The Voice to Parliament referendum can succeed if the ‘Yes’ campaign remains positive and doesn’t fall into the trap of extremist politics, independent MP for Sydney Alex Greenwich has said.
Greenwich, who was co-chair of the Australian Marriage Equality campaign, told Central News, the vote is effectively about Australians being honest about the past and acknowledging the dispossession of the land by colonisers.
He said his own experience during the plebiscite on marriage equality had taught him a lot about the process, and the same principles can be applied to the Voice to Parliament referendum.
“My biggest learning from the Yes campaign is don’t get distracted by the extreme elements of politics, whether it’s the extreme left or right. That was the biggest demoralising or distracting force in the Yes campaign for marriage equality when the far left or the far right, both who really didn’t want the vote to succeed, started using it for their own purposes,” he said.
“It can be really upsetting and frustrating. But you’ve got to put that to one side, and you’ve got to focus on what is the object, and the object is to win and to provide all Australians the opportunity to vote yes.”
Greenwich believes the Voice to Parliament, like marriage equality, is a simple step to improve the lives of minorities in Australia: “It’s something I support for a number of reasons. One, immediately as a parliamentarian myself, so often we deal with legislation that has an impact on First Nations people, yet, we often don’t have their input, insight, guidance or advice.
“So, the actual purpose of the Voice and the structure of it and its ability to provide guidance and seek to improve legislation is something that is long overdue.
‘The other reason is just one of honesty. We as a country need to be honest about our past, not deny this was land that had the custodianship of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders for much longer than we’ve been here, and that needs to be properly recognised, and indeed protected in our Constitution.”
You’ve got a very similar opponent in elements of right wing media, and extreme right wing Australian politics, who … see these national public votes as an opportunity to build their base attacking vulnerable groups.
However, large scale debates about the rights and privileges afforded to minorities can be harmful. During the marriage equality debate, it was found that exposure to No campaigning increased mental health problems in LGBTQIA+ Australians, with many reporting greater stress, anxiety and depression.
‘The rhetoric and the scare mongering is very similar, just as we’re having made up arguments about impacts on, planning or development proposals, which is not something that is the power of the Voice at all, or in their remit or in their ability to affect,” he said. “We had similar furphy’s and made up stuff about what marriage equality would lead to.
“You’ve got a very similar opponent in elements of right wing media, and extreme right wing Australian politics, who really in my view, see these national public votes as an opportunity to build their base through attacking vulnerable groups, just as they did during the postal survey with the trans and gender diverse community.
“We’re seeing them do that by really attacking First Nations communities.”
However, negative mental health consequences might not be exclusively attributed to the No campaign. Both Warren Mundine and Senator Jacinta Nampijinpa Price, who have become the main spokespeople for the No campaign, have in recent days spoken about the negative impacts to their mental health while campaigning against the Voice.
Mundine told Sky News he had contemplated suicide twice after being the subject of backlash for his Voice stance. Price told Sky News she had been told she was unwelcome in her Northern Territory community, and that her grandmother had been physically assaulted, with both cases appearing to be because of her Voice stance.
Mundine and Price have both been criticised for their claims, with suggestions that they may be playing politics. Most prominently, author and journalist Paul Bongiorno tweeted that Mundine’s revelation was “transparent, blatant politics. Hardly worth a second of sympathy. Only the gullible and opportunistic racists will fall for it”.
This is transparent, blatant politics. Hardly worth a second of sympathy.
Only the gullible and opportunistic racists will fall for it.
— Paul Bongiorno (@PaulBongiorno) July 23, 2023
Questions over the truthfulness of No campaigning has been consistent throughout the debate. Mundine and Price were found to have misrepresented the identity of an Indigenous man that said he was voting No as the grandson of Indigenous activist Vincent Lingiari.
Further criticism arose after the publication of the official referendum No pamphlet, authored by parliamentarians that oppose the Voice.
The typeset version of the YES/NO pamphlet is now on our website. This version will be delivered to Oz households closer to the referendum.
— AEC ✏️ (@AusElectoralCom) July 21, 2023
Guardian fact checkers found the No pamphlet had at least 20 instances of false or misleading information. In the same investigation the Yes pamphlet had no instances of incorrect information, however it did take a particularly positive tone that may overestimate the abilities or structure of the Voice.
Greenwich believes misinformation appearing in the No campaign is highly reminiscent of what he saw in the marriage equality debate.
“We had all this stuff around religious freedoms, being thrown into the mix, slippery slope arguments, all of which continues to be disproven,” he said. “And we’re seeing the same sort of scaremongering campaigns of opponents making up what the power of the Voice would be, when it’s quite clear what it is and what it isn’t.
“There’s one side of politics at the moment, which particularly doesn’t see the need in being accurate in what they say,” claimed Greenwich, “The big opponents of the Yes to the voice are those of the political class who are using it to galvanise a political base? Australians can see right through that.
“This is very much the Federal Opposition Leader engaging in a continuation of his behaviour,” added Greenwich about Peter Dutton.
Dutton, who was Immigration Minister during the marriage equality plebiscite, was highly critical of the reform, and even called for the performance of a hypothetical song that was ‘against gay marriage’ at the NRL Grand Final after it was announced that the American musician Macklemore would be performing his hit ‘Same Love’, a pro-gay song, at the game. He was also critical at the time of Qantas CEO Alan Joyce, himself a gay man, for the airline’s formal positioning of support for marriage equality.
Dutton and the No campaign have used similar tactics in the Voice campaign, criticising sporting codes, like the AFL and NRL, for their public support of the Voice.
The Australian people can see through bullshit pretty clearly. We saw that in the last federal election.
“We’re talking about someone who campaigned against taking our nation forward with marriage equality,” said Greenwich. “He knows that the Voice to parliament is an advisory body. He knows that the nations closest to us recognise First Nations people in their constitutions.
“He knows that this is, in no way, a scary prospect, but one that moves our country forward. But he’s obviously in a tenuous position of Leader of the Liberal party, a party which is having an identity crisis, and in my view is seeking to galvanise a base through a position of opposition.
“The Australian people can see through bullshit pretty clearly. We saw that in the last federal election, more than ever, we saw that in the marriage equality postal survey.
“So I think it’s really important that campaigns do two things. One, they expose the misinformation that is coming from the No campaign, but two, they stay positive and stay selling the important message of what this reform is and what it means to all Australians, which is basically moving our country forward with honesty.”
Despite the consequences of a socially disruptive debate like marriage equality, Greenwich saw the good in a resounding message from the Australian people, and believes that can be replicated with the Voice.
“Politicians can no longer deny that a majority of Australians support and love the LGBTQI+ community,” he said. “They were asked to vote for us to be treated fairly and equally, and they did. And I think that since then, it’s actually really helped to move other reforms forward.”
However, there is a long road ahead for a successful referendum. A date has yet to be announced, but as the debate continues, support for the Yes campaign is slipping. Every major poll has shown significant drops in the Yes vote over the past year, and recently NSW tipped over into a majority No vote for the first time ever, making it unlikely a referendum held today would succeed.
There is still time for a well-funded and supported Yes campaign to make an impact, however, a fact Greenwich is optimistic about.
“I think the Yes campaign for the voice is building strong support, it starts at a really good point, has the backing of a [Federal] Government, has the backing of State Governments. I think it’s in a good position,” he said.
“I trust Australians to do the right thing, and I just can’t see how a majority of Australians in a majority of states won’t vote Yes for a pretty straightforward and important prospect.”
Main picture supplied.