This week Australia will vote in a referendum on creating an independent Indigenous Voice body to advise parliament. The no campaign has used every trick in the right-wing playbook, and the Labor-led yes campaign has been ineffective in pushing back.

Australian prime minister Anthony Albanese walks with indigenous men and women in the Uluru Kata Tjuta National Park on October 10, 2023, in Uluru, Australia. (Bill Blair JM / Getty Images)

On October 14, Australia will hold a referendum to decide whether to enshrine an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander voice in the nation’s constitution. If the referendum succeeds, the Australian Labor Party (ALP) government will establish a nonbinding indigenous representative body to “give advice to the parliament and government.” Prime Minister Anthony Albanese has promoted the voice referendum as a practical improvement to government decision-making that has “absolutely no downside.” And, having mothballed Labor’s earlier commitment to negotiating a nationwide treaty with Australia’s First Nations, the ALP is hoping that a centrist strategy will carry the voice across the line.

Notwithstanding the voice’s modest scope — and the yes campaign’s caution — the referendum has sparked a strong conservative backlash. After eclipsing majority support for a yes vote in July, the no campaign has established a formidable 49-43 lead in the polls. To make matters worse, support for the yes campaign is relatively loose. Forty-two percent of voters describe their position as “hard no,” compared to 30 percent supporting “hard yes,” while 13 percent self-describe as “soft yes” compared to 7 percent for “soft no.” While the most recent Essential poll showed a small bump in support for the yes campaign, the sizable “hard-no” vote suggests that fewer voters will switch from no to yes.

At the same time, a small but vocal minority of “progressive no” voters oppose the voice on radical anti-colonial grounds. However, as it becomes clearer that the referendum is likely to fail, concerns at the prospect of an empowered far-right have led sections of the progressive no camp to begrudgingly endorse a yes vote. This, however, may prove to be too little, too late.

So, less than a week out from the vote, it’s become clear that the yes campaign has been blind-sided by its opponents, leading international and domestic commentators to speculate that Australia may be on the precipice of its own “Brexit moment.” Regardless of whether this turns out to be true, it’s obvious that the Left needs to account for both the Right’s success and the mistakes made by the yes campaign.

An Anatomy of the Conservative No Case

The success of the no campaign rests on a familiar right-wing populist formula of misinformation, misdirection, and fear. As journalist Kerry O’Brien has observed, the Right is not advancing a coherent alternative to the voice referendum. Instead, the official no campaign and their media allies are taking advantage of uninformed voters by “flooding the zone with shit.” Or, as academic and journalist Mark Kenny has written, “publicly, the contest feels asymmetric, unbalanced, and often unhinged with the widespread bandying of risible terms like Apartheid, special powers, and re-racializing.”

This scattergun approach can make it difficult to differentiate between different elements in the no campaign. Nevertheless, it’s possible to usefully demarcate three distinct currents: conventional white conservatives, their conservative indigenous colleagues, and right-wing populists. Despite their divergent narratives and strategies, each broad current in the anti-voice camp is playing a role in dividing and conquering yes voters, while shoring up opposition.

The first current in the no campaign includes the establishment conservatives of the Coalition parties. The thrust of their argument is that the referendum is a slippery slope toward “radical and expensive treaties,” and despite Albanese’s unequivocal comments to the contrary, Opposition leader Peter Dutton, has consistently warned of this outcome. Former prime minister Scott Morrison has likewise claimed that a yes vote will “lead to confusion and uncertainty over everything from our national defense to the operations of [welfare agency] Centrelink.” These widely debunked arguments mirror the content of the official no pamphlet, which the government has distributed to every Australian household, as required by law.

The second current in the no campaign relies on a handful of indigenous politicians to advance more brazen anti-voice rhetoric. Shadow indigenous affairs spokesperson and Warlpiri woman Jacinta Price, for example, has drawn on her identity to argue absurdly that colonization had  “a positive impact” on First Nations peoples. Indigenous political elder Warren Mundine has likewise defended openly racist critics of the voice, including a speaker at a Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) event who described traditional owners as “violent black men.”

Despite their public opposition to “woke culture” and “identity politics,” it is self-evident that Price and Mundine are weaponizing their respective identities to advance a regressive agenda. Aside from granting the no campaign license to defend Australia’s colonial history, as prominent indigenous conservatives, they have obscured the reality that the vast majority of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples support the voice.

