Politics Opinion

Climate of contention clouds Voice Referendum

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(Cartoon by Paul Dorin / @DorinToons)

The proposal to recognise Indigenous Australians by a Constitutional Voice to Parliament could be in trouble.

According to the latest Resolve Strategic poll for Nine media, support for a Yes vote in the upcoming referendum has fallen to 44%. Opposition has climbed eight points to 39%, while 18% are undecided.

The most recent Freshwater Strategy poll paints a similar picture. Opposition to The Voice has jumped ten points this year and support is now just 48%. Roy Morgan polling reveals the same downward trend. 

At this rate, the Yes vote may struggle to pass the necessary thresholds by October. 

Why is this happening?

It’s certainly not a reflection of the strength of the No campaign. That campaign seems to be dominated by just two people — Warren Mundine and Jacinta Nampijinpa Price. Neither is particularly charismatic and they haven’t developed any compelling new arguments in recent months.  

Peter Dutton opposes The Voice, but given his personal unpopularity, that’s hardly a trump card for the No side. The same applies to his predecessors, Scott Morrison and Tony Abbott.  

Significantly, there’s been no relationship in the polls between support for the major political parties and support for The Voice. The decline in the latter has not been matched by a drop in support for Labor, the party promoting The Voice. Nor by a rise in support for the Coalition, the party opposing it.    

If it’s not down to the No campaign or party affiliation, is support for The Voice sliding because of racism, as asserted by many on social media?

No doubt there’s a small cohort who oppose anything to do with Indigenous Australians. However, that’s not a large percentage of the population and such people will have expressed their negative views on The Voice to pollsters from the outset. So that doesn’t explain the downward trend in support.

The problem may lie in the fact that there are two components to the Referendum — recognition and the mechanism of consultation to achieve that recognition. The polls are likely reflecting a shift over time by poll respondents from a focus on recognition to a focus on consultation.

For many, the former is straightforward and uncontroversial and, therefore, supportable. Not so the latter.

1999 all over again?

The parallel with the unsuccessful 1999 Referendum is obvious. It also had two components: republicanisation and the mechanism for achieving that republicanisation (that is, how to replace the monarch). It was clear that a majority of Australians wanted a republic. But only a minority wanted the particular model offered in that Referendum.

In the changing Voice polls, we may be seeing some respondents who previously expressed their support for the broad concept of recognition now expressing their rejection of the specific model offered for achieving that recognition.

The two-step nature of both the 1999 Referendum and The Voice Referendum contrasts with the much simpler same-sex marriage plebiscite. The latter did not turn on understanding or analysing a particular model for implementing same-sex marriage. The decision for voters was very straightforward.

If the polling indicates a growing rejection of The Voice as a model for Constitutional recognition of Indigenous Australians, it will be for one of two reasons — because voters don’t like the model, or more probably, because they don’t understand it.

Public attention right now is focused primarily on interest rates and the cost-of-living crisis, not some referendum still months away. The reality is that most Australians do not appear to be across the detail of The Voice. Therefore, most responses to polls about it are based on superficial impressions rather than any kind of analysis. 

And that’s the danger for the Yes campaign. Changing the country’s 'Constitution' is a significant step, so the superficial impression needs to be very positive to win voters over. The proposal needs to look compelling to a casual observer.

The current climate of contestation and uncertainty surrounding The Voice does not foster a positive or compelling impression. The debate around bringing the "executive government" within the ambit of The Voice won’t have been followed by most Australians — for some, it will have left an impression of controversy and disagreement.

Rightly or wrongly, the same is true of public rancour between prominent Indigenous Australians like the latest skirmish between Noel Pearson and Mick Gooda.  

'Expert' opinions muddying the waters

Public debate about policy issues should be a good thing. A sign of a healthy democracy. However, in the context of a national referendum, it risks undermining the sense of unity that’s needed for success.    

One of the great unknowns with The Voice is the impact of contributions to the debate from outside the political realm.

All manner of business executives and organisations are now promoting a Yes vote. Do Australians care what a mining company, a bank, or an insurance company thinks about The Voice? Or an accounting firm? These groups are hardly paragons of social responsibility — their advocacy in favour of The Voice may, in fact, damage the cause they espouse.

By contrast, strong support from many sporting codes could well provide a major boost to the Yes campaign.

As for all the academics, lawyers and celebrities from either side offering their unsolicited opinions, many are likely to be dismissed as condescending elites. For better or worse, there’s a larrikin streak in many Australians that baulks at being told what to do and how to think.

Remember the words of Brexiteer Michael Gove before the Brexit Referendum:

“I think the people in this country have had enough of experts... saying that they know what is best.”

Dr Ross Stitt is a freelance writer specialising in politics and economics. A former lawyer, he has a PhD in political science. You can follow Ross on Twitter @ross_stitt.

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