes you a victim. “And victims don’t win.”

As is the case with all campaigns – and ones less rare and historic than this one – there are internal disagreements about strategy that can be magnified by pressure. A campaign is a crucible, and “stress is normal”, one campaigner says, adding there is a long time to go before the people enter the booths. They are convinced at least 40 per cent of Australians remain persuadable on the issue.

Some campaigners reflected upon the lack of connection most white Australians have with Indigenous peoples. Informing the successful 2017 plebiscite on same-sex marriage, one campaigner tells The Saturday Paper, was the fact that most Australians probably knew people who were directly affected by the outcome. That isn’t the case here, they said. And for many, Indigenous reform and recognition remain relatively abstract. The comments brought to mind James Baldwin’s lines, written in 1962, about explaining the Black Muslim movement to white Americans: “[I] was met with a blankness that revealed the little connection that the liberals’ attitudes have with their perceptions or their lives, or even their knowledge – revealed, in fact, that they could deal with the Negro as a symbol or a victim but had no sense of him as a man.”

Another question – perhaps unanswerable, but on the minds of campaigners – is how economic conditions and individual confidence might translate in the voting booth. If there is a prevailing sense of economic uncertainty, appetite for great reform tends to shrink. We become more risk-averse, arguably less generous.

Regardless, what’s at stake is clear to Marcia Langton and the others I spoke with. “The recognition of Indigenous and Torres Strait Islander peoples is a straightforward, minimalist measure for correcting more than two centuries of wrongdoing and inappropriate policies, many of which make things worse for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people,” Langton says. “By giving us a say in the laws and policies that directly affect us, the Voice will lead to better outcomes. All the research shows this.

“A good example is Alice Springs. All the local Aboriginal leaders wanted alcohol restrictions to remain in place. No one listened, and the Commonwealth and Northern Territory governments removed them. A few governments are responsible for that. The NT government dropped the ball, Morrison dropped the ball, and the Albanese government had to clean up the mess – a little late. But they reimposed the restrictions, and crime and assaults have dropped by a third.

“Having sensationalised in an ugly, unhelpful style the entirely predictable outcomes of removing the alcohol restrictions, especially assaults and youth crime, Dutton and Jacinta Price moved on. Where are they now that the restrictions are working? They capitalised on the suffering of Alice Springs people, insistent upon sending negative images and contributing nothing useful to the policy debate.”

A date for the referendum has yet to be established, but it must occur within six months. A Saturday in October seems likely. “There’s a bloody long time to go,” one campaigner says. “We’ll keep talking, explaining and sharing our positive message. I’m very hopeful.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on July 1, 2023 as "How the ‘Yes’ campaign is responding to sliding support".

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