Inside Story

From Indigenous recognition to the Voice, and back again

There are signs of a shift in strategy by the Yes forces, but are the polls keeping up?

Murray Goot 15 May 2023 3240 words

Reframing: Yes23’s campaign director Dean Parkin. Dan Himbrechts/AAP Image

With several months still to run before we get to vote, a new Yes23 advertisement suggests a remarkable shift in the Yes side’s framing of the referendum proposal. The advertisement advocates “recognition” without mentioning that the effect of that recognition would be to authorise parliament to legislate for the Voice.

If the Yes campaign continues to frame voters’ choice as one between recognising and not recognising Indigenous Australians in the Constitution, and if the attempt gains public traction, then the debate about how the proposed amendment refers to the Voice will become less significant.

But the words of the amendment — minutely examined and debated by Australia’s finest legal minds and endorsed on Friday by a joint select parliamentary committee — matter little to Yes23’s judgement about how the referendum should be presented. Its ad, running mainly on social media, attempts to persuade voters that the campaign is “really” about “recognition.”

Between February 2012 and early 2017 the Australian government funded Reconciliation Australia to promote “recognition.” What form it would take was not specified, but the campaign helped “recognition” gain wide acceptance — but only if it is detached from some of the forms that recognition could take.

Meanwhile, the debate about alternative forms of constitutional recognition had failed to reach any agreement. Then, after the Referendum Council’s report to the Turnbull government in July 2017, “the Voice” entered the debate and quickly became the only form of constitutional recognition under consideration. For their part, Coalition governments under Malcolm Turnbull and Scott Morrison argued that the Voice was not the right form for constitutional recognition to take.

Five years later, in an address to the Garma Festival in July last year, prime minister Anthony Albanese committed his government to a referendum on an Indigenous Voice “in this term of parliament.” His speech began by recognising “all the elders, leaders and families” who had “made great contributions to our nation,” but “recognition” was not among the seventy words the prime minister wanted added to the Constitution.

Now that the campaign has stepped up a notch, however, “recognition” is back — in fact, for Yes23, it has moved to the centre. Pushed into the background is the fact that recognition will take the form of the Voice.

In the first of the Yes campaign’s online ads, rolled out on 26 April, the emphasis was on recognition. Its thirty seconds contrasted Indigenous occupation (65,000 years) with the period in which Australia has had a Constitution (122 years) and played with the notion of coming together and making the nation complete. Viewers were invited to “join us” — the “us” being Indigenous Australians, the viewers being overwhelmingly non-Indigenous Australians.

The ad’s theme of Indigenous exclusion implicitly recalled the 1967 referendum, when over 90 per cent of the formal vote endorsed the idea that “Aboriginals” should be “counted.” The closest the advertisement came to mentioning the Voice was in calling for Indigenous Australians to be able to have “a real say,” something that surely was “fair enough.” “#Voice” appeared in small type at the end.

Perhaps the emphasis on recognition reflected nothing more than the fact that the ad was sponsored by Australians for Indigenous Constitutional Recognition, or AICR, just one of several organisations that have come together under the banner of Yes23. But in the run-up to a referendum that has seen much more emphasis on the “practical” implications of the Voice than on the “symbolic” act of recognition, even the AICR might have been expected to argue, above all, for the Voice.

Then, a few days after the ad’s release, the prime minister issued a statement to say that the national cabinet had “reaffirmed” its “commitment to recognising Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in our Constitution.” Not a word about national cabinet (re)affirming its commitment to the Voice — though the prime minister and all the premiers are committed to it — and not even a commitment to Indigenous Australians having “a real say.”

Has the Yes campaign just wrong-footed the No side? A letter to the Australian Electoral Commission from Advance Australia, one of the organisations campaigning for a No vote, suggests it has. The AICR ad, Advance Australia complained, omitted “any reference to the Aboriginal and Torres Islander Voice to parliament” — an element “so integral that it is the title of the bill.” This meant that “Yes23 may be intentionally misleading the Australian public on the nature of the referendum.” Senator Jacinta Nampijinpa Price — the Coalition’s newly appointed shadow minister for Indigenous Australians, the Country Liberal Party’s senator for the Northern Territory, and the most prominent No campaigner in the National Party–CLP alliance — attacked the ad as “deceptive” shortly after it went to air.

