Indigenous supporting the Voice campaign

The Voice’s Flawed Campaign

5 September 2023

3.6 MINS

For the past week, the Australian parliament has been engrossed in a debate about what material constitutes the Uluru Statement from the Heart, the document upon which the proposed ‘Voice to Parliament’ is based.

For months now, it has been the claim of the ‘yes’ campaign that the document is the short one-page document familiar to most people who have engaged in the discussion.

But a freedom-of-information request to the indigenous agency responsible for the issue revealed a longer 26-page document containing much detail about aboriginal sovereignty, reparations, a treaty and so on, leading many opponents of the Voice to claim the one-page is merely a sanitised version of a more radical claim.

The revelation of a longer, more detailed document led the ‘yes’ campaign to immediately roll out indigenous spokespersons, Megan Davis and Pat Anderson, to claim that ‘no’, the statement is just the rather benign one-pager.

The trouble with these claims was that television footage emerged of both of these people previously claiming that the Uluṟu Statement is a longer, more detailed 18-page document, Professor Davis saying so on numerous occasions.

We may never know which claim is correct, but it highlights the continuing problems for the ‘yes’ campaign. Instead of proclaiming the alleged benefits of the Voice, its proponents were on the back foot, defending themselves from the charge that their campaign was deceptive and misleading.

Shooting Themselves in the Foot

In my experience, there are few novel approaches to political campaigns. Campaigns which depart from tried and true political principles and strategies are always in danger of failing.

The Voice campaign seems to have been constructed on a ‘vibe’ — a feel-good exercise about recognition of the existence in Australia of the indigenous people for thousands of years. However, the proposal always has been about much more.

Even the choice of the expression ‘the Voice’ sounds like something created in an advertising agency. Perhaps it was designed to engender associations with the popular television talent program of the same name or to trigger a subconscious connection with the legendary performer John Farnham, known as ‘the voice’.

Running a campaign on a ‘vibe’ is dangerous unless there is detail behind it. This has been a major mistake of the ‘yes’ campaign. Repeated requests for greater explanation of the Voice have been met with the response that it is encapsulated in the one-page statement and further details will be established after the referendum.

A cursory survey of political history will reveal that when proponents fail to provide detail, others will endeavour to fill the gap. The ‘yes’ proponents claim that this is unfair, but it is a situation of their own making.

Radical Reforms

The revelation of the 26-page document compounds the problems. Opponents now say the ‘yes’ campaign has been hiding the details for fear of the consequences should the more radical claims have been revealed. This makes their campaign appear even more deceptive in the eyes of many. Having been on the defensive for not knowing or revealing the details, they are now on the back foot again for allegedly hiding them.

Leaving aside the merits or otherwise of the Voice, the ‘yes’ campaign has been on the defensive repeatedly.

Consider other basic political mistakes. If the campaign was about the ‘vibe’, it should have been short to maximise the feel-good factor of recognition. But it is continuing to drag on, with the prime minister still unable or unwilling to name the date for the referendum, although it is widely expected to be held on October 14.

The rejection of the advice of many supporters to narrow the scope of the proposal — to the recognition of Indigenous peoples as being the first Australians — also played into the claims that this is a more radical constitutional change, with the addition of the Voice to Parliament.

And if the Voice is merely an advisory body, then why not clarify its scope now? Proposals to narrow the scope in relation to the Executive were also rejected.

Claiming that the proposal is just about recognition — something an overwhelming majority of Australians do support — when it is far wider, as encapsulated in the slogan ‘Voice, Treaty, Truth’, also creates distrust.

Tone-Deaf

The breaches of the well-known ‘rules’ of political campaigning go on and on.

Highlighting the support of sports stars might reinforce the feel-good factor, but it hardly changes a vote, especially when one of the celebrities — Shaq O’Neal — isn’t an Australian and doesn’t live here.

Wealthy corporations spending millions on the ‘yes’ campaign and instructing people how to vote when ordinary Australians are struggling with the cost of living fails to resonate with most voters.

Resort to personal insults makes the proponents appear rattled and desperate.

The refusal of the minister to debate the shadow minister compounds negative perceptions.

Expressing outrage that a statement should not have been included in the ‘no’ pamphlet — even though accurately quoted — because the quoted person supports the proposal, simply highlighted the point of the statement. ‘Don’t give an adverse story legs’ is the advice tendered to every neophyte politician.

Telling Australians that if the referendum fails, the issue can never be revisited, defies constitutional principles and is unconvincing.

The referendum may well succeed, although history and current polling suggest otherwise.

A referendum is unlike a normal election. The weight of the argument falls on the proponents. Australians have repeatedly shown that unless convinced of the merits of the case, they prefer the status quo.

If the referendum does fail, it will be in part a consequence of the misguided political campaign of its proponents.

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Originally published in the Epoch Times Australia. Image by DaModernDaVinci from Pixabay.

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