At the start of this campaign, the average ‘No’ voter was a man over 50. Since then, the ‘No’ vote has grown in almost every demographic – driven by distrust of the Voice and the belief that First Nations people don’t want it. By Rick Morton.
Anatomy of a ‘No’: The people voting against the Voice
Beyond the “No” campaign itself, outside the rallies that have attracted the interests of fringe-dwelling sovereign citizen movements, there is an average voter who does not support the Voice to Parliament referendum and who does not say much about it.
A great deal of effort has been spent trying to figure out what makes these people tick. Now, as polls suggest they have moved into the mainstream, that question becomes even harder to answer.
The Saturday Paper interviewed a number of “No” voters in the south-east Queensland electorate of Wright and spoke with researchers and pollsters in the closing weeks of the referendum to sketch a portrait of the people who see little or no value in the current proposal. By all accounts, they are now in the majority.
“It’s words on a piece of paper,” one “No” voter says. “It’s not action.”
If there was a typical “No” voter at the beginning of this campaign, they were fairly recognisable: men aged over 50, broadly conservative in their politics, more likely to live in regional Australia and who did not go on to higher education.
Focus groups conducted late last year with thousands of participants revealed a shocking hurdle: almost a third of all participants believed First Nations people had been treated fairly. Not just now, but since invasion.
In addition to those people were others who might be convinced by the impact of colonisation but who now think the harm has been counterbalanced.
“There’s a group of people who kind of think, well, you know, there was some bad stuff in the past,” a researcher not authorised to speak publicly said, “but now we have Welcome to Country and if you tick a particular box on an unemployment form and you’re Aboriginal you get preferential treatment and if you want to plant a tree in Western Australia you’ve got to get, you know, some First Nations group to say ‘yeah’.”
“So, even if there is a recognition that things have been bad, there is a view that, well, we’ve got all these other things now.”
These are the views filtering through from the myriad focus groups being conducted as the October 14 vote gets closer.
The bare facts conflict with these opinions: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people die significantly earlier than all Australians, are incarcerated disproportionately and experience breathtaking inequality unique to them and the circumstances into which they have been thrust.
“I’m a Liberal voter, I wouldn’t vote Labor ever, and I don’t come from a wealthy family. I’m a hard worker,” a “No” voter tells The Saturday Paper.
“I don’t think the campaign was ever going to make any difference to the average ‘No’ voter. I think the ‘No’ people are strong believers in themselves already.
“Most ‘No’ voters are pretty confident people. We’re not going to be swayed by whatever anyone else thinks. I would never go to a rally. I don’t believe in any of this conspiracy, anti-vax shit.”
There is a tremendous distinction now between the official “No” campaign and the ordinary “No” voter. Still, it’s worth asking the question: are you racist?
“No,” one voter says. “I am not. I am a firm believer that there is good and bad in every race. Some people are good, some people are arseholes. That’s just the way it is.”
The information coming out of focus groups is revealing. In one, yet to be released, where people hold the view that the Voice would elevate one race above others, the voters who are most concerned by this are white people. The fear of the Voice privileging Indigenous Australians is less pronounced among migrants from China or Vietnam, or people from Afghanistan or the Pacific Islands.
“It’s particularly objectionable to white men, who already feel like they are not getting a say,” a person familiar with the research says. “There is this separate piece of work which shows that there is the same percentage, a group, largely men, largely white, old and young, who is like, ‘Oh you can’t say what you think anymore.’ So they are already feeling ‘Where is my voice?’ There is a lot of that.”
At the National Press Club on Wednesday, leading “Yes” campaigner Noel Pearson was asked specifically about this concept – that the Voice would preference one race ahead of all others.
“Janet Albrechtsen and Andrew Bolt, about 10 years ago, made that argument and we responded, saying, ‘We’re not a separate race, though,’ ” he said, referring to the anti-Voice News Corp commentators.
“We’re humans. It’s just that we are Indigenous. And you go to some parts of the world and indigenous people are blond and blue-eyed. It’s not about race. This is about us being the original peoples in the country.
“They have never admitted to that misrepresentation. It has been in their interests to conflate the two things: race and indigeneity. It’s crucial to their campaign.
“But I would ask Australians to understand that this is not about race, this is about Indigenous. And the simple question about Indigenous is: were there peoples here before 1788? And the answer is yes. There were Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders, and that’s what we’re recognising. Not a separate race.”
The latest Newspoll, considered to be the most accurate of all polls, recorded support for the “Yes” vote dropping to a historic low of 36 per cent this week. Over the same period from June, the “No” vote has increased from 47 to 56 per cent. It has done so across almost every demographic, including the youngest voters. University-educated voters were the only cohort in which support increased.
“It now makes much more sense to ask who your average ‘Yes’ voter is,” an experienced pollster, not permitted to speak publicly, said. “They’re university-educated and predominantly in inner metro areas. That’s basically it now.”
