It could be argued that a referendum is a hard thing to understand. We need a referendum if we want to change the constitution. That’s how the constitution works. There is legislative change and constitutional change and if you want the constitutional kind, where the words in the rule book of the nation are changed, then a referendum is needed with a double majority of the Australian people having voted in favour of it.
One of the reasons the signatories to the Uluru Statement and leaders of the Yes23 campaign wanted this to be in the constitution was because Indigenous advisory bodies have come and gone at the whim of the government of the day and they wanted something that was permanent and could evolve and make true, positive change.
I had to get my head around that. I also had to get my head around what Indigenous people wanted us non-Indigenous people to do. For a lot of us I think this wasn’t initially clear due to misinformation coming from the No campaign and a section of the Coalition, along with us wanting to respect the “progressive No vote”. It seems, as the dust settles on the great disaster that the No vote is for Indigenous people, most of them did want us to campaign with them and to vote Yes.
The political landscape is complicated. Some people might believe that the referendum was hard to understand and therefore we got a resounding No. I want to counter that idea because it is not what I saw from the ground.
I campaigned over two seats in Sydney – Reid and Fowler. The response from the public varied in different areas. Notably, a lot of new migrants didn’t really know about the referendum and what it meant, but they were interested and when we talked about it they generally thought that it was a fair proposition. Some people were not even English speakers but they got their friends and family to translate for them. Various other people also talked to us and concluded that having a Voice was fair. These people I would say were Yes voters.
Doubtless there were No voters who had legitimate concerns or couldn’t understand it, but many of the people I saw at pre-polling and at polling on referendum day thought it was a joke. They would yell from afar and often with a rippling, underlying anger: “We don’t even know what we are voting on!” But when I said “Come and talk to me about it, we can discuss it and you can make an informed decision” they’d laugh and hurry away to put a No in the box.
One of them loudly announced “Voting Yes is racist!” He was very pleased with himself for saying something so original. He came back out of the booth with the how to vote cards and said to both me and the No campaigner, “Here you go, you can reuse these”. Mine was ripped up.
On the other hand, more people than I can ever remember being worried about the environment were so concerned about the amount of paper used in printing material for the campaign they needed to level an accusation at us – “Tell me this – why do we need to have so much paper?!”
One No campaigner told me he didn’t care about the outcome after referendum day, by then the Australian people would have spoken. Some No voters demanded to know where the No campaign was at booths where the No campaign hadn’t shown up. They didn’t seem to understand that they were the No campaign and if they wanted someone to show up, they should have done it themselves. Some thought that the volunteers for the Yes campaign had been paid. This is not true. We were there on our own free time.
There may be valid arguments for voting No but the No campaigners that I saw and heard had none of them – they repeated over and over again the words “risky” and “divisive” but not much else. Nebulous, slippery ideas unconnected to the proposals in the Uluru Statement or what the Voice was supposed to be about. The performative anger went on and on. People had been very inconvenienced by this and they wanted us to know about it.
Most of the No voters that I met categorically did not want to know about the detail they so loudly pointed out was missing. They wanted to talk about literally anything other than what the referendum was actually about, but from a distance in case they accidentally heard some details that they didn’t really want to hear. The claim of divisiveness had caused exactly the division it was intended to cause and division was all a lot of people wanted to or could think about.
You might say all this is anecdote, and it is. But it was such a consistent experience of No voters for me that I feel like we didn’t have a referendum on the relative merits of an Indigenous Voice to Parliament because very many No voters never actually engaged with that question on any meaningful level. What we ended up with was a referendum on whether or not we were divided.
Forty percent of us – more than 6 million people – said Yes, we want Indigenous people to have a say in the policies that affect them, and a good portion of the rest were too distracted or selfish to even consider it. That is not a fair outcome for those who had open heartedly tried to make a better future for their people. For most of us, it’s over and we go back to our daily lives. But for the rest, their daily lives continue on with the disadvantage that comes along with being Indigenous in this country.