‘Yes’ campaigners are focusing on direct personal appeals to undecided voters, in the hope of clawing back support as they battle online falsehoods and an increasingly vitriolic debate. By Karen Middleton.
Into the final week: ‘Yes’ case ‘more hopeful than optimistic’
As Bridget Archer traverses Tasmania talking about why she believes in an Indigenous Voice to Parliament, one thing keeps her hopeful in the face of dire opinion polls: the 2019 election.
“It’s strange,” the Launceston-based Liberal member of parliament says. “In some ways, I feel there’s a bit of a disconnect between what the polling is saying and what you hear on the ground. That was the feeling I was getting in the 2019 election campaign. The polls were saying we were going to lose, but you’d knock on people’s doors and it was different.”
Archer acknowledges the differences between this vote and an election. This first referendum in 24 years has extra dimensions, scratching at deeply entrenched sentiments, while economic hardships give people other things to worry about. Still, the doorknockers are encouraged by their encounters.
“As they’re talking to people, they’re changing their view,” Archer says. After an information session in Launceston on Tuesday night, four people volunteered that they had shifted from “No” to “Yes”. Archer is realistic about how much store to place in such anecdotes but figures it’s better than hearing the reverse.
“I think it’s a ‘not all hope is lost’ vibe,” she tells The Saturday Paper. “I think people were feeling a bit disheartened a few weeks ago and the tone of the debate has been disheartening. My sense from ‘Yes’ campaigners is ‘we just have to do as much as we can, have as many conversations as we can’.”
The “Yes” campaign overall is buoyed by reports of similar exchanges around the country. However, there are plenty of conversions in the other direction. Research in both camps confirms that what sways waverers most towards “No” is division among Indigenous leaders. Even if voters don’t recognise the Indigenous critics appearing on television or in their social media feeds – whether arguing that the Voice goes too far or not far enough – they absorb the sense of division. And they don’t like it.
The double majority required for “Yes” success – a majority of all voters and majorities in at least four of the six states – means both sides are now refining their focus to where they believe their best hopes lie. Conservative “No” campaign leader and Northern Territory Country Liberal Party senator Jacinta Nampijinpa Price campaigned with Opposition Leader Peter Dutton this week in Western Australia, where polls suggest a majority oppose the Voice.
Yes23 campaign spokesman Dean Parkin spent time in South Australia, speaking enthusiastically about the reception there, while Prime Minister Anthony Albanese took his cabinet to Tasmania. Victoria and Tasmania are the states most in favour of the Voice, Queensland and WA most opposed. New South Wales has been tentatively in the “Yes” column but may be no longer. South Australia’s direction is even less certain.
With a week to go, the opinion polls all show a “No” majority, differing only in size. While Guardian Australia’s Essential poll suggested a modest swing back towards “Yes” on Monday, it remained below 50 per cent and the shift was within the margin of error. Strategists say the 8-10 per cent discrepancy across the published polls underlines the level of uncertainty as referendum day approaches. They say victory is still possible but the path is breathtakingly narrow.
“No” sentiment is strongest among voters aged over 50. The “Yes” side is deploying advocates popular in that demographic – broadcaster Ray Martin, in Sydney, former governor and federal Labor leader Kim Beazley in Perth.
The Australian Electoral Commission reports a record 97.7 per cent enrolment of eligible voters, and about a million people have voted already. At 94.1 per cent, Indigenous enrolment has broken records and youth enrolment is also high at 91.4 per cent.
To shore up slipping support among the younger demographic, the “Yes” campaign is running big events, conscious that nobody aged under 42 has ever voted in a referendum. A concert organised by Indigenous rapper Briggs and scheduled for Friday night in the regional Victorian town of Shepparton billed the Hilltop Hoods alongside Jimmy Barnes and Paul Kelly. The hero of the Penrith Panthers’ NRL premiership win, Nathan Cleary, also endorsed the Voice this week.
Like Archer, the Indigenous deputy vice-chancellor of Victoria University, Professor Peter Radoll, has also been encouraged by his direct conversations with undecided voters. Radoll, who took his case to Indigenous communities on a recent motorcycle road trip across South Australia, told a seminar this week hosted by the University of Canberra that some people had been misinformed but were persuaded, especially by facts. He also told them that while many other interests were already represented in Canberra, Indigenous interests were not.
Others in the “Yes” camp caution against extrapolating too much from individual conversations. They point to more worrying parallels with 2019, such as the spread of half-truths and outright lies, especially on social media, that are neither being detected by broader media nor called out as wrong.
The algorithms driving online traffic have widely spread these messages. They promote self-reinforcing content, generating and escalating controversy to attract eyeballs and advertising revenue. That naturally assists the “No” side of the debate whose success relies on fuelling doubt, confusion and alarm, not those trying to explain, reassure and persuade.
In the Chinese–Australian community, unsubstantiated messages are circulating that a Voice would see Indigenous children awarded more scholarships to private schools, while families from other backgrounds would have to pay more. Another falsehood suggests a Voice would lead to Indigenous people taking other Australians’ homes – a lie that also spread in the pre-internet days of the Mabo native title debate.
The “Yes” side is seeking to address these and other genuinely held concerns with events in non-English-speaking communities and by providing explanatory material in many languages. Recent research indicates the proportion of undecided voters is slightly higher among migrant populations. On Thursday, Albanese attended a Sydney roundtable meeting of faith leaders from diverse communities. He suggested the purpose of the proposed Voice, to ensure Indigenous people could provide feedback and offer suggestions to policymakers on matters that directly affected them, resonated with these groups.
“They know how difficult it is to struggle, to overcome disadvantage – people who have come to Australia to make a better life for themselves and for their children,” Albanese said.