Responding to the complaint, Yes23 reportedly said that it welcomed Advance Australia “drawing attention” to its campaign. That it feared an adverse finding from the Electoral Commission is to be doubted. As the AEC’s website shows, its remit appears not to stretch to the kind of complaint Advance Australia has made.

If that is the case, the AEC won’t feel bound to consider a complaint from Yes23 that an advertisement attacking the Voice — produced by Fair Australia for the No campaign and focused on Senator Price and her family — omitted any reference to “recognition” other than Price’s remark about her “recognising what we have in common.” But perhaps, in the name of publicity, the No side is as happy to welcome any comments on its campaign as the Yes side is to make them.

While the Voice is “integral” to the bill to amend the Constitution, so is “recognition.” Indeed, the heading of the Constitution’s proposed Chapter IX (within which falls section 129, “Aboriginal and Torres Islander Voice”) reads “Recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Islander Peoples.” Advance Australia is not contesting that; what worries it is the Yes campaign’s omission of one element in order to emphasise the other.

The No campaign has reason to be worried. “Recognition” offers Yes23 a stronger way of framing the referendum than does the Voice. It does this because the Indigenous demand for “recognition” is more widely known and a good deal more widely supported than the Indigenous demand for the Voice.

Polling conducted online last September by Resolve Strategic for the Melbourne Age and the Sydney Morning Herald estimated that 85 per cent of the electorate were “definitely aware or knew at least some detail” of a “campaign for Indigenous recognition in the Constitution.” Awareness of a referendum to “enshrine the Voice in the Constitution” was much lower, at 65 per cent.

Since then, the gap is likely to have narrowed but not necessarily closed. In a poll conducted by Resolve in January, no more than 77 per cent indicated that they had “heard of the ‘Indigenous Voice’” — and even fewer, presumably, had heard of the referendum on the Voice. In another online poll, conducted as recently as last month (9–12 April) by Freshwater Strategy, 75 per cent of those who responded — up from 63 per cent in December — indicated that they were “aware that there will be a referendum on whether Australia should change its constitution to allow for a body, called a Voice to parliament, to have the right to advise the Australian Government on matters of significance to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders.”

Awareness of the push for recognition is unlikely to have declined in the past six months or so, though we can’t be sure how it has moved because questions in the public opinion polls about recognition (rather than the Voice) have come to a stop.

More important than levels of awareness are levels of support. The last time any of the polls gathered data on support for constitutional recognition, estimated support outran opposition by at least three to one. Asked whether they would vote “for or against” if a referendum “was held to include recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in the Australian Constitution,” 57 per cent of those who were polled online in June–July 2021 by Essential Media said they would vote “for” and no more than 17 per cent said they would vote “against.”

In the Australian Election Study, meanwhile, conducted between 24 May and 30 September 2022, no fewer than 80 per cent of the respondents who expressed a view on the matter said that “If a referendum were held to recognise Indigenous Australians in the Constitution” they would “support… such a change”; only 20 per cent said they would “oppose” it.

Recognition is supported not only by Labor but also by some, if not all, of the parties that constitute the parliamentary opposition. A referendum on recognition (without the Voice) is something the opposition leader Peter Dutton (Liberal National Party) has said he would support. Nationals’ leader David Littleproud has said his party would “help print the ballots” for a referendum purely on constitutional recognition.

Senator Price took a slightly different line at the media conference the Nationals called to announce their opposition to the Voice. She was quoted as saying that “Indigenous Australians are recognised,” an indication of her sense that the matter was relatively unimportant compared with taking “practical measures,” and that the matter was already settled. (Earle Page, leader of the Country Party from 1921 to 1939, believed that for a referendum proposal to pass it should do no more than enshrine a set of practices in place and accepted already.)

