No campaign win would haunt Australia’s national conscience

Sometimes we can only learn the meaning of an event by living through it. Until then, its essence remains closed to us. I suspect this is most often true about endings and beginnings: the end of love, the beginning of moral compromise, the first time you hold a child or the last time you hold a parent.

And perhaps the end of campaigns. We do not yet know with certainty what will happen on the Indigenous Voice to Parliament. We might suspect the result – a defeat of the proposition seems likely – but this is very different from understanding what that will feel like. A friend told me she thought many would be shocked, that night, by the images they will see of Indigenous people crying. It might not be until it is voted down that most non-Indigenous people will understand what this means to most Indigenous people. It will not be until we have done it that we realise what we have done. Many, perhaps most, will not realise even then.

Illustration by Jim PavlidisCredit:

One of the most remarkable features of the campaign period is how little it has felt like a campaign period. Three weeks ago, it felt as though nobody was paying attention. Then a dispute about racism broke out, and it felt suddenly like a (horrible, destructive) campaign. The last week or two, though, felt quiet again. There has been racism offline and on – mostly though, at least for those of us not at the centre of events, it can feel as though the whole campaign is being fought amidst a great fog of indifference.

Indifference can be a form of racism too: the decision not to care about some people and the suffering they face is telling. There are perhaps some small signs of change: the prime minister last week told journalist Katharine Murphy that Australians are “talking like never before” about Indigenous disadvantage. He is right – but it is worth remembering how limited most “national conversations” are.

Polls have told the Yes campaign that close to 40 per cent of Australians do not think Indigenous people are disadvantaged. Considering how large that disadvantage is, there is a stunning gulf between reality and Australians’ understanding of it. The Yes campaign plans to sharpen its argument around disadvantage in the next fortnight. This is good, but also an admission: why wasn’t this done earlier?

Prime Minister Anthony Albanese says Australians are “talking like never before” about Indigenous disadvantage.

Prime Minister Anthony Albanese says Australians are “talking like never before” about Indigenous disadvantage.Credit: Sarah Reed

Which brings us to a complex question: how much difference might that have made? Or to put this another way: even afterwards, result known, how confident can we be about why a referendum turned out the way it did? Does it say something about the effectiveness of the campaigns? About the country? Or just about referendums, and what tends to happen in them?

It is important to be cautious here. This year, I have tried to keep in mind many of the observations made by seasoned poll-watcher Peter Brent, whose columns over the last decade now look prescient. Most notably, earlier this year, when polls for Yes were strong, he observed that polls at that stage meant little. In 1988, the Hawke government put four questions to a referendum, including the bland idea of including local government in the Constitution. In the six months before the vote, “polled support halved, from the high 60s and low 70s to the 30s”. This should complicate the notion of drawing simple conclusions from this year’s result.

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