However, one of the “Yes” campaign’s greatest challenges is in the number of voters who don’t believe Indigenous Australians are disadvantaged. Identified early, that sentiment has compounded its already-difficult task. Their research shows that only just over half the population believes Indigenous people have fewer opportunities and face more disadvantage than the overall wider community. About 20 per cent reject that outright and almost 30 per cent remain undecided.
That has meant an extra degree of difficulty for the “Yes” strategy. Beyond explaining the Voice proposition, reassuring that it is a safe choice and persuading voters it could help address disadvantage and benefit the whole nation, supporters have to convince a solid section of voters that there is even a problem to address.
A black-and-white television Yes23 advertisement that began airing on Monday seeks to tackle this, highlighting that Indigenous Australians are twice as likely as the rest of the population to die in childhood, are half as likely to find employment, and live eight years less on average than everyone else. “A ‘No’ vote means no progress,” the voiceover says.
“Yes” advocates repeated that message through the week. As one campaigner explains it: “Doing nothing is a decision and the decision in this case is to lock in failure.”
A follow-up ad featuring Northern Territory Indigenous senator Malarndirri McCarthy outlines the same statistics, shifting to the positive, telling viewers that voting “Yes” can deliver “a better Australia”. Some “Yes” campaigners argue this kind of education is the job of the school curriculum. Looking for a silver lining, others reason that, win or lose, at least the referendum is raising awareness.
But the debate’s underbelly threatens a different legacy beyond October 14. Indigenous campaigners on both sides report a stratospheric rise in levels of personal abuse and an escalation in race-based threats. Senator Price described “revolting abuse” after her phone number was published online. Bridget Archer is also appalled at some of what is being said with impunity.
“I’ve met with constituents who were nakedly racist,” Archer says. She describes a “really unpleasant meeting” in her office with several retirees who did not varnish their views.
She laments what she calls “the lack of an ethical lens” in aspects of debate, saying some seem determined the referendum must fail “at all costs”.
Right-wing extremists are also seeking to harness the “No” vote to their own agendas. On Thursday, a social media video surfaced in which a hooded man burns the Aboriginal flag, performs a Nazi salute and makes racist remarks about Indigenous Australians, singling out independent First Nations senator and leading progressive “No” campaigner Lidia Thorpe.
The video was taken down and the account suspended. Home Affairs Minister Clare O’Neil confirmed the Australian Federal Police were now involved.
“That video is menacing, it is disgusting and it is obviously deliberately targeting her to stop her from expressing her views,” O’Neil told Nine’s Today program. “We cannot live in a strong democracy like Australia around for someone to be treated this way … the Australian government will be doing everything we can to support Senator Lidia Thorpe through what must be an absolutely terrifying experience.”
In response, Thorpe – who has been subjected to death threats before – condemned Prime Minister Albanese, police and the referendum itself, saying it had caused “nothing but pain and misery”.
“The referendum is an act of genocide against my people and the prime minister knows exactly what he’s doing,” Thorpe said. “He wants the fucking fascists to come out and get me. That is what he wants. Because this violent force that he has sent to protect me can’t even protect me – refuse to protect a Blak Sovereign woman, because the police are part of the problem in this country.”
When that was put to him, Albanese called on all Australians to be respectful.
“The sort of Nazi rhetoric and statements that are in that video have no place in discourse in Australian political life,” he said.
In dozens of interviews across the week, Albanese appealed to voters to base their decisions on facts and the question before them.
“If people focus on that, I think overwhelmingly people will vote ‘Yes’,” he said on Monday. He predicted they would wake on October 15 with the same positive feeling that flowed from the marriage equality result and the Stolen Generations Apology.
“All the fear campaign will have no substance and we’ll get on with dealing with the range of issues that are before the Australian people.”
Peter Dutton said Albanese was out of touch with ordinary Australians.
“This is the biggest change to our Constitution proposed since Federation and nobody understands what it is that he’s talking about,” Dutton said.
He predicted voters would send “a very clear message” on October 14.
“Yes” campaigners are reluctant to say what the government would or should do if the referendum fails. Within government, they say only that they expect the broader political debate to move back to the economy and other issues quickly.
In an interview published in Overland magazine this week, long-time Indigenous activist and now professor Gary Foley, also of Victoria University, pointed to what happened after the 1967 referendum, which removed discriminatory references to Indigenous Australians from the Constitution with overwhelming public and bipartisan political support. According to Foley, a generation of young Indigenous activists were left disillusioned after their Elders persuaded them to endorse the proposition because things would change for the better.
“Well, things didn’t change for the better,” Foley said, “and it was as a result of that, that the younger generation developed a disaffection with the older generation’s strategies and tactics.”
He said this was what led to the “Black Power” or land rights movement aimed at self-determination. “That emerged as a direct result of the failure of the 1967 referendum to deliver any real change.”
While not advocating a “Yes” vote, he predicted a loss on October 14 would make history repeat.
“I can see the failure of the referendum making a whole lot of blackfellas sit up and think and realise again what we realised back in ’67, that our best efforts to achieve our aims are always at our own behest, under our own control,” Foley said. “A whole new generation of Black activists deciding, ‘Hang on, to hell with the rest of them, let’s just focus on our own communities and start building up the strength of our own communities.’”
Bridget Archer urges “Yes” supporters to persist and waverers to think about the future. “I’m more hopeful than optimistic, but it’s worth a run to the finish, to give it its best shot.”
Campaign research shows at least 25 per cent of voters still have not engaged with the referendum at all, let alone decided how they will vote. This is where the “Yes” campaign is vesting its final hopes – that when the time comes to mark the ballot paper, all the noise will fall away and just enough of them will think, What the hell, let’s give this a try.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on October 7, 2023 as "Into the final week: ‘Yes’ case ‘more hopeful than optimistic’".
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