The ratio of support to opposition for the Voice — three to two — is no more than half the corresponding ratio in favour of “recognition.” In the polls conducted in April 2023, levels of support for inscribing a Voice in the Constitution outran levels of opposition by margins that were generally even smaller than that: 42–34 (Freshwater, online); roughly 46–31 (Resolve, online, numbers derived from its graph); and 46–39 (Morgan, SMS). The two polls that forced respondents to choose between Yes and No, both online, also produced a distribution in which Yes outran No by no more than three to two: 58–42 (Resolve) and 60–40 (Essential).

Since Labor came to office in May last year promising to “embrace the Uluru Statement from the Heart” and “answer its patient, gracious call for a Voice enshrined in our Constitution,” support for the Voice has not remained steady, as one polling analyst is reported to have said. Nor has it increased, as another has claimed. Support for the Voice has decreased.

On the polls’ standard approach — with respondents asked whether they favour or oppose putting the Voice into the Constitution but given the opportunity to say they “don’t know” or are “undecided” — the fall has been quite sharp; so, too, has the rise of opposition. In the three polls taken in the first four months after Labor’s victory (between June and September last year) support averaged 59 per cent, and opposition 16 per cent; in the two polls taken in December (the only such polls conducted in the next four months) the support average had declined to 51.5 per cent (opposition 28.5 per cent); and in the five polls taken since February 2023, the average in favour dropped to just 44.5 per cent (opposition 33 per cent). (These calculations are based on reported results before those without an opinion were asked — as they occasionally were — to which side they were “leaning.”)

Binary questions — with respondents restricted to answering Yes or No — produced a less dramatic decline. In the three questions asked from August to September, support was 65 per cent (35 per cent opposed); in the four from October to January, it was 61 per cent (39 per cent opposed); and in the six asked since February, it has been 59.5 per cent (40.5 per cent opposed). How many respondents baulked at this forced choice, none of the pollsters say.

Where polls have presented respondents with response options arranged in what survey researchers call a Likert scale — typically from “strongly support” and “somewhat support,” through “neither support nor oppose,” to “somewhat oppose” and “strongly oppose” — the decline in support for constitutional change was more modest and less even. In the four questions of this kind asked from May to September 2022, support (“strongly support” plus “somewhat support”) was 57 per cent (with 17.5 per cent either “somewhat” or “strongly” opposed); in the two between October 2022 and January 2023, 51 per cent (24.5 per cent either “somewhat” or “strongly” opposed); and in the five asked since, 53 per cent (32.5 per cent being either “somewhat” or “strongly” opposed).

With these different measures of public opinion showing that support for the Voice is slipping and opposition rising, the gap between support for “recognition” and support for the Voice is likely to have widened. If it has, Yes23’s framing of the referendum as a decision about recognising Indigenous Australians makes sense.

About the trend in support for “recognition” we can only speculate. Not only have standalone questions about awareness of recognition disappeared from the polls, but so too, until very recently, have questions that mention “recognition” in the context of the Voice.

Since May 2022, thirty-three national public polls have been conducted: twelve of the binary kind, eleven of the Likert kind and ten of the standard kind (including two polls our analysis has put to one side as flawed). Yet of all the questions polls have asked about the Voice, only the three most recently taken by Essential and Resolve have included a statement about the referendum as a proposal to “alter the Constitution to recognise the First Peoples of Australia by establishing an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice” (emphasis added). In none of the others does the word “recognise” even appear. Clearly, the No campaigners are not the only ones to have let the question of Indigenous recognition disappear.

Most of the polls have been unhelpful in other ways, too. Considering how much debate there has been about the whether to include the word “Executive” in the second sentence of Albanese’s draft, it is surprising that, when explaining to the respondents what the Voice would do, few polls have referred to either “the executive government” (the exceptions being Resolve’s polls and those taken by JWS in August and February) or the “government” (apart from the two Freshwater polls taken in December and April). Keeping questions reasonably short while hoping that respondents share a common understanding of the key terms is a difficult challenge to meet.

One strength of the No campaign ad featuring Senator Price is that it includes the names and faces of prominent Indigenous individuals. According to a YouGov study conducted in March for the Uluru Dialogue, only 40 per cent of voters believe the majority of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people support the Voice.

