A think tank led by some of the country’s most influential business figures has been instrumental in building the ‘No’ campaign – despite claiming it doesn’t have a position on the Voice. By Mike Seccombe.

The libertarian think tank that helped build the ‘No’ case

Jacinta Nampijinpa Price wearing a black blazer with a “vote no” badge attached.
Shadow minister for Indigenous Australians Jacinta Nampijinpa Price.
Credit: AAP Image / Lukas Coch

If the Voice referendum produces a “No” next Saturday, expect a slew of conservative players lining up to claim credit. Yet one organisation that has arguably been most influential will not be trumpeting its success.

The Centre for Independent Studies has not taken a formal position on the referendum. It remains neutral, or so it says. In reality, however, the CIS has been central to the “No” case. The think tank has warehoused the two most prominent and effective advocates of a “No” campaign: Nyunggai Warren Mundine and shadow minister for Indigenous Australians Jacinta Nampijinpa Price, the CIS’s current and former spokespeople on Indigenous affairs.

Several other alumni have been prominent in their opposition. Maurice Newman, the businessman who helped establish the CIS, and is possibly best known for his climate denialism, wrote in The Australian that the Voice was a power grab by elites. Gary Johns, who has links to both the CIS and Australians for Unity, suggested there should be blood tests to determine indigeneity.

At least one CIS board member, Sam Kennard, of storage company Kennards, is a major financial backer of the “No” campaign. His corporate vehicle, Siesta Holdings, gave $20,000 last year and $20,000 the year before.

As the campaign against the Voice has evolved through its various shifting, interconnected organisational structures – Recognise a Better Way, Fair Australia, Advance Australia, which became Advance and then melded with Australians for Unity – the CIS has been a constant. It has provided not only the key people, but also much of the factual groundwork used and misused by Voice opponents. Price and Mundine have figured prominently in several of these other outfits.

For almost 20 years the CIS has produced research detailing the failures of Australia’s Indigenous policies. This has been coupled with contentious advocacy for the full integration of First Nations people into a market-based society.

Consider these words from a report, The Economics of Indigenous Deprivation and Proposals for Reform, written by then Emeritus Professor Helen Hughes in 2005, when she was a senior fellow at the CIS.

“Deprivation in remote communities, fringe settlements and ghettos does not result from a lack of federal, state and territory expenditures,” the report says, “but from the socialist remote communities’ experiment that has been central to Australian separatist policies for Aboriginals and Torres Strait Islanders...”

She went on to decry “separate education, separate public housing, separate healthcare, separate governance and separate law” that had “deprived Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders of employment and decent incomes, making them welfare dependent and destroying their families and their communities. Substance abuse and violence, particularly against women and children, inevitably followed.”

The views she expressed are indistinguishable from those of Price today, except for the lack of personal anecdotes. The larger point is that it is disingenuous for the CIS to say it is neutral on the subject of the Voice: the organisation has a long-held view, reiterated in numerous papers, reports, and speeches by Hughes and various successors, including Price and Mundine, opposing Indigenous “separatism”.

When the Recognise a Better Way website says Indigenous Australians’ “poverty, disadvantage and despair is not caused by lack of a voice” but rather by a “lack of economic participation” it is essentially extrapolating on what the CIS has been saying for decades. Price and Mundine are listed as supporters.

CIS research also underpins former prime minister Tony Abbott, who went on ABC Radio on Thursday to argue that the Voice, by giving Indigenous Australians a say in government decisions affecting them, would only lead to greater separatism.

Now, however, the CIS is being very coy as it tries to paper over internal divisions.

“Our board consists of a wide variety of members who represent different views on the Voice,” says CIS executive director Tom Switzer.

“Some like Sam Kennard have publicly opposed it. Others like Rob McLean and Bill English also serve on the board of the Ramsay Foundation, which has supported the ‘Yes’ campaign with $5 million.”

In fact, many of the 27-member CIS board find themselves in a difficult position, if not because of their personal views then because as members of Australia’s economic and business elite they are extensively networked. The board includes senior lawyers and investment bankers, members of the Reserve Bank board, partners in major consultancies, even a former prime minister of New Zealand.

