Support for the proposed Indigenous Voice to parliament has fallen below 50 percent, according to a survey by Resolve Strategic released on 12 June. The polling recorded a decline in support for the Voice for the last three months, dropping from 58 to 49 percent. Opposition has grown from 42 to 51 percent. Three states—Queensland, South Australia and Western Australia—had No majorities.
If the results were replicated at the referendum, which requires a national majority and a majority in most states to succeed, a humiliating defeat for the Yes campaign would be the result.
More importantly, it would be a significant victory for the conservative right and its racist campaign against the Voice. Liberal leader Peter Dutton has falsely claimed that the Voice is a “radical” proposal that will “re-racialise our nation” and undermine democracy. And every right-wing crank from Andrew Bolt to Pauline Hanson has jumped on the bandwagon to whip up a hysterical crusade against the “madness of identity politics”.
While a small minority of left-wing activists are critical of the Voice, their voices have been drowned out by the right-wing racists who dominate the No campaign and the debates around it in mainstream discussions. A win for the No campaign in this context would strengthen the right and undermine the existing widespread support for Indigenous rights.
The sharp fall in support for the Voice has shaken supporters of the Yes campaign. However, it seems unlikely that they will change the campaign’s direction to confront the racism at the heart of the No camp. Instead, the situation seems to have reinforced the idea that the Yes camp needs to move to the right to win the referendum.
Noel Pearson, despite his long history as a fairly conservative Indigenous leader, has been more willing than other Yes campaigners to call out Dutton’s racism. He has also slammed those on the Yes side seeking to appeal to conservatives by watering down the already watery Voice proposal. However, in a Nine media interview responding to the recent polling, Pearson proposed the Yes campaign refocus on the idea of constitutional recognition, which has broader support, rather than the question of the Voice itself. This is a strategy he was mocking only a few weeks ago.
The Yes campaign is already marked by a facile, moderate and depoliticised approach that is flirting dangerously with failure. This was on display in its first major television advertisement, which didn’t mention the Voice until the final second of the video, in small print. It instead focused on a series of feel-good clips of people saying they thought constitutional recognition was a good idea. This has been repeated in a social media ad, which claims that 83 percent of people support the proposal.
This is self-delusion. The 83 percent support is for constitutional recognition in general, which even Dutton claims to support, not the Voice proposal, which is what will be voted on in the referendum.
More importantly, the whole messaging of the Yes campaign avoids any discussion of the racism that Indigenous people face, the history of discrimination and dispossession or issues such as Black deaths in custody, land rights and the celebration of Australia Day, despite these issues having animated mass support for Indigenous rights in recent years. The Yes campaign has also mostly ignored the racist rantings of the Liberals and the No campaign.
Often, this evasive approach is justified with reference to the successful Yes campaign leading to the marriage equality plebiscite in 2017. It is true that the equality campaign largely ignored the arguments of the No side. However, the comparison ignores crucial differences.
The ban on same-sex marriage was a clear example of discrimination that most people could easily understand. It was viewed by a majority as expressing the stupidity and cruelty of outdated anti-LGBTI+ attitudes. Tens of thousands had been involved in protests around the issue for more than a decade, and the demand had been won in several countries overseas before the plebiscite was announced in Australia.
When it comes to the Voice, the Resolve survey found that just 30 percent of voters say they can confidently explain what the proposal is. While the Voice was initially proposed at a meeting of Indigenous leaders in 2017, it was not backed by a grassroots campaign.
It is not an organic demand arising out of the struggles of an oppressed people. And the referendum will not be a long-delayed final act of a campaign that has already decisively won most of the population, as was the case with marriage equality. Rather, the Voice is the construct of a small number of Indigenous and non-indigenous lawyers, academics and NGO leaders. They have become so blinkered in the belief that no-one could reject a modest proposal to reconcile the nation around weak symbolism, that they didn’t see the potential disaster at the end of the road they were travelling down until it was too late.
Hopefully, a victory for the No campaign—which will be a victory for racism and the political right—can be avoided. But the No campaign is strengthened by the Yes campaign’s determination to avoid galvanising the population against the racism of Dutton, in the pursuit of a shrinking middle ground. So far, the meek and accommodating tones have only emboldened the No campaign to unleash even more hardline attacks on the Voice, with success.
This places the progressive left in a difficult position. We should support a Yes vote in the upcoming referendum to stop a victory for the right, without having any illusions that the Voice is a step forward for Indigenous people. After all, the problems of the Yes campaign are not purely tactical mistakes or a matter of incompetence. They stem from the glaring problems with the Voice proposal itself, which will be an advisory body with no real power to challenge the structural racism from which Indigenous people suffer. Instead, it will be used by the Albanese government to whitewash institutional racism and to attempt to diffuse anti-racist sentiment. It is little wonder, then, that the campaign in favour of the Voice is so lacking in substance.