With just over three weeks until polling day, we’re seeing more and more advertising and public debate over the issue of the Voice referendum.
Unfortunately, we’ve also seen more vitriol, anger and conflict, as well as misinformation mixed in with valid frustrations and hyperbole.
Given the tough benchmarks that are required for a referendum to succeed - as evidenced by the fact that less than 20% of them have passed previously - it’s not looking good for the upcoming vote. Many previous polls have fallen short with better levels of perceived public support than the current question.
There’s still time, of course, for the government to improve or strengthen its messaging or for people to change their minds, but does that really seem likely? All the consultation, the PR campaigns, John Farnham and the spending on advertising, while (mostly) well intentioned, might end up yielding little.
But this isn’t the fault of one individual or side of politics alone. It’s everyone’s fault, and no-one’s at the same time.
Whether through a failure of personality or policy, the government hasn’t done well at all in cutting through the noise and ensuring everyone is informed about what the Yes vote will ultimately mean. And if the onus isn’t on them, who is it on? What's the counter to 'if you don't know, vote no'? There doesn't seem to be one.
The messaging and information is there, but it’s being lost in a mire of uncertainty and clearly isn’t well-positioned enough to be authoritative to many people.
Certain demographics were never going to be easily swayed, but it seems like most of the focus has been on getting the message to people who were already going to vote yes anyway, then patting each other on the back for achieving not a whole lot other than assuming the rest would follow suit as we deal with more pressing challenges to our daily lives.
That’s all well and good if the Yes vote was in a strong position, but according to most polling, the initial, tentative support is starting to wane.
Meanwhile, few are holding the No side to account for their increasingly outlandish and unverified claims as well. The uncertainty created by the poor messaging has spawned a chasm of lies and fear mongering that many people have willingly leapt into.
We’ve seen the word ‘apartheid’ used multiple times already in this campaign. That such a significant and historically-weighted word can be thrown around like that, without any obvious objection, is an accurate reflection of the quality of debate at times, as well as the rationale of those who invoke it. Just like the other side, the 'No' squad have created an echo chamber that is deafening when you happen to stumble across it.
Regardless of whether you think the Voice could have a meaningful impact or if you don’t want it, this debate has become about personalities who don’t represent an entire cause, and about how it impacts us, not the people it has the opportunity to help.
Mind the Gap
Make no mistake, there are clear and entrenched gaps - yawning divides - between outcomes for most Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians - no matter where in the country you are. The data is readily available and has changed little over the years. How about if you don’t know, do some research? Just google Indigenous disadvantage and go from there.
Whether you think the Voice is right is one thing - but the numbers are there for all to see.
Indigenous Australians have a shorter life expectancy, higher infant mortality, lower education levels, higher incarceration rates than the non-Indigenous population.
It’s not unreasonable to suggest that much of this is a lingering consequence of post-colonial-era policies spawned from a certain outdated mindset, and there’s a clear indication that we do need a more collaborative approach with our Indigenous countrymen and women in shaping policies that can start to try and change this long-held narrative.
But despite all the glaring deficiencies of the system and challenges faced socially and institutionally by our Indigenous communities, facts about the Voice have become blurry and the debate has moved away from these important issues, lingering instead over uncertainty, far-flung possibilities and things that simply haven’t been said.
It's hard to believe that we as a nation don’t want what’s best for our Indigenous people. But it’s just as hard to get people to care about the plight of others when they’re in the midst of their own - and many of us are.
In a couple of years time when we look back at the Voice referendum, the vote will likely be seen out of context. History will largely ignore the brutal inflation, housing and cost of living crises we’re still in, the stress, emotional and mental fatigue that many of us have endured over recent months and even the lingering societal impacts of the Covid era. Yes, we can promote and encourage empathy, but if we don't feel any coming our way, we're less likely to willingly give it out.
If you’re struggling to pay your bills, your mortgage or even afford groceries and it feels like help isn’t on the way, then you see the PM on TV in his latest new hoodie talking about a referendum that helps someone else but is also seemingly way more important than your own plight, there’s a chance of developing resentment. Not towards Indigenous Australians (at least I hope not), but towards Government policy that can be seen to be ignoring the needs of the many while helping but a few, regardless of wider context or whom those few are.
Learning from History
Many of the things that the uncertain (or overly-certain) seem most afraid of - like the possibility of reparations and impacts on housing - have been raised before at landmark moments for Indigenous policy in this country.
You may or may not have been around, but the Mabo decision (1992) and even the National Apology (2008) were both preceded with vocal fears from conservative critics about a torrent of rights and advantages suddenly being granted to Indigenous Australians at the expense of everybody else.
None of those things happened, surprise surprise.
But what also never happened as a result of either of these decisions was any meaningful improvements in the quality of life of Indigenous Australians. All of those statistics we mentioned earlier were still the norm when the Apology was made, and they’re still the norm now, 15 years on. How much positive change has government policy actually been able to bring about that hasn’t been primarily symbolic?
Is it any wonder that there’s a healthy dose of scepticism, even from those with an inkling of hope or a desire to see change?
Time is running out, but the prevailing sense is already that the discourse has gone on too long. It may have been a matter of weeks since the date was confirmed, but it feels like it’s been an eternity and there’s still more to go.
In the end, the overwhelming sense seems to be that we just want it all to be over. And when presented with an opportunity to unite for historic change, that’s perhaps the most disappointing part of all.