Of course, these are all aggregations. The real spectrum of human experience is broader, deeper and many orders of magnitude more complex.
“We often look at people like ourselves and we think, you know, we are mainstream,” the pollster says.
“But often we are not. This is the interesting thing. People make judgements about probabilities based on the things that they see or the people they spend time with, or people they know.
“There is no demographic where there are no ‘Yes’ voters. They are found across the board. But this is where we have got to. A quarter of Greens voters are voting ‘No’. Thirty-six per cent of Labor voters are voting ‘No’.”
So what has changed to lock in more “No” voters than at the start of the Uluru process?
“People were only going to vote for this if they believed that Indigenous people wanted it and that it would improve things for them, because, at some basic level, there is a broad understanding in our country that Indigenous people have had, to trivialise it a lot, a rough time of it,” the pollster says.
“Only an extreme group of people would not acknowledge that.”
That group tracks with the almost 33 per cent who don’t believe there is such thing as First Nations peoples disadvantage, but the trick of the “No” campaign has been to muddy the waters even further.
Its two most prominent campaigners are Indigenous Australians: Nyunggai Warren Mundine and the Coalition’s Senator Jacinta Nampijinpa Price. A progressive “No” case has been made by former Greens and now independent Senator Lidia Thorpe who, alongside others in the Blak Sovereign Movement, argues that no colonial structure can solve the problem of colonisation.
During a National Press Club speech on Tuesday, Mundine went so far as to call the Voice a “symbolic declaration of war against modern Australia”.
The fact remains, though, that an overwhelming majority of First Peoples support a Voice to Parliament, that it was proposed after the largest consultative dialogues this country has seen, and that the conservative “No” campaign has focused on “division” and deliberately overstated Indigenous Australian opposition to the Voice.
“Usually people will want to vote in their self-interests,” the pollster says.
“Now, you can make the case that this vote is in all our interests, to make Australia a better country. But really, most people see it as they are being asked to vote in someone else’s best interests. And if you can’t be sure those people even want it?
“The middle ground in Australia is voting ‘No’ at the moment. And they’re voting ‘No’ not because they’re racist but because they haven’t been convinced that this is the right thing to do.”
Even so, it might be asked, what is to lose by voting “Yes”? Why not give it a go?
“Because it’s a permanent change to the Constitution and to change it back if it didn’t work would mean another referendum,” one “No” voter, who is not Indigenous, tells The Saturday Paper.
“In other words, once it’s in the Constitution, it’s there forever. I grew up in the [Northern] Territory, in a home with people from Yuendumu, Warrabri [now called Ali Curung] and Amoonguna. I can tell you, they don’t want this. They want action to make their lives better, and not just what the white man thinks is good for them.
“There is nothing I hate more than do-gooding whitefellas.”
But isn’t that the point of the Voice? “That’s all well and good,” the voter says, “but that’s what the Aboriginal affairs minister should have been doing all these years.”
Contrary to the “If you don’t know, vote no ” campaign promulgated by various senior Coalition politicians, there are vast swaths of people voting “No” because they are comfortable with their understanding of the proposal. Others admit they cannot grasp what it hopes to do, despite trying.
“I’m voting ‘No’ but I really did try to figure it out,” one voter tells The Saturday Paper. “On the one hand, people were telling me that this was the most important thing we can do and, on the other hand, the same proponents of ‘Yes’, including Albanese, are saying the Voice will have no real power.
“And then people tell me, ‘Well, what’s to lose?’ And the thing is, I can’t answer that.”
Politicians and leaders campaigning for the Voice have often appealed to an “innate fairness” in the Australian people, but there is a fundamental conservatism, too. Voters will move on important subjects once a certain threshold for information or understanding has been reached. Researchers say we are just not there with the Voice.
“A tonne of people are going to vote ‘No’, not because they are a typical ‘No’ voter but just because they just don’t think it’s going to get up,” a social researcher says. “And they are confused and there’s no momentum and we break status quo.”
Fact checks have had little utility for this group. The forces at play are emotional, as much as anything, and impervious to the strenuous campaigning of either side.
“It feels desperate,” a voter says. “And to be honest, maybe a bit too late. People were hungry for information at the start but now it feels like a bargaining chip.”
The Uluru Statement from the Heart emerged from a series of regional dialogues between First Nations people across Australia. A final convention, in the centre of the continent, was held in 2017. The document it produced is an invitation to the Australian people and, as such, has always been public.
Indeed, it was toured around the country. Its single page was translated into dozens of languages.
According to interviews, there is a sense among some “No” voters that this work is separate from the messy political work of selling a referendum. If that is the prevailing view, then politicisation of the actual vote has doomed it.
Voting in this referendum has started but it is not over until the final ballots are counted. The electoral commission has already indicated that if the vote is close, it could take several days to deliver an outcome.
“While people are still voting,” one pollster says, “there is always hope.”
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on September 30, 2023 as "Anatomy of a ‘No’: The people voting against the Voice".
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