In light of the recent referendum results, it is important to unpack influencing factors that led to the defeat of the proposal for an Indigenous Voice to Parliament.
There needed to be a majority nationally as well in four of the six states. The ACT was the only territory that had a majority of Yes votes, with every other state and territory voting against the Voice. Despite polls leading up to the referendum anticipating a loss, there was shock as to how far we swung to ‘No’ as a nation (60.52% nationally). The technological and political landscape’s influence on the large-scale engagement process are necessary considerations as we reflect on what has happened and where we go from here.
Role of social media
There has been backlash around the proliferation of misinformation during the campaign leading up to Australia voting. Because of the accessibility of platforms like social media, we are living in a very different age compared to 1999. Information is available at the touch of a screen or button. Accessibility does not, however, equal the quality of information.
Both sides of the debate used platforms like Instagram, Tik Tok and Twitter to influence people’s decisions. According to Yes campaign advisor and executive director at centre for Impact Communications Ed Coper in a recent ABC article, the No campaign capitalised on misinformation going viral. Support for the Voice dropped to 35% from 65% in a very short period. Coper highlights how in Australia there are no legal consequences for telling an outright lie. This has negative impacts on the way democracy functions that will be seen in elections and referendums to come.
Absence of bipartisan support
A referendum in Australia has never passed without bipartisan support. Opposition Leader Peter Dutton announced his official position against the Voice in April, 2023, even though it had been maintained for years before that the referendum would go ahead with bipartisan support.
In a recent article from The Conversation, Torres Strait Islander woman Sana Nakata, Principal Research Fellow at James Cook University states:
This transformed a people-driven proposal into a partisan political debate. It has made for a campaign characterised by lies, misinformation, disinformation, and outright conspiracies circulated on social media platforms. This sometimes occurred with complicit mainstream media that have failed to fact-check basic claims or given misinformation equal weight in their presentation of “both sides”.
Distribution of votes
There was evident division between how we voted in urban versus rural regions. Former Labor strategist Kos Samaras connects this to the way information was deployed during campaigning. Strategies were tailored to people living in inner city suburbs who were already engaged with the referendum process. People living rurally or in outer city suburbs were expected to have a ‘No’ majority based on polling. The public debate surrounding the Voice had more negative impact in terms of making a fairly straightforward question confusing.
Yorta Yorta man, musician and activist Adam Briggs released a video ‘Far Enough – Vote Yes’ that went viral just before the referendum. He debunked the idea that the concept of the Voice was ‘confusing’ by asking the people he’s sitting with at a pub in the video if they have ‘Googled it’.
That being said, for many people who didn’t speak English as their first language there was perhaps not enough translated information on the topic or enough effort to engage with diverse communities from the Yes campaign (ABC).
Indigenous communities, for the most part, voted in support of the Voice. The Conversation cites a Guardian article where they reported that there was an average of 63% Yes votes in populations where at least 50% of people were First Nations.
What happens next?
Dissecting political and technological factors that have shaped the referendum results reflects some of the key aspects that shape any democratic process or community engagement. In terms of what happens next, The Uluru Statement from the Heat identifies Voice, Truth and Treaty as foundations of a better future for First Nations people, based on self-determination and justice. The defeat of the Voice highlights the need for truth telling as a nation. It is important to recognise our settler colonial history and how it is perpetuated in our present context.