Dee Madigan, who ran Labor’s 2022 election advertising campaign, saw the inclusion of Indigenous figures in the Yes23 ad as a “good strategic start by the Yes camp,” according to the Australian. The ad was “about inoculating against accusations that [the Voice is] Canberra-centric and foisted on Indigenous people and that Indigenous people aren’t supportive,” she was quoted as saying. But Madigan’s observations, almost certainly correct, may not capture what is most significant about the ad. For Toby Ralph, who worked on John Howard’s election campaigns, it was a “reasonable opening shot” that avoided “the contentious stuff.” Assuming “the contentious stuff” is a reference to the Voice, his observation seems closer to the mark.

Whether a focus on “recognition” is the opening shot or the shot that keeps being repeated remains to be seen. But this framing appears to have wide appeal among the key players attempting to mobilise a Yes vote. Lawyer Danny Gilbert, an adviser to From the Heart and co-chair of AICR, suggests that the campaign should avoid legal questions about the wording of the Voice and concerns about whether “it’s constitutionally unsafe.” He wants to focus instead on the idea that “it’s about time we recognise the First Peoples of this country,” that what has “happened to date has not worked” and that “it’s time to give them the opportunity to have a say in the future of their lives.”

If support for recognition is high, so too is support for allowing Indigenous Australians to have “a say.” Asked in July–August 2022 whether it was “important or not for First Nations people to have a voice/say in matters that affect them,” almost everyone interviewed for Reconciliation Australia by Polity Research considered it “fairly important” (33 per cent) if not “very important” (60 per cent).

If Yes23 can persuade voters that the referendum is about “recognition” and Indigenous Australians having “a say” rather than about an Indigenous Voice, the polls might be at risk of asking the wrong questions or of not asking enough questions.

What, then, are the sorts of questions pollsters could ask if they wanted to better understand voters? Perhaps something along these lines, with “Voice” and “say” offered to different respondents in questions two and three to test their relative impact:

1. At a referendum on whether to recognise Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in the Constitution, would you vote in favour or against?

2. At a referendum on whether to have an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples’ [Voice or say] in the Constitution to advise the national parliament and the Australian government on matters to do with Indigenous Australians, would you vote in favour or against?

3. At a referendum to recognise Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, would you be more likely or less likely to vote in favour of recognition if recognition meant adding to the Constitution an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples’ [Voice or say] to advise the national parliament and the Australian government on matters to do with Indigenous Australians?

Differences in the levels of support elicited by these questions would go some way to telling us how attractive “recognition” is compared with either the Voice or “a say”; hence, how much there is for the Yes campaign to leverage and the No campaign to fear.

To understand what voters themselves think the referendum is about, pollsters could also ask respondents whether they think it is about (a) Indigenous recognition, (b) having an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples’ [Voice or say] in the Constitution to advise the national parliament and government, or (c) both Indigenous recognition and having an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples’ [Voice or say] in the Constitution to advise the national parliament and government.

Polls could also ask an open-ended question along the lines of the one Roy Morgan asked in 1967: “What would you say the chief effect will be if the referendum on Aboriginals receives a ‘Yes’ vote and is carried?”

If Yes23 thinks its best chance of persuading waverers is to keep the campaign as low-key and unthreatening as possible — a matter of being civil and accepting an “invitation” — then it might well present voters at polling places with a slogan like “Vote YES for Recognition” or “Vote YES for a Say.” Since it pitches itself as a campaign “talking to everyday Australians about the opportunity to be part of a successful referendum,” then giving “everyday Australians” a sense that they are on to a winner — with luck, creating a bandwagon — could be very much part of its play.

The No side couldn’t try to mobilise last-minute deciders with a slogan remotely like “Vote NO to Recognition” or “Vote NO to a Say”; it would need to come up with something that didn’t refer to “recognition” or “a say” at all.

Many more ads are yet to come. But these opening shots might well have set the tone of both campaigns. •

The article was updated on 17 May 2023 on the basis of additional information from Resolve on the wording of its questions.