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4 August 2023  •  Jim Carden – Principal Consultant, Campaigns & Digital Reputation and Elliot Giakalis – Principal Consultant, Media & Public Affairs

It’s the Voice: But why are we sitting in silence?

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Campaign strategies on show in the 2023 referendum.

The Voice. For now, it’s been a war of words in what could be called the echo chambers of the elite. But the campaign proper hasn’t quite started, and when it does, what do we expect to see? Jim Carden and Elliot Giakalis, Principal Consultants at Bastion Reputation, have a look at what comes next.

The Voice is nominated tonight, despite Peter Dutton’s strong opposition to the nomination.

- Sam Pang opens the Logies.

The Voice. A TV show or a political hot potato? Given the broad difference of understanding that exists across the spectrum, anything is possible.

The referendum is currently scheduled for later this year, likely in October, and while according to published polls support for the Yes campaign has slipped in recent months, the reality is that if this were an election, the campaign proper has not even started.

So, what is the question the referendum will pose?

The question to be put to the Australian people at the 2023 referendum will be: 

"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?"

The proposed law would insert a new section into the Constitution, section 129, which would recognise Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples as the First Peoples of Australia. 

The Yes campaign will argue that it’s an opportunity to continue the journey of Reconciliation with First Nations people with two important actions. 

Firstly, it will recognise First Nations in our Constitution as the First Peoples of Australia. Secondly, it will establish an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice – an elected body of First Nations people – that will be able to give independent advice to the Parliament and Government. 

A referendum allows for the changing of the Constitution, and since Federation, only 8 of the 44 proposals for constitutional change have been approved. The most recent successful referendum was in 1977.

For a referendum to be successful, it needs what is commonly referred to as a double majority. That is – a majority of at least four of the six states, and secondly, a majority of the overall national vote.

In some quarters it has been suggested that the Yes vote has softened in recent months because - despite the sound and fury, particularly in places like the ABC, Sky News and Twitter - the campaign proper has not actually started. 

Most Australians have not turned their minds to it, and with so many other issues on their plates – from interest rates to cost of living to Jonny Bairstow forgetting the rules of cricket – who can blame them?

While this is perhaps technically the case, and as the referendum gets closer, the campaign will undoubtedly escalate – the evidence nevertheless suggests that to date, the No campaign has been much sharper and efficient.

It has been reported that between mid-March and mid-June, both the Yes and No camps spent about $110,000 on Facebook ads. Recognising that it only needs three states to vote No to bring the whole thing down, the No campaign has all but ignored the most populous states of Victoria and NSW – the two states most likely to vote Yes.

It has strategically focused its attention on the remaining four states – spending biggest in Queensland, Western Australia, Tasmania, and South Australia.

It has also maintained a frantic pace of media opportunities by high-profile leaders, with an early vigor that has allowed the NO side to frame the debate, socialise some handy slogans like “If you don’t know, vote NO” and to seed doubt in the minds of voters to lead them to a NO vote. 

By contrast, there are frustrations in some quarters that the YES side, and its figurehead, the Prime Minister, have not been able to respond to the relentless NO campaign. Why, some ask, is there no sign of any formal campaign activity, no mainstream advertising, no slogans, and no clear structure?

But for many, to date, the Voice debate has so far been battled out in the echo chambers of the elites, not in the suburbs, the workplaces, the pubs, sporting clubs and homes of middle Australia. Opposition Leader Peter Dutton has tried to leverage this, referring to the Voice to Parliament as a “Canberra voice.”

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In this, Mr. Dutton conveniently overlooks the fact that the model is the one that was put forward at the Uluru Statement of the Heart, and that an Indigenous Voice to Parliament would be a forum for grassroots community leaders – not folks in Canberra – and in doing so, hopes no-one notices.

Politicians usually get called out for their BS, and perhaps, that time is yet to come. Regardless, the campaign has quickly fractured along traditional Left-Right lines, with the Conservative side of politics seeking to make it a referendum on the Prime Minister’s legitimacy.

