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Facing defeat, the Yes campaign has three unpalatable options

With the Voice to parliament losing support, Matthew Abraham looks back on sputtering political campaigns of the past to work out what happens next for the Yes proponents.

Jul 28, 2023, updated Jul 28, 2023
A "Yes 23" community event in Sydney this month. Photo: AAP/Bianca De Marchi

A "Yes 23" community event in Sydney this month. Photo: AAP/Bianca De Marchi

When an election campaign is vanishing down the gurgler, the geniuses running it usually only have two, unhappy options.

The first is to carry on as though it’s all going tickety-boo, and the polls and feedback from candidates doorknocking Sally and Sammy Swinger in the ‘burbs are wrong.

What would they know? The only poll that counts is the one on election day, right? Wrong.

This option requires the leader of the party running the dud campaign to have immense belief in their popularity and magical powers to woo voters at the last minute.

That was the doomed approach deployed by former Premier Steven Marshall as his 2022 state election campaign never looked like getting off the loose gravel.

The current Liberal leader, David Speirs, belled the cat when he said of the Liberal effort that “to run a bad campaign you’ve got to run a campaign”.

In February, he told The Advertiser’s Michael McGuire that during the campaign he was like “a kid strapped in the back seat of a car and dad’s passed out”.

“But the car’s still moving forward and there’s a corner coming and a big drop,” he said. “I can’t get out. The seatbelt’s on too tight.”

This is one of the great political takedowns of all time. It makes you wonder whether Speirs realises that he’s actually saying these things out loud, instead of just thinking them.

The second option is what political brains call a “reset”.

Probably the most notorious political reset in recent Australian memory came as the polls narrowed in the 2010 federal election campaign.

Prime Minister Julia Gillard announced she would dump her robotic, tightly-controlled campaign style and voters would now see “the real Julia Gillard”.

This prompted Opposition Leader Tony Abbott to ask which Gillard voters had been seeing up to this point, a killer line.

The old and the new Gillard won, but only after cobbling together a minority government.

Once voter perceptions are locked in, the “reset” is usually too little, too late.

All sorts of factors, many in no way connected with a better life for Aboriginal Australians, may be driving the rising No vote.

A political party does have one other option in its toolkit – pull the pin on the election and blow the joint up.

This nuclear option has never happened in Australian politics, although the late Labor PM Gough Whitlam might have had a crack if he hadn’t opted instead for a steak dinner on the day of the dismissal, when his government was sacked by Governor-General Sir John Kerr in 1975.

And these are the three unhappy options now facing the Albanese Labor Government as the Yes campaign for a voice to parliament is not waving, it’s drowning.

Since the launch of the referendum question at the start of the year, all the recognised opinion polls have shown support for the Yes vote curving down.

The Albanese Government’s referendum later this year asks this question: A Proposed Law: to alter the Constitution to recognise the First Peoples of Australia by establishing an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice. Do you approve this proposed alteration?

To succeed, the question needs to pass two critical tests. It needs a “yes” from a majority of states – so four of the six states must vote Yes – and a majority of voters must vote Yes nationally.

It’s possible, for example, that a big Yes vote in the most populous states of NSW and Victoria could deliver a national majority of votes, but the question would still fail if the other four states voted No.

This constitutional safety mechanism is designed to protect voters in the less populous states from being effectively frozen out by the voting clout of Sydney and Melbourne, ensuring that any changes are seen to be cohesive and fair.

The double whammy always makes changing the Australian constitution a high-risk game, particularly when a proposal does not have the support of both major parties.

And the Voice certainly does not have that. Not by a country mile.

Despite some defections, the Coalition under Opposition Leader Peter Dutton is opposing the change.

Critically, some elements of the Yes campaign are not singing from the same song sheet. While these divisions are not seismic, they are amplified and distorted by social media campaigns pitching to voter uncertainty.

The major polls taken this month now show overall support for the Voice has fallen below the magical 50 per cent line, from its initial ranking in the high 50s in March.

In a state-by-state breakdown, only Victoria and Tasmania still support the Voice, and the Tasmanian vote carries an asterisk because of its small sample size.

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The numbers do vary depending on whether the polls allow a “don’t know” response or effectively “force” a Yes or No answer, and state-by-state breakdowns do rely on smaller samples, but the downward trend line is unmistakeable.

The Voice is in trouble.

The Albanese mantra of “if not now, then when” for a Yes vote is being clobbered by the No campaign’s “if you don’t know, vote No”.

And the “don’t knows” about the Voice are mounting by the day.

Voters don’t know how the Voice will work, especially if it will have the power, in enabling legislation, to not only advise federal parliament, but also public service departments directly.

In the past fortnight, the debate has shifted to whether the Voice is the first step in a three-part process, the enabling body for a Makarrata, or “truth-telling” and reparation commission, with the eventual aim of a treaty.

Prime Minister Albanese won’t even reveal the referendum date.

He argues the dangers of long election campaigns mean a shorter “campaign” – say revealing the date four or six weeks out from the vote – will engage voter attention.

It may have escaped the PM’s attention, but the referendum “campaign” has been in full swing since March. It’s hard to see locked-in No voters suddenly jumping to the Yes side simply because the PM unveils the date.

All election campaigns are more complex than they appear on the surface. All sorts of factors, many in no way connected with a better life for Aboriginal Australians, may be driving the rising No vote.

During his NZ visit this week, the Prime Minister said the referendum question is “very clear and very specific … it’s important people know what the vote is for and what it is not”.

But little about the proposed Voice is clear or specific and people are struggling to know “what it is for and what is it not”.

Or are all those millions planning to vote No just a bit thick?

As it stands, Australians are more likely to support a First Nation’s Treaty than a Voice, because it’s an easier concept to get your head around.

…. something has to change with the Yes campaign because on so many levels it looks like a calamity.

So, what are the Prime Minister’s options?

He could “reset” the campaign, revealing the “real Voice” with all its powers and fine print laid bare, to challenge the powerful “if you don’t know, vote no” argument.

Or he could, as former Victorian Liberal Premier Jeff Kennett and others have suggested, restrict the referendum to “alter the Constitution to recognise the First Peoples of Australia” and deal with creating a Voice with separate legislation.

Or he could simply scrap the referendum.

The PM has rejected calls to postpone the vote. As it stands, he is locked in to taking this to a referendum vote this year.

He is a conviction politician and believes he can pull this off. And he may well do. If not him, then who?

But something has to change with the Yes campaign because on so many levels it looks like a calamity. I make that observation having had a front row seat at dozens of poor election campaigns.

It’s happy preaching to the converted, the messaging is fuzzy and its leaders could lose the disapproving, finger-wagging body language from their podiums.

For those who fervently believe in the power of a Voice to transform the lives of Aboriginal Australians, watching the campaign so far must feel like being strapped in the back seat of a car, with dad nodding off at the wheel. Fasten your seatbelts, we’re in for a bumpy ride.

Matthew Abraham is InDaily’s political columnist. Matthew can be found on Twitter as @kevcorduroy. It’s a long story.

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