It has been billed as Australia’s Brexit – a vote that pitted the so-called elites against the masses. The issue in question was the “voice to parliament”, a consultative body that would have given the roughly 3% of the Australian population that is Indigenous a constitutional right to be consulted before legislation pertaining to them was passed in parliament.
On October 13, the proposition was only backed by 39% of voters. It was a snub to Labor prime minister Anthony Albanese, who was elected last year on a promise to put the issue to a vote.
A bit of background is helpful to understanding how this came about. In 2017 then prime minister Malcolm Turnbull, of the centre-right Liberal party, and Bill Shorten of Labor, the then leader of the opposition, appointed a council to come up with proposals for recognition of the indigenous population. In their so-called Uluru Statement of the Heart, the appointed members – Indigenous elders – called for “a First Nations Voice to be permanently included in the Constitution”.
This was initially rejected by Turnbull but in the 2022 election, Labor committed to holding a referendum.
At the time, support for the “Voice” ran at close to 70%. The opposition Liberal party was largely silent on the matter, and its leader, Peter Dutton, from the right wing of the party, was exceptionally unpopular.
Lack of bipartisan consensus
The Labor prime minister decided not to seek a bipartisan agreement with Dutton to find a position on the referendum question. This proved to be a mistake. And, moreover, flies in the face of the history of Australian referendums.
Since federation in 1901, only eight out of 45 referendums have passed (including the one just held). Part of the reason for this is the so-called double majority clause, which requires that amendments to the constitution are supported by a majority of the voters, as well as a majority of the states.
The provision was inspired by a similar provision in Switzerland. But it has worked in a very different way in Australia. In Switzerland – a country with a tradition for consensus politics and coalition governments – 75% of all constitutional referendums have been won.
All the referendums that have succeeded in Australia have had bipartisan support. Not seeking this was a tactical blunder.
But it was not the only one.
In many ways, the Yes-side committed all the mistakes that ensure the defeat in a referendum. One of the most consistent mistakes is to assume that celebrity endorsements help winning a referendum. They do not.
Shaq says yes
In August 2022, basketball legend Shaquille O’Neal shook hands with Albanese and promised he would help mobilise support in the run-up to the vote.
That this was bound to alienate voters should have been known from other campaigns, not least the UK Brexit referendum in 2016. In that ill-fated referendum, soccer star David Beckham publicly backed the losing Remain side. Physicist Stephen Hawking did the same to no avail. I probably don’t need to add that Scottish tennis player Andy Murray failed to convince a majority of Scots to vote for independence in the referendum in 2014.
Big end of town
The Yes-side in Australia did not appear to have studied overseas referendums to learn from their failures in this respect. And had they done so, they would have found further evidence on what not to do. For it is not just celebrities who can kill the chances of a referendum success. The same applies to businesses. I recall from research I did in Denmark and Sweden before the referendums on joining the euro in 2000 and 2003 that Carlsberg and Ikea wanted to be on the supposedly “right” side of history by voting in support of the change. The voters were not moved.
That Albanese got the support of the national airline Qantas a week before their CEO was forced to stand down amid accusations of mismanagement certainly did not help the cause.
Why was this a mistake? Why is it that celebrity and company endorsement fail to convince voters?
Fundamentally, voters have little time or incentive to read about politics. So they take cues and use short-cuts. They do so by seeking out people with whom they can identify. Celebrities with millionaire lifestyles and, still less, companies with a healthy bank balance are not that, and are therefore unlikely to appeal to the average voter at a time of anti-elite sentiment.
To win a referendum you need to have a credible argument and a credible solution to a pressing problem. The Albanese government did not have this. This referendum was a self-inflicted loss and a masterclass in how not to run a referendum.
Matt Qvortrup does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.