Many of these figures have connections that go well beyond the CIS. Take Nicholas Moore, for example. As well as being chair the CIS board and former chief executive of the Macquarie banking group, Moore is chair of Screen Australia, the National Catholic Education Commission and The Smith Family, and a former member of the council of the National Gallery of Australia and previous chair of the Sydney Opera House Trust. He holds directorships of a number of private companies and sits on a couple of advisory bodies within the federal Treasury. In November last year, he was appointed Special Envoy for Southeast Asia by the Albanese government.

It is not hard to see why Moore, with his connections to charity and the arts community, and his government work trying to build trade relations with racially sensitive regional nations, might want to express neutrality on the Voice.

Interestingly, The Smith Family, a charity focused on the provision of quality education to disadvantaged children, especially Indigenous children, has also taken no position on the Voice. Some have noted this is curious, given a significant number of major charities, particularly those involved in providing services to Indigenous communities, have come out strongly in support. So have the peak bodies, the Australian Council of Social Service and Community Council for Australia, of which The Smith Family is a member.

Moore declined The Saturday Paper’s emailed invitation to discuss his position or that of the CIS and The Smith Family. Subsequent to our approach, The Smith Family issued a statement saying its neutrality was “informed through close consultation with The Smith Family’s Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Advisory Group (an external group of 12 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people), and our Aboriginal Staff Network”.

Take another member, Michael Chaney, chairman of Wesfarmers, who quit the CIS last year. He became a director of the Yes23 campaign instead. In February, four months before Wesfarmers announced a donation of $2 million to the “Yes” campaign, he told The Australian Financial Review that he supported the constitutional change both personally and professionally.

Chaney said direct representation – Wesfarmers employs 4000 Indigenous staff – worked for the company and he believed it was “entirely reasonable that the constitution contains provisions in it for the Indigenous community to make representations to government”.

He continued: “I have had a lot of exposure over the years to the challenges and issues confronting Indigenous Australians … and I’ve seen how laws made for Australians generally ... have very different effects in remote areas and unintended effects.”

On July 6, a full-page advertisement in the same newspaper featured a cartoon depicting Chaney, with his daughter Kate, an independent federal MP, sitting on his knee, handing a bundle of money to Thomas Mayo, an Indigenous member of the “Yes” campaign. Michael Chaney was shown in a business suit, Kate in a teal dress and Mayo in shorts, work boots and a T-shirt with a hammer and sickle logo, seemingly dancing for the money.

There was widespread outrage. Kate Chaney described it as “a personal and racist attack” from the “No” campaign, designed to stoke “fear and hate”. Nine Entertainment, which owns the AFR, apologised and conceded the ad should never have run.

The advertisement was placed by Advance, a somewhat shadowy organisation that claims to “power” the major “No” group, Jacinta Price’s Fair Australia.

Advance was set up in 2018 to be the right-wing equivalent of GetUp! but it effectively operated as an external campaigning unit of the Liberal Party. Sam Kennard, who sits on the CIS board, is a donor.

Now, as the AFR noted in a piece in July that attempted to unravel the tangled connections between the anti-Voice groups, Advance “has assumed a central role in the No campaign, providing administrative support to the peak Australians for Unity anti-Voice fundraising vehicle, the only specifically anti-Voice body to whom donations have been tax-deductible since June”.

The report added: “Australians for Unity’s funding goes to Advance Australia’s Fair Australia campaign, whose present configuration formed out of a merger of Mundine’s Recognise A Better Way campaign and is today led by opposition Indigenous Australians spokeswoman Jacinta Nampijinpa Price. Australians for Unity’s three ASIC-listed directors are identical to Advance Australia’s, while both organisations are registered to the same Canberra address.”

This structure is intentionally confusing, even if key CIS alumni are clear within it. As The Sydney Morning Herald’s David Crowe wrote in a piece that sought to establish where the “No” case was getting its money, the related groups “are secretive by design” – in contrast with GetUp!, which publishes a running tally of its donations, and the names of all donors over $10,000 on its website.