If we were to draw a parallel with a typical Federal Election (to the extent there is such a thing anymore), when the Voice campaign proper kicks off, you might expect a blizzard of advertising, campaign launch events, marching bands, and political rallies. 

But there’s often weeks, if not months, before this sort of activity really gets rolling.

As we noted earlier, voters just aren’t listening. Most Australians are hard pressed to name the electorate they live in, let alone their Member of Parliament, and are highly unlikely to know – or care – about the alternatives. 

It’s only when we wake up on that Saturday morning, smell the democracy sausages sizzling outside our local Scout Hall, and trudge down to fill out their ballot form that our minds turn to the question at hand.

This, we suspect, is the thinking behind the YES campaign’s apparent tardiness – the method in its apparent madness. They are choosing not to waste precious resources and bring the debate to a head too soon. 

Political campaigning has come a long way since the last referendum in 1999 (The Republic) and new age methodologies of campaigning are all yet to be unleashed in this current campaign.

This is not to say the YES campaign is not active on social and digital channels. They certainly are. It’s just that we are not seeing it where we expect to see in the mainstream media.

We believe this Referendum has the potential to take campaigning to new and sophisticated heights in Australia. Using social media for a referendum like it’s never been seen before in this nation, but also, using grassroots campaigning – hand-to-hand combat at a community level. Identifying, targeting, differentiating, and then uniting audiences. People talking to friends, family, neighbours whether online or in person. Every vote will count. 

Unlike Federal Elections, we are also likely to see large corporate and business leaders leaning into this debate and spending their own resources on supporting one side or another.

Although there has been some advertising to date, we are likely to see a wave of it still to come - not just in the (shrinking) mainstream media, but across a huge range of digital and social channels.

So, what should we be looking for, and when should we expect to see it?

The Australian Labor Party is a sophisticated campaigning outfit. It can build community consensus, and married as it will be with the wider trade union movement, we are likely to see a very slick and professional campaign, not unlike a Federal Election. 

While campaigns of yesteryear have been won and lost on the TV screen, increasingly it is the digital domain where the true battleground is. We’ve come a long way since the US Presidential campaign of 2008, in which the Democratic nominee – a Senator from Chicago by the name of Barack Obama – mobilised smaller issues-based niche communities of interest online, to win the vote. 

Fast forward to last decade, and whether it was the Brexit Remainers, or Trump’s MAGA posse, they used online to divide and conquer – sewing doubt and fear for completely opposing reasons, or alternatively, 

This is why digital campaigning can work so well. The reason why people are voting a particular way becomes less important and there’s no need to unite them – it's about uniting people to vote in a particular way, even if for different reasons.

Someone’s Yes might be practical and clinical, while a neighbour’s might be all emotion and world changing – ultimately, the campaigners don’t care – all they need is the Yes.

The market research, the focus groups, the campaign narrative, the messaging to each different part of the community, the “playbook” by which the hot issues are debated, the choice and deployment of spokespeople, the slogans, the branding, even the colours and fonts of campaign materials will be meticulously planned, highly strategic and solidly rooted in deep data.

By comparison, and with only the evidence we have to date, expect to see the NO campaign being vastly out-spent, far more tactical and “visceral”, more reliant on a loud voice as opposed to targeted one, and spending much of its precious resources in media it is comfortable with.

 Consistent with this is that it has already indicated it only needs to win a few key battlegrounds like Queensland and Western Australia to succeed in derailing the referendum. 

As prominent No campaigner told the media recently, “We don’t need Victoria.”

The YES side, however, does not have that luxury – and cannot afford to simply play in the usual “inner city” markets which is arguably Yes heartland. It will need to go to where the risk is greatest, where it will need to have tough conversations. 

It will need to engage with voters appealing to both hearts and heads. It will need to address concerns or uncertainties, and articulate the positive impact of the cause, and with it, build a strong foundation of support. Whether it’s a Yes because of a values-based decision or one based on a rational understanding of the question being asked, all votes count. Every voice matter, and a concerted effort to build alliances and demonstrate the value of a successful referendum outcome for First Nations People will be key to success.

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