Politics Opinion

Voice Referendum can move forward by learning from the past

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(Cartoon by Mark David / @MDavidCartoons)

Taking into account what made past referenda successful will strengthen the 'Yes' campaign for the Indigenous Voice to Parliament, writes Joel MacKay.

I WILL VOTE ‘Yes’ in the Referendum to establish a First Nation’s Voice. It will be a nervous vote though; not convinced that a model of merit is ready to be rolled out.

Something is better than nothing, but First Nations people deserve the best. And the best way forward is through Treaty.

Nonetheless, I think I am going to be in the minority and believe the Voice will fail.  

Constitutional referendums are pivotal moments in a nation's history, providing an opportunity to bring about significant changes to the fundamental laws governing a country. We have all heard the statistic though, that only eight referenda have been successful.

We need the “perfect campaign” to win.

Through analysing and learning from past successful Australian constitutional referendums, four common features of the “perfect referendum campaign” become apparent:

  1. unified political leadership;
  2. broad coalition, collaboration and unity;
  3. awareness, education and mobilisation; and
  4. emphasis on fairness and equality.

These points serve as a blueprint for future campaigns, offering a framework to maximise public awareness, foster unity and drive positive outcomes.

Unified political leadership

The Constitution won’t change if there isn’t strong political leadership behind it. From pushing through the required legislation to campaigning, political leaders play an integral role. Their active involvement lends credibility, mobilises party members and supporters, and amplifies the campaign's reach. 

The campaign for the 1946 Referendum in Australia aimed to extend federal government powers in areas such as social services and employment. Then Prime Minister Ben Chifley and Opposition Leader Robert Menzies both actively campaigned for a ‘Yes’ vote. Menzies' leadership and collaboration with Chifley contributed to a sense of political consensus and unity, which resonated with the public and increased the chances of the Referendum's success.  

There is no unified show from political leaders across the board for the 2023 Referendum. Prime Minister Anthony Albanese and Minister for Indigenous Australians, Linda Burney, have taken the political lead for the ‘Yes’ campaign. While there is some bipartisan support, it is dwarfed by the vocal ‘No’ campaign that Opposition Leader Peter Dutton and Shadow Minister for Indigenous Australians, Jacinta Nampijinpa Price, are amplifying. 

Broad coalition, collaboration and unity

A key element of a winning referendum campaign is the formation of a broad coalition encompassing diverse political parties, community organisations, advocacy groups and individuals who support the proposed amendment. It also centres lived experience and fosters collaboration and unity within the coalition and among supporters. Building consensus, minimising internal divisions and presenting a united front contribute to a stronger and more coherent campaign.

By working together, campaigners can convey a consistent message, avoid dilution of resources and strengthen public trust in the campaign's objectives.

During the 1906 Referendum to enable senate elections to be held at the same time as the House of Representatives, a broad coalition – in the Australian Labor Party, Protectionist Party and Free Trade Party – collaborated and organised for the ‘Yes’ vote. This was also supported by the labour movement; activists and trade unions campaigned for the amendment, emphasising the need for a more democratic and representative senate. The labour movement's unified support and collaboration in advocating for the proposal contributed to its success.  

Several advocacy groups and organisations, such as the Women's Christian Temperance Union, supported the direct election of senators. These groups recognised the potential for increased representation and progressive reforms that could result from the amendment. They collaborated to raise awareness, mobilise support and present a united front in favour of the proposal.

Today, for the 2023 Referendum, there is indeed a broad coalition falling in behind the ‘Yes’ vote. From the Labor movement to migrant and cultural organisations, and from sporting organisations to corporates, a broad coalition is there. 

Public awareness, education and mobilisation

Successful campaigns prioritise public awareness and education by providing accurate and accessible information about the proposed amendment. A perfect campaign employs comprehensive information campaigns, public meetings, forums, and media engagement to inform the public and address concerns. Educational resources, including booklets, FAQs and online platforms should be utilised to ensure widespread understanding and encourage an informed electorate.

The 1967 Referendum meant First Nations would be counted in the Census. The ‘Yes’ campaign focused on public awareness and education. They distributed pamphlets and information booklets explaining the proposed changes and the impact they would have on Indigenous rights and recognition. These materials were disseminated through community organisations, schools, churches and public events, reaching a wide audience and raising awareness about the Referendum. 

A key tactic for the ‘Yes’ campaign was to establish local campaign committees across the country, involving volunteers who actively campaigned within their communities. These committees organised grassroots activities such as door-to-door canvassing, community meetings and public events to spread awareness, educate the public, and rally support for the Referendum.

Importantly, much of the grassroots movement was led by Indigenous activists and organisations were at the forefront of mobilisation efforts. Leaders such as Faith Bandler and Charles Perkins, along with organisations like the Federal Council for the Advancement of Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders (FCAATSI), worked tirelessly to mobilise Indigenous communities, raise awareness and advocate for a ‘Yes’ vote. 

In 2023, we are seeing advertisements from both campaigns and both sides have started mobilising. It will be interesting – and important – how this shapes up. It must be said though, that members of the ‘Yes’ campaign such as unions and progressive organisations have existing structures that they will make campaign-ready and mobilise. 

Emphasis on fairness and equality

To resonate with voters, a perfect campaign emphasises fairness and equality, particularly when addressing existing inequalities or discriminatory provisions. Highlighting how the proposed amendment rectifies injustices and promotes equal rights enhances public support. Framing the campaign in terms of justice, equality and a more inclusive society appeals to voters' fundamental values, generating empathy and a desire for positive change.

The 1977 Referendum in Australia focused on removing discriminatory provisions from the Australian Constitution regarding the retirement age of judges. The ‘Yes’ campaign argued that having a retirement age would ensure a more equitable and consistent approach in the appointment and tenure of federal judges. The campaign highlighted the importance of ensuring fairness and equal opportunities within the judiciary.

Both campaigns in 2023 are using the fairness and equality angle. One side is saying that for equality, First Nations people need to be recognised in the Constitution and given Voice; the other saying is actually unfair to do this.

Sound the alarm  

As it stands, the campaign for a Voice does not tick all the boxes. However, some of the great work that it has done isn’t for nothing. 

There is a strong sense of unity building in Australia for a Voice, but that unity may not be labelled “broad” at this stage. Unions, academics, corporates and some sections of the community are not enough yet to win this Referendum. This can be addressed by a powerful cross-cutting campaign. It will also become easier to build unity as the community becomes more aware of the Referendum.  

The focus on fairness and equality is obvious and a strength of the campaign. Just like in 1967, people will use this Referendum to send a message of fairness. Similarly, organising strategies that hark back to 1967 are emerging. This could be what takes the ‘Yes’ campaign closer to victory.

The most obvious difference though is that beyond Labor leaders such as Anthony Albanese and Linda Burney, we need more political leaders from all across the spectrum to unite and collaborate. 

I hope the Referendum passes.

To do so, campaigners must learn from the past.

Joel MacKay is a humanitarian and human rights activist, having been a finalist in the Australian Human Rights Commission Awards for his work on First Nations justice, LGBTQIA+ rights and mental health reform.

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Voice Referendum can move forward by learning from the past

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