Can No Voters Find Their Voice?

31 January 2024
Can No Voters Find Their Voice? - Featured image

The Coalition could now connect with socially conservative and blue-collar voters who said ‘NO’ to the Voice, finds IPA Deputy Executive Director Daniel Wild.

The defeat of the Voice to Parliament was a victory for the Australian way of life and will be remembered as a proud day in our nation’s history. It shows Australians believe Australia is a great country with strong foundations, and they want to keep it that way. The Voice to Parliament would have created separate political and legal rights for one group of Australians based on their race, which is incompatible with the idea that all Australians should have the same standing under the law and within our political system.

The victory reaffirmed the commitment of mainstream Australians to the values which define our nation, namely: fairness, equal treatment, democracy, and freedom. These values, and the way of life they underpin, have created a society of unparalleled opportunity, prosperity, and tolerance. They also explain why Australia has always been a beacon of hope for millions around the world fleeing sectarian and ethnic conflict, abject poverty, and authoritarian governments.

While the No vote was widespread across the community, fundamentally it was a rebellion led by blue-collar battlers against the elites. According to exit polling commissioned by the IPA from independent marketing research firm Insightfully, lower-income earners, blue-collar workers, and regional Australians were far more likely to vote No than higher-income earners, white-collar workers, and those from the inner-cities. Specifically, the exit polling revealed:

  • 56 per cent of voters in metropolitical areas voted No; 70 per cent in regional or rural areas voted No.
  • 57 per cent of white-collar workers voted No; 75 per cent of blue-collar workers voted No.
  • 56 per cent of high-income earners voted No; 61 per cent of middle-income earners and 63 per cent of lower-income earners voted No.
  • 48 per cent of those with a university qualification voted No, compared with 62 per cent of those with high school as their highest level of education attainment, and 71 per cent of those with a non-university qualification (such as TAFE).

Many of those within the No voting demographic profile are Labor voters. The exit polling confirms that 37 per cent of those who voted for Labor at the 2022 federal election voted No at the referendum, while 87 per cent of Coalition voters voted No. Across the nation, approximately three-quarters of all Labor-held federal seats recorded a No vote above 50 per cent. Four Labor electorates recorded a No vote higher than 70 per cent (Spence in South Australia where the Yes campaign was launched, Blair in Queensland, and the seats of Hunter and Paterson in NSW). And 28 out of 77 Labor seats (more than a third) had a No vote above the national average.

The Voice was a stalking horse for a treaty.

Waleed Aly was perhaps correct to opine that the biggest dividing line seems to have been education. As Aly said on the program he hosts, The Project:

If you were in a seat with high levels of tertiary education, Bachelor or Post-Graduate you were at the very top end of the Yes vote … if you had the lowest levels of socio-education you were at the low end of the Yes vote. [But] That’s not to say people who were educated know what they’re doing and people who don’t have tertiary education don’t.

The fact that lower-educated, lower-income earners were more likely to vote No has led some to suggest the defeat of the Voice was primarily driven by a lack of details or a lack of information about the proposed constitutional reform. This, however, misses a bigger point. As IPA Senior Fellow John Roskam wrote in his One and Free Substack email:

It implies that Australians would somehow accept racial division embedded in the constitution if they were given the details as to how such a scheme would operate. No amount of details or bipartisan support can compensate for the fact that the Voice is wrong in principle.

This assessment is supported by data. The exit polling undertaken by Insightfully found 44 per cent of Australians indicated their top reason for voting No was that the Voice was divisive, 36 per cent said there was a lack of information or a lack of details, and 15 per cent said Indigenous Australians already have representation. Similarly, a survey published by Resolve Strategic on the Wednesday before the vote established:

The ongoing uplift in the No vote has coincided with growing awareness and understanding of the referendum vote. The inescapable conclusion is that the more Australians have seen and heard of this debate, and the more they have been engaged, the more they have been turned off by the proposition.

Reconciliation Australia: “Large, diverse support for the Voice to Parliament”, 2 July 2023.

By polling day, 14 October 2023, Australians fully understood what they were required to vote on. All up, approximately $100 million was spent on direct and in-kind advertising on the Voice referendum (with around 80 per cent of that from the Yes side). By polling day, the typical Australian had read, watched, listened to, or engaged with two dozen separate pieces of information on the Voice, either from one of the two campaigns, or from other sources such as the Australian Electoral Commission.

The big four banks were falling over themselves to virtue signal.

The purpose of the Voice to Parliament was clearly to be a stalking horse for a national treaty process. It is not possible in any practical sense for the Commonwealth government to undertake a treaty with the near 400 Indigenous groups and communities across Australia, many of which have their own language, customs, and culture. This point was recognised by NSW Premier Chris Minns in an interview with Ben Fordham on 2GB on 23 October, a week after the vote. Minns backtracked on his earlier enthusiasm for a NSW State treaty, saying, “if we were to make any substantial changes to our treaty arrangements, we would take that to the next State election”. And the reason for this is that “some States have started this process, it has gone on for years and years, and in NSW we would have to do over 150 different treaties as there are that many different nations”.

