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The Yes Campaign Is Losing Because It Didn't Get Bipartisan Support
the explanation that has been staring us in the face this whole time
According to most polls, support for the Indigenous voice to parliament has been falling since late last year. The decline became more pronounced as support collapsed among Coalition voters and pushed many Labor voters away from the Yes camp after April. Last year, the polls suggested that the voice to parliament would win a national majority and a majority in every state. Now, Kevin Bonham estimates that the no campaign is currently winning nationally and in every state.
Various pundits have offered up a bunch of arguments attempting to explain why the Yes campaign is losing, but I find most of them unsatisfying. Most arguments that I’ve seen are incredibly predictable. Labor supporters blame the Greens and Lidia Thorpe for their role in creating space for the ‘progressive No’ movement or for not participating in the campaign enough, some Greens supporters blame Labor for either involving themselves too much or too little in the Yes campaign, more left-wing people blame the voice proposal for not being substantial enough, more right-wing people blame the voice proposal for being too substantial and so on. All of these people were making these points when the polls were looking good for the Yes campaign. They do a much better job at explaining their own partisan disagreements and personal views than they do at explaining why support for the voice has collapsed.
The ‘progressive No’ vote is tiny and Greens voters have consistently polled as the most pro-Voice voters in the country, so it makes little sense to blame them. I don’t know what to make of claims that the voice will fail because Labor tied themselves too closely to it or not closely enough, other than to say that it doesn’t seem like a massive factor. Labor voters have started to turn against the voice but they were mostly in favour of it until June. The left-wing complaint that the Yes campaign and the voice are too centrist has a hint of truth to it, but the idea that it’s failing because it isn’t radical enough or doesn’t involve far-left activists is laughable. The right-wing complaint that the voice is too substantive and it would’ve been easier to run a campaign for constitutional recognition also has a hint of truth to it, but the Uluru Statement from the Heart and the entire campaign for the voice explicitly emerged as a rejection of mere recognition. Everyone has a convenient story about why the Yes vote has collapsed that lines up perfectly with their pre-existing views and none of these stories explains the observed shift in public opinion over time.
In my view, people are ignoring the fact that the voice was initially predicated on bipartisan support and it started struggling once it became clear that it wasn’t going to get it. The idea of an Indigenous voice to parliament has a long history but, as a live political proposal, it dates back to Noel Pearson’s Quarterly Essay A Rightful Place. It developed into something that could, in theory, get conservatives (who supported constitutional recognition) and Indigenous leaders (who wanted something more substantive) to take the same stance in a referendum. Supporters argued at the time that any referendum on Indigenous issues would only succeed with bipartisan support and that the voice could receive it.
The argument that the voice could win bipartisan support did not hold up. The Turnbull and Morrison governments both rejected proposals to run a referendum on the voice to parliament. In April this year, after months of being urged to “put politics aside” by the Yes campaign, federal opposition leader Peter Dutton announced that the Coalition would oppose the voice to parliament.
Without bipartisan support, it’s been incredibly easy for the No campaign to persuade voters. The No campaign has been very effective at forcing the Yes campaign to fight a battle on two fronts. To convince voters that the voice is a good idea and not just a waste of money, you have to argue that it will have a substantive impact on Indigenous policy. But to convince conservatives, you have to argue that it’s a purely symbolic advisory body. Advocates for the voice are forced to argue that it will be substantive and life-changing, but also symbolic and inconsequential. Members of the federal Labor government and leading supporters of the Yes campaign have tried sending different messages to different crowds. But this is a federal referendum in an era where all news is national news, so micro-targeting doesn’t work. Everyone hears your mixed messages. It's easy for the No campaign to turn around and say "See? It's all so confusing. If you don't know, vote no."
If you don't have the relevant progressive priors (that a No result would be a worse outcome than a substantive or inconsequential voice or that you ought to defer to the majority of Indigenous people on this issue), then voting No is a frustratingly reasonable response to this line of argument.
When you take this into consideration, you get a reasonable explanation for the polling data we have. The voice steadily declined in popularity as it seemed like the Coalition was going to oppose it. Then, the voice took a nosedive in the polls in the months after the federal Coalition officially announced that they were against it. Support for a No vote has gone up considerably among Liberal voters and decently among Labor voters but has remained at relatively low levels among Greens voters.
With bipartisan support, this would’ve been easier to deal with. The No campaign would’ve lacked the legitimacy and numbers that come with the backing of a major political party. The same line of argument would, as far as I can tell, fail to convince the majority of non-Indigenous voters that they have anything to fear from a voice supported by the Coalition.
All this is to say that there is something to the idea that the voice suffers because it tries too hard to appeal to everyone. A proposal predicated on bipartisan support that it was probably never going to get was always going to run into trouble without it. Acknowledging this doesn’t mean believing that a more substantial or left-wing proposal would fare better. It wouldn’t. People voting No because they think the voice might be a waste of money or lead to constitutionally enshrined reparations would not vote for actually enshrining reparations in the constitution.
What it might mean is acknowledging that pushing for a referendum on the voice may have been a strategic mistake.1 Advocating for a referendum on adding an Indigenous advisory body to the constitution, a proposal supported in part by the claim that it could win bipartisan support, may have been a bad idea. The Liberals opposed the voice at almost every turn and only occasionally flirted with the idea of being quietly supportive of it. Now the voice is facing the possibility of being defeated and setting back Indigenous rights by several decades. If the No campaign wins, then all current and future governments will take it as an excuse to say that even the most softball pro-Indigenous reforms are unpopular and the most racist elements of Australian society will be emboldened.
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One might also attribute some blame to the federal Labor government for the likely success of the No campaign. It is possible that the voice would have fared better if the referendum had been announced and held earlier in the year when support was higher. However, we also need to acknowledge that the Yes and No campaigns would have started earlier as well, which might have rendered any advantages null.