Why the Voice Failed
The Australian establishment has been too focused on symbolic gestures rather than practical change
This article was written by Orla Hogan, Pinsker Centre Policy Fellow '24, and was originally published in The Critic.
Source: Daily Telegraph
Last year, campaigners failed to secure a “Yes” majority in Australia’s “Indigenous Voice to Parliament” referendum.
On October 14th, Australians headed to the polls to vote on whether to enshrine an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander “Voice” in Australian parliament. The body would have made representations to the Federal Parliament and Government on behalf of only Aboriginals and Torres Strait Islanders. However, a majority of Australians rejected the idea, sparking questions about the accuracy of public sentiment prediction and revealing underlying issues in the country’s political landscape. Out of the six states and two territories, the Australian Capital Territory was the only region to have a majority of “yes” votes. Overall, 60 per cent of the nation voted no, with Queensland prevailing as the clearest voice of opposition, leading with 68.2 per cent of the population voting it down.
In the weeks and months leading up to the referendum, the Australian media very much created the impression that a “yes” vote had — in all but confirmation — already won. And yet, as it turned out, a majority of voters turned down the proposal. So how was it that they managed to get things quite so wrong?
The failure to accurately gauge public sentiment highlights a broader issue in the media landscape, particularly the disconnect between media narratives and public opinion. In the lead up to the referendum, Australia had been diagnosed with “Disinformania” – ironically, mostly by those on the left. But I think both sides ought to recognise their culpability in creating a minefield of information that made it near impossible to navigate the reality of public opinion.
It was an event that, despite its magnitude, only briefly made it on to British headlines — and world news for that matter. It has since disappeared almost entirely from view and, for the most part, the Australia media has gone silent on where to next go from here. So, given the importance of it, the proposals it included, and the potential impact on the unity and cohesion of Australian society, it is fascinating that it received such little international coverage.
The Sydney Morning Herald warned a “no” vote could be seen as evidence that Australia was a “racial rogue nation”. Meanwhile, the BBC argued that the discourse around the vote had “exposed uncomfortable fault lines and raised questions over Australia’s ability to reckon with its past.” The Washington Post went further, declaring the result a “crushing blow” for Australia’s First Nations people who “saw the referendum as an opportunity for Australia to turn the page on its colonial and racist past”. Even The New York Times weighed in, stating that the referendum had “surfaced uncomfortable, unsettled questions about Australia’s past” and made it difficult to know how to move forward on the path towards reconciliation.
Conservative Indigenous Senator Jacinta Nampijinpa Price consistently argued against the proposed “Voice”, arguing that an additional layer of bureaucracy in Canberra would do little to alleviate the socioeconomic disadvantages experienced by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities, especially those in rural and remote areas. Price contended that the “Voice” would be a regressive step, ultimately dividing Australians along racial lines and serving as the first step toward the treaty and reparations desired by some Aboriginal activists. For Price, who has long criticised the paternalistic approaches to Aboriginal autonomy, what is needed more than a ‘Voice’ or a treaty, are “practical measures” to address racial inequality and efforts to “stop dividing our nation along the lines of race”.
Though Price is a deeply divisive figure, her sentiment holds water. Grand symbolic gestures have proven time and time again that they do not change things, at least in Australian race relations. So, despite initial disappointment from the “Yes” campaign, the setback may not be as detrimental as initially perceived. Perhaps it is better understood as an opportunity: for introspection, a reassessment of political strategies, and a more informed public discourse.
I began drafting this article before the outcome of Australia’s recent referendum had been made clear. In that early draft, I had tried to make the argument that a “No” majority in the referendum would provide a far more attractive outcome than a hesitant, or narrow, “Yes” victory. A failed “Yes” campaign would force both sides to actually think about what the Voice means and what it should look like. By this, I mean creating a policy roadmap that is reflective of all Australians, no matter their heritage. It would require politicians and advocates alike to see that political virtue signalling, (aka The Voice), ought not to take centre stage in our political debates.
I think this sentiment still stands. Indeed, this outcome is all the more reason that the “No” victory should not be seen as a crushing defeat for Australia. The setback is an opportunity for deeper introspection and a more thorough examination of the path toward reconciliation, without requiring a constitutionally bound influence for only 3 per cent of the population. It is a moment in which Australia is faced with the choice of rejecting partisan dynamics and media sensationalism, in exchange for policy consensus and compromise.
It is difficult to know what this loss means for the future of Prime Minister Anthony Albanese. Albanese acknowledged the unexpected outcome, emphasising the need to seek a new way forward for reconciliation. The referendum loss is undoubtedly a setback for Albanese’s government, revealing critical weaknesses in both political strategy and public communication. Former Prime Minister Tony Abbott, who led the case against the “Voice”, argued that the referendum’s outcome reflected the need to avoid institutionalising compensation for historical wrongs. Abbott emphasised that the proposal risked creating a perpetual divide between Australians of different backgrounds.
As Australia navigates the aftermath of the referendum, the government faces the challenge of explaining the “substantive policy steps” it is taking to address Indigenous disadvantage. This is a tough ask, but the focus should be on learning from the experience and forging a new path toward reconciliation that is inclusive and acknowledges the diverse perspectives within the nation. Abbott’s warning against perpetuating compensation for historical wrongs should be heeded, fostering a vision of Australia where all citizens, regardless of background, share equal influence on legislation, policy, and decision-making.
In the lead up to Australia Day — also known as Invasion Day — these arguments became all the more prescient. The debate around renaming the 26th of January from Australia Day to Invasion Day is one that has gone on for time immemorial. People call it what they want to; very little material difference will be gained if the 26th of January is referred to as “Australia’, “Invasion”, “Survival” Day or so on. But this doesn’t change the fact that there are serious gaps in how Indigenous Australians are treated in everyday society.
The aftermath of the Indigenous Voice referendum is a call for a more inclusive, respectful, and thoughtful approach to Indigenous representation and reconciliation in Australia — one that gives a voice to all.
Orla Hogan is a History undergraduate at the University of Cambridge and a Policy Fellow of The Pinsker Centre, a campus-based think tank which facilitates discussion on global affairs and free speech. The views in this article are the author’s own.