And from the treaty process there would have flowed the so-called ‘truth-telling’, which in turn would have led to reparation payments. As lead Voice campaigner (on the Board of the YES23 campaign vehicle), and key process architect Thomas Mayo said, “a Blak rep body enshrined in the Constitution would have the resources and structure needed to unite on the priorities we collectively determine”. Mayo went on to confirm that this includes “reparations, land back, abolishing harmful colonial institutions, getting all our kids out of prisons and into care, respect and integration of our laws and lore, speaking language, wages back—all the things we imagine when we demand”. Yet this was just a modest request, according to the Prime Minister.

As debate progressed on the Voice, Australians became more alert to the fact that what they were being required to vote on was likely far more wide-reaching than mere recognition or a simple advisory body. As Voice advocate Stan Grant argued on 31 October (after the referendum defeat): “the Voice was never a modest ask, it was monumental”. Indeed it was.

RECKONING OF THE ELITES

The strong No vote was secured in the face of what was perhaps the most unequal and unfair electoral process to which Australians have ever been subjected. Government, big business, major civic organisations, places of worship, sporting codes, local councils, universities, the major media organisations, and schools all relentlessly supported the Yes case. The Prime Minister made a virtue of elite support. At a memorable press conference in early 2023, the Prime Minister actually rattled off the list of major institutions which supported the Voice, as if to send a message to people that they should take their cues from the corporate and cultural elite.

According to a survey undertaken by the Australian Financial Review, 14 of the ASX 20 companies publicly supported the Voice to Parliament, which was a greater number than had campaigned in favour of same-sex marriage laws. These companies included the big banks, BHP, Rio Tinto, and Newcrest. Every major national sporting body supported the Voice, including the AFL, the NRL, Cricket Australia, Netball Australia, Football Australia, Motorsport Australia, and the NBL. More than 125 health and medical organisations lent their support, including the Australian Medical Association and the Royal Australasian College of Physicians. And the mayors of 38 councils signed the ‘Mayors for the Voice to Parliament’ statement.

The debate about the Voice was also heavily tilted towards the Yes side. The federal government initially sought to block the nationwide distribution of a Yes and No campaign information booklet, a tradition which goes back to 1912. The justification provided for not proceeding with the distribution of the pamphlet, according to the government’s explanatory memorandum, was that such a means of communication was outdated: “methods of communications have changed significantly … in 2022, it is appropriate to ask whether there is a more effective way to engage and inform the Australian public”.

Ultimately—and only after the issue was highlighted by the IPA, and there was considerable community and political pushback—the government reversed its position and passed legislation which provided for the distribution of the publication. So, the Albanese government was not just trying to get the Voice up, it was trying to tamper with the very process by which Australians have traditionally amended—or, more often, preserved—their constitutional arrangements.

In addition, the government provided a significant financial benefit to the Yes campaign at the expense of taxpayers by providing the Yes campaign with tax deductibility status months ahead of the No campaign. In the October 2022 Budget, the federal government announced it would provide Australians for Indigenous Constitutional Recognition—a body campaigning for a Yes vote at the referendum—with Deductible Gift Recipient (DGR) status. No corresponding concessions were announced for the No campaign.

The DGR endorsement applied retrospectively to the Yes campaign, from 1 July 2022, while the No campaign only received DGR status from 31 May 2023, giving the Yes campaign almost one full year of favourable tax treatment, an advantage amounting to millions of dollars. Even ABC Fact Check acknowledged this, saying “The Yes campaign has indeed been eligible to receive tax-deductible donations for months longer than the No campaign”.

Corporate support for the Yes campaign was also almost unanimous. Notably, Wesfarmers gave up to $2 million, and Qantas provided free flights for Yes campaigners. The big four banks were falling over themselves to virtue signal: a few days out from the referendum it was confirmed that Westpac had donated $1.75 million to the Yes campaign, the National Australia Bank $1.5 million, and the Commonwealth Bank $2 million. Earlier, in late September, ANZ had proudly confirmed a $2 million donation. All up, corporates gave about $30 million to the Yes campaign.

Three-quarters of Labor-held federal electorates voted No.

So far three explanations have been offered by the Yes campaign as to why they lost: misinformation, a lack of bipartisan support, and that Australia’s system for changing the Constitution is simply too hard. During parliamentary Question Time in the week after the vote, the Prime Minister blamed misinformation for the Voice’s defeat, saying “People can be subject to misinformation which in some cases is just about politics but in some cases can be dangerous”. The PM went on to assert, “When it comes to the challenge which we have of dealing with this—it’s complex … You don’t want to interfere with any freedom of expression. But you also want to make sure that elections can be held and democratic processes can be held in an appropriate way”.