The third current in the conservative no campaign consists of a loose network of right-wing populists, Christian lobby groups, and fringe far-right organizations. While the official no campaign has distanced itself from these groups, the far-right current has helped to “contaminate the information ecosystem,” to borrow a phrase from Trumpian strategist Steve Bannon. Even further to the right, anti-vax, sovereign citizen, and neo-Nazi organizations are spreading “misleading and manipulative” social media content that variously describes the voice as a “Trojan horse” for apartheid and communism.

The far right’s stake in the no campaign might be marginal, but it can’t be ignored. It is clear that the referendum debate is stirring up the same mix of white supremacist and alt-right ideas that have threatened liberal democracies across the world.

The Progressive No Case

While most no voters align with the mainstream conservative case, a minority of First Nations peoples oppose the voice on radical anti-colonial grounds, constituting the progressive no camp. This current dates back to the 2017 Uluru convention on constitutional recognition that drew up the voice proposal, as part of what came to be known as the Uluru Statement from the Heart. At the convention, a minority delegation staged a walkout and press conference in protest. They argued that the consultation process to select representatives had been gerrymandered and did not reflect the views or decision-making processes of grassroots Aboriginal communities.

DjabWurrung Gunnai Gunditjmara woman and independent senator Lidia Thorpe was a participant in the walkout, and she has since carried the progressive no flame in the Australian parliament. With the support of the Blak Sovereign Movement and other progressive no organizations, Thorpe mounted an unsuccessful campaign to call off the referendum in favor of treaties with “real, tangible outcomes for Indigenous people.” Aunty Jenny Munro, Gary Foley, and other prominent First Nations activists have backed Thorpe’s campaign against constitutional recognition.

Indeed, some progressive no voters appear poised to celebrate the demise of the coice. Gunaikurnai and Wotjobaluk man, Ben Abbatangelo, for example, told the ABC that “a no vote would be a regenerative moment for the country.” Keiran Stewart-Assheton, president of the Blak People’s Union, likewise argued that defeating the voice will force “a reckoning with the truth.”

However, the escalation of right-wing activity in recent weeks has caused some progressive no activists to begrudgingly endorse a yes vote. In a recent Crikey opinion piece, Tarneen Onus Williams — a community organizer for Warriors of the Aboriginal Resistance and critic of the voice — explained the reason underlying their decision to change their vote to yes. As they wrote,

A No vote will set back First Nations justice for decades, and nothing reflects this more than the rapid rise of right-wing neo-Nazis who are becoming more brazen, more vocal and more organized.

While other left-wing critics of the voice remain undecided about switching their vote, the pendulum in the progressive no camp nevertheless appears to be swinging toward a defensive yes vote.

Can the Yes Campaign Win?

While a successful yes vote looks increasingly unlikely, it would be wrong for the Left to conclude that it’s a lost cause. On the one hand, polling suggests that the no campaign has consolidated a hard base of support. On the other, the yes campaign boasts a twenty-five-thousand-strong “volunteer army” that may transform soft no into yes votes during the final week. The fact that many progressive critics of the voice have shifted toward a “defensive yes” can’t hurt either.

Nonetheless, even if a yes victory is technically possible, it will be by a very slim margin — and this will raise further problems. If a significant portion of the population remains opposed to the voice, Dutton and his conservative allies will undoubtedly continue their self-interested culture war against First Nations peoples. Indeed, the Coalition is plainly staking its 2026 election hopes on a right-wing populist takedown of Albanese by whatever means necessary. And this is an eventuality that Thorpe and other progressive voice critics like Celeste Liddle have cited to in part explain their opposition.

If the voice does fail, the ALP will bear some responsibility for the fallout. In retrospect, it was unwise to hold a critical referendum during a cost-of-living crisis — and all the more so given Labor’s commitment to what amounts to austerity. Declining living standards have created ideal conditions for Dutton’s divide and scare campaign. And as polling data makes clear, many voters who have switched to a no vote believe that the voice referendum is a distraction from the cost of living and the price of housing. Indeed, this outcome should have been obvious to the ALP government. As Brexit and Rust Belt support for Donald Trump’s 2016 election campaign show, center-left indifference to the plight of working-class people creates fertile ground for the Right.

Irrespective of the outcome, the referendum campaign shows that the ALP’s radical centrist approach to politics is failing. Without an established social movement base, the yes campaign has struggled to mobilize the scale of support that referendum campaigns demand.

By contrast, while the progressive no camp may be small, grassroots Aboriginal sovereignty organizations undeniably have the capacity to mobilize tens of thousands. When the yes campaign adopted a centrist strategy, they ruled out any prospect of drawing that energy into support for the voice. And if the outcome is similar to Brexit or Trump 2016, it seems equally likely that the ALP and other moderate supporters of the voice will refuse to learn in much the same way as their international counterparts.

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