The Herald did manage to identify a number of those who funded the “No” campaign – in some cases because they publicly disclosed their donations, in others by trawling through Australian Electoral Commission returns and company records.

There was Brett Ralph, the founder and managing director of Jet Couriers and a director of the Melbourne Storm football club, as well as other sporting clubs, who donated $75,000 through his company, JMR Management Consultancy Services, last financial year.

Sydney multi-millionaire Rodney O’Neil was also on the list – his associated companies contributed $85,000 last year. Marcus Blackmore, who pocketed $334 million from the sale of his eponymous vitamin and supplements business this year, gave $20,000.

According to the Herald, former stockbroker and fund manager Simon Fenwick, and his wife Elizabeth, donated $650,000 and $350,000 respectively before the last election, and the Fenwick family trust also donated a further $50,000 last year.

The donations from Kennard were also noted.

Crowe suggested the identities of the big donors to the “No” side undermined the “calculated myth” that “Yes” was supported by the “elites”. He also noted Advance’s stated tactic of instructing its volunteers to use fear and doubt rather than facts to defeat the Voice.

Switzer defends the neutrality of his organisation on the basis it has published papers both in favour of and against the Voice – the “Yes” case from “conservative intellectuals” Greg Craven and Damien Freeman, and the “No” case from journalist Greg Sheridan.

It also has sponsored a series of debates, including one on Switzer’s radio program on the ABC, and, he says, would have had more except that “no leading advocate for the ‘Yes’ campaign accepted my invitation. Some did only to withdraw later. Many ignored us.”

As executive director of the CIS, Switzer also has ultimate responsibility for deciding what the CIS will research, and who will research it, and it was his choice to engage Price and Mundine.

Indeed, the CIS claims credit for first bringing Price to national attention, by selecting the then-obscure Alice Springs councillor to deliver its annual Helen Hughes Talk for Emerging Thinkers in July 2016.

It was a powerful speech, drawing on personal experience as well as research data.

Of 11 siblings in her mother’s generation, she said, “only two remain ... the majority we lost to alcohol-related illness”.

“There is not a woman in my family who has not experienced some kind of physical or sexual abuse some time in their life.

“The facts state that Aboriginal women are 35 times more likely to be hospitalised from violence perpetrated by those who are related to them.”

It was also a contentious speech. Price blamed Indigenous culture for much of the problems she described and called for acknowledgement of “our own part in the demise of our people”, rather than “looking for constitutional recognition or treaties or governments to solve the problems”.

On the strength of that speech, she was made Indigenous program director at the CIS. From there, it was a rapid rise. Price won a seat as a senator for the Northern Territory at last year’s election and was made shadow minister for Indigenous Australians when Julian Leeser resigned from the role so he could support the Voice.

Now, several right-wing commentators are flagging her as a potential future prime minister.

Of course Switzer – himself a former Liberal staffer and candidate – could not foresee how fast her political star would rise and how bright it would blaze in the right-wing firmament. Yet he knew full well where she stood on the matter of constitutional recognition. She had told him seven years ago.

He would also have known the position of Mundine, the man he engaged after Price moved on.

In spite of it all, the CIS itself remains neutral on the issue. Or so its elites would have us believe.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on October 7, 2023 as "The libertarian think tank that helped build the ‘No’ case".

For almost a decade, The Saturday Paper has published Australia’s leading writers and thinkers. We have pursued stories that are ignored elsewhere, covering them with sensitivity and depth. We have done this on refugee policy, on government integrity, on robo-debt, on aged care, on climate change, on the pandemic.

All our journalism is fiercely independent. It relies on the support of readers. By subscribing to The Saturday Paper, you are ensuring that we can continue to produce essential, issue-defining coverage, to dig out stories that take time, to doggedly hold to account politicians and the political class.

There are very few titles that have the freedom and the space to produce journalism like this. In a country with a concentration of media ownership unlike anything else in the world, it is vitally important. Your subscription helps make it possible.

Select your digital subscription

Month selector

Use your Google account to create your subscription