This echoed the more direct assertions made by prominent Yes campaigners on referendum night. According to Yes23 campaign director Dean Parkin, Australians voted No because they were subject to “the single largest misinformation campaign that this country has ever seen”. While Thomas Mayo went one further, blaming the “disgusting No campaign, a campaign that has been dishonest, that has lied to the Australian people”. Other Yes campaigners expressed the same sentiment. It was all the fault of the media, and a dishonest campaign, and the spread of lies on social media, and “Trumpian” misinformation, according to Voice architect Megan Davis. How, precisely, the No campaign spread misinformation has never been explained.

On the second matter, relating to bipartisanship, the first question the Prime Minister received from a journalist on referendum night was “Why do you think Australians voted No?” Anthony Albanese replied: “The analysis will go on for some time, no doubt. But the truth is that no referendum has succeeded in this country without bipartisan support. None.”

It is curious that the PM, and others from the Yes camp, have to date appeared almost entirely indifferent to the fact that three-quarters of Labor-held federal electorates, and close to 40 per cent of Labor supporters, voted No. Such a glaring disparity between a party’s voting base and its leadership has never before been witnessed in Australia. Perhaps the starkest example of this divide is the electorate of Spence in Adelaide’s outer-northern suburbs, where the Yes campaign was launched and the No vote reached 73 per cent. The most immediately apparent reason for this disconnect is the fact that the federal Labor party is run by the Left faction, and the majority of Labor’s membership is on the political left. However, the majority of Labor voters are more likely to be socially conservative, working class, and patriotic. This suggests there is a third split emerging within the Labor Party. The first was during World War I over the issue of military conscription. The second was in the 1950s over the influence of communism. And now, the third is over culture and values.

Prime Minister Anthony Albanese speaking at Parliament
House on 14 October 2023 after losing the Voice Referendum.
Photo: AAP Image/Lukas Coch

The third explanation proffered for the victory of the No vote is simply that changing the Constitution is all too hard. Writing for The Australian on 23 October, Sydney-based law professor George Williams asserted: “Australia’s system of constitutional reform is broken and there is little point in heading back to the polls until this is fixed. A fundamental rethink is needed to establish new ways of finding common political ground and generating proposals that win broad community support.”

Williams predictably suggests yet more experts is the solution, saying a “small, nonpartisan constitutional commission should be established to review the Constitution, develop widely supported proposals for reform, consult with politicians and the public, and recommend ideas to parliament. The best ideas should be debated at a representative constitutional convention held every decade before being put to the people at a referendum.” But as the IPA Legal Rights Program director John Storey argued on Sky News:

Contrary to popular perception, Australia’s system for amending its Constitution is easier than most other comparable democracies. Some point to the difficulty in obtaining a ‘double majority’—an overall majority and a majority in at least four of the six States—but in practice this poses less of an obstacle than the various hurdles in place in the United States and Canada, for example.

Importantly, John noted that:

On only five occasions has an overall majority voted Yes at a referendum but there was not a sufficient majority of States. Eighty-nine per cent of the time (the other 32 of unsuccessful referenda plus the eight successful ones), the overall majority view has prevailed. Someone could only claim such a system is ‘broken’ if they disagree with those majority decisions.

CONSIDER THE CONSEQUENCES OF THE NO VOTE

A number of consequences of the No vote will play out in our political system over the coming months and years.

Many disillusioned Labor voters will now be looking for a new political home.

First, this will likely be the last time in at least a generation that the left will seek to use the Constitution to embed and progress their ideological views. From published statements it was reasonably clear that Albanese planned to win the Voice referendum, roll into the next election and secure an enhanced majority, and then hold another referendum on the Republic question in his next term of government. It is almost beyond doubt that this will now not happen. This is both a positive and a negative. A positive because the No vote has put to rest constitutional radicalism for the time being. But it also presents a challenge because history shows the left never gives up; it is now likely to pursue its cultural agenda in less transparent ways, as it has successfully done in Victoria and the ACT.

Second, the centre-right now has in place a permanent and proven campaign infrastructure which exists independent of the Coalition (and independent of the IPA), which can be used to engage the community, not just at elections but on those issues which the major parties may be too lily-livered to even discuss. The Voice debate was a gift for the centre-right as it had a galvanising effect and illustrated what can be achieved.

Third, there is a significant minority of the population which is without proper representation in the political process. A gaping chasm has been exposed between socially conservative ALP voters, and the far-left Labor leadership in Canberra. As John Roskam recently wrote,

If Peter Dutton and the Coalition are to win the next federal election, they need to get the support of No-voting Labor voters—not Yes-voting Teal voters. For every one voter who voted for a winning Teal candidate at the federal election there are six No-voting Labor voters. That’s right. It’s one to six.

According to the exit polling, around 1.75 million Labor voters voted No, many of them concerned that the political party they have traditionally supported had invested so much time and effort in the Voice campaign while they struggle with the rising cost of living and subsequent interest rate hikes. Many of these disillusioned voters will now be looking for a new political home.

The question is, will the Coalition welcome them in?

This article from the Summer 2023 edition of the IPA Review is written by IPA Deputy Executive Director Daniel Wild.

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