Lessons From the Failed 'Yes' Campaign

Scott Prasser from Policy Insights reflects on what the referendum failure says about our political leaders, our democracy and ourselves.

Lessons From the Failed 'Yes' Campaign
Photo by Kt Nash / Unsplash

After months of campaigning, the failed Voice referendum is behind us, along with all its exhortations, claims and counter-claims, advertisements, all-round hectoring, divisiveness and general finger-pointing.

Now, before we forget, we should consider what this referendum tells us about our political leaders, our democracy, and even about ourselves.

Politically, the referendum’s failure shatters any notion of the Albanese government’s invincibility.

It will be a defeat of mammoth proportions and a monumental political blunder on Albanese’s part. His strategy of rejecting logical debate, providing as little detail as possible and relying on empty emotional appeals proved to be too clever by half.

The referendum was driven by short-term political expediency on Labor’s part. It set out to deliberately create division and rancour, to wedge the Coalition and embarrass Dutton, outdo the Greens, and satisfy the ideological demands of Labor’s left faction.

The referendum process was poorly executed from start to finish, lacking a clear and honest rationale, any semblance of bipartisanship, and any commitment to democratic processes that have characterised earlier referendums.

The Albanese government did not want to follow long-accepted practices of informing citizens of the arguments for and against a proposal. This only happened because of some backroom wheeling and dealing in parliament.

That funding was so lopsidedly for the ‘Yes’ campaign was the antithesis of what should happen in a democracy, where the dollar should not speak louder than the voter and where both sides have a right to be heard.

The referendum showed the Albanese government is woefully out of touch, pursuing  ‘recreational politics’ while the country yearns for leadership to tackle its growing economic, energy and social problems.

The referendum highlighted other problems too.

Besmirching themselves in the worst form of partisan politicisation were some of our key public and private institutions – universities, some religious bodies, big business – who, with little regard to the propriety of their actions, the integrity of their prescribed functions, or the views of their shareholders, members, employees and customers – crossed the line into outright political campaigning for the ‘Yes’ side.

Is this what we can come to expect at the next election – institutions taking sides, endorsing candidates and parties like so many interest groups as they line up at the trough of government largesse?

Has our society become so politicised that this is now the accepted expectation?

Endorse, pay up and support or else be ostracised and be shunned, like the ABC and our universities do to those who do not follow the fashionable left script?   

The media should not emerge unscathed in any review.

While a declining influence in our society, sections of the media showed hardly any semblance of balanced reporting on the referendum as it progressed in its downward spiral of public antipathy.

Too easily, the media ‘catastrophised’ the possible adverse impacts of referendum failure, too willing was it to stick the racist tag on advocates of a “No” vote.

The failed referendum also raises doubts about the value of political advertising. Perhaps political parties at the next election might learn from this and spend less on advertising and a little more on proper research to serve up to us voters some decent policies for a change rather than superficial slogans, and expedient policies rehashed from the last election.

Lastly, the disparity that will become obvious on Saturday in the voting between the inner city cliques – one cannot seriously call them elites – and the rest of Australia surely means governments and political parties have to stop taking their policy cues from so narrow a base as they have so often in past.

And that overly public funded and indulged one employer town of Canberra has done it again – completely out of sync with the rest of Australia as it was on the republic referendum in 1999. And there is some talk about giving the Australian Capital Territory two more senators – you must be kidding!

One thing for sure – the referendum and its rejection will have lasting but unