Sarah Gall is a political data scientist and membership secretary for the UK’s Conservative Friends of Australia. She previously headed up political and policy research for the Prime Minister of Australia.
On Saturday, Australians went to the polls and overwhelmingly voted against enshrining an Indigenous Voice to Parliament into the Constitution.
The rejected amendment proposed inserting a new chapter into the Constitution to recognize Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples as the First Peoples of Australia.
Constitutional recognition for Indigenous Australians has widespread support. However, the proposal went further. It instead attempted to create a permanent advisory body called the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice – or simply, ‘the Voice’ – would be able to make representations to the Parliament and Executive Government on matters relating to Indigenous Australians.
The exact composition, functions, powers, and procedures of the Voice were to be determined by Parliament, should the referendum be successful.
Thankfully, the majority of Australians were not fooled by this Trojan horse. And, as of yesterday’s continuing count, nearly 61 per cent voted against the proposal and not a single state returned a majority ‘Yes’ vote – one of the worst results in Australia’s history of referendums.
For the Yes campaign, they appeared to have the early advantage with 2022 opinion polls in the mid to high 70s, a popular Labor government that provided a continuous platform for the cause, supportive media, celebrities, sporting codes, and high-profile Indigenous Australians advocating for the Voice.
As time progressed, the Yes campaign were joined by experienced strategists including, and controversially, the Liberal Party’s go-to pollster CT Group (formerly known as Crosby Textor). They were supported by an estimated £25 million in donations from major corporations in the banking, mining, telecommunications, retail, and airline sectors.
The Yes advocates viewed the Voice as both a symbolic and practical solution to providing constitutional recognition and a way to reduce inequalities between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians.
They argued that previous strategies to close the gap have failed and so it is time to put the decisions into the hands of those who are affected in order to create positive change.
But the irony here was that the decisions on indigenous matters are currently made by Indigenous Australians. Linda Burney, the Minister for Indigenous Affairs, is an Aboriginal woman who was democratically elected into parliament along with 10 other Indigenous MPs and Senators.
One of the 10 other paliamentarians was Jacinta Nampijinpa Prince, a National Party Senator from central Australia who has been the face of the No campaign.
Price’s view has consistently been that Canberra does not need another voice, but rather that it needs ears to listen to the needs of Indigenous communities from people, such as herself, who are on the ground and not in urban areas thousands of miles away.
There are already over 3000 indigenous bodies that are federally funded to improve the lives of those most marginalized, costing an estimated £50 million per day. This begged the question of how another advisory body was going to be any different to those that already existed.
The No advocates believed that instead of creating an entirely new body at an additional expense, Canberra should fix the bodies that already exist by reviewing what is and isn’t working.
The No campaign viewed the Voice as ‘the Voice of division’; a proposal that sought to under the 1967 change to the Constitution which united and made all Australians equal under the law.
They argued that the proposed Voice would provide a voice to one group, based on race, that no other group has, that it could further divide Indigenous and non-Indigenous people by giving precedence to one group, and that the Constitution should instead represent all Australians equally.
Additionally, placing the Voice into the Constitution was seen by some legal experts as legally risky, and the government could be forced into taking the Voice’s advice by legal action.
These critiques, among others, were not able to be adequately defended by Prime Minister Albanese, his government, or anyone else in the Yes campaign. They instead refused to provide details to basic questions and took a hubristic view that all of the No campaign’s arguments were either “base racism” or “sheer stupidity” – the equivalent of Hillary Clinton calling Donald Trump’s supports a “basket of deplorables”.
Reviewing the electorate-level results from Sunday’s referendum, it is not difficult to see how the No campaign won, despite being on a shoestring budget and significantly leaner than the Yes campaign.
The electorates that returned a majority NO vote have been those in the rural, provincial, and outer metropolitan areas. These areas, particularly in rural parts, tend to be more right-leaning and characterized by a lower socio-economic status with a majority of residents living in areas of disadvantage.
These No-voting areas – albeit at the aggregated electorate level – were also characterised by electorates with higher numbers of people who had a lower income and education level, dependent children, a long-term health conditions, working in blue-collar jobs, and had preferenced right-leaning minor party at the previous two elections.
Unsurprisingly, these No voters will have been swayed by the economic argument against the ‘elitist’ Canberra-based Voice during a cost-of-living crisis and raised their own questions about why some Australians should be given special treatment over others when they themselves are struggling.
In contrast, the electorates that returned a majority Yes vote have largely been confined to inner metropolitan areas where the Greens, Teals (former moderate Liberal seats), and Labor Party dominate. These electorates tend to have the majority of their population living in the most advantaged areas.
These Yes-voting areas were also characterised by electorates with higher numbers of people with a university degree, working in a professional occupation, on a high income, who did not have children, and had preferenced the Greens first at the previous two elections.
Ultimately, this referendum reveals the current divide within Australia. There is one side which are the inner-city wealthy elites, backed by big businesses, and progressing forward with their ‘woke’ agenda. And the other side, who are the quieter Australians living in the regions, just trying to make ends meet and support their families.
If anything, this should be a reminder for politicians to not lend credence to the noisy few at the expense of the majority who do not have the same access or platform.
The polls were clear before the official campaign began. Albanese should have done what he was advocating for and listened and cooperated from the beginning of this process instead of charging ahead with an unnecessary and costly referendum that lacked bipartisan support and was clearly going to fail.
There were better, and alternative ways, for both constitutional recognition and closing the gap; the latter of which did not require a change to the Constitution. This is Albanese’s failure that he will need to wear.