Sydney Letter: Yes campaign needs to find its voice for critical referendum to pass

The Indigenous Voice to Parliament referendum is set to take place in September but support for it seems to be waning amid a lack of clarity about what it will achieve, writes Jonathan Drennan

Across Australia, in offices and organisations, most meetings begin with a formal ritual known as an Acknowledgement of Country or, more rarely, a Welcome to Country.

Only traditional owners/custodians of the land on which the event takes place can deliver a Welcome, whereas, in their absence, an Acknowledgement is used to recognise the historical legacy of First Nations peoples and an understanding that the meeting is taking place on their land.

For some Australians, it is a truly meaningful gesture of acknowledgment in a formal setting, whereas for others, it feels performative or tokenistic. Words that must be said, but there is often little meaning behind them. Not dissimilar to the Our Father muttered at the end of a school assembly. People know the words automatically, but do they actually mean them?

Last Monday, the Australian Senate passed a bill to trigger the staging of the Indigenous Voice to Parliament referendum. If the referendum is passed, it will change the Australian constitution.


Voting Yes will lead to the establishment of the Indigenous Voice to Parliament, a body that would advise the Australian parliament and Government on matters that affect the lives of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.

The vote will need to happen within the next six months, and prime minister Anthony Albanese has stated that it will happen after the end of September, specifically so it does not clash with the two major sporting finals for rugby league and Australian rules football. Only in Australia.

The two major sporting codes the National Rugby League and the Australian Football League are strong supporters of the Yes vote and weeks before the polls open, a captive audience of millions will be available in front of their television screens.

In Australia, it is illegal not to vote, and as a result the referendum takes on another significance.

The Voice to Parliament is an advisory body, yet the opposition to it has grown.

Last August, a poll by the Sydney Morning Herald newspaper had the Yes campaign supported by 64 per cent of Australians, now the same poll has it at only 49 per cent.

The Yes campaign is scrambling to create a clear and cohesive communications campaign. So far, this has failed miserably. There are said to be approximately 8,000 volunteers ready to hit the streets for the Yes campaign, and they will be needed. More importantly, they will need to be armed with a strong, short and sharp fact sheet on exactly what the Voice means for Australia.

The major sporting codes, universities, companies and religious bodies have stepped up to say that they support the Yes campaign. Albanese will need to marshall them behind a consistent set of convincing messages.

Currently, the No campaign’s rallying cry of fear is proving enormously effective. It says there isn’t enough detail on what the Voice actually entails and the Australian constitution should not be changed on that basis.

Senator Lidia Thorpe, an Aboriginal woman from Melbourne, has become a strong critic of the Voice. She believes that it would undermine Aboriginal sovereignty. “We do not want to be part of the colonial constitution and the attempt to rule over us and our land,” she said. “We don’t accept any colonial mechanism that continues to control us, which is what the Voice ultimately is a part of. It has no power, it will be controlled by the parliament.”

Shadow Indigenous Australians minister Jacinta Nampijinpa Price has claimed that the Voice will create further division in a country that has an uneasy relationship with reconciliation. “If the Yes vote is successful, we will be divided forever, I want to see Australia move forward as one not two divided. That’s why I will be voting no.”

Albanese asked a pertinent question last week. “If not now, when? We need to recognise First Nations people in our constitution.” There is still time for the Yes campaign to convince Australia, but it is running out rapidly.

The starter pistol for the Voice has finally and formally sounded. Each campaign will soon have an opportunity to pen 2,000 words to convince each Australian voter. Albanese will hope that the Yes vote still has a sporting chance come October after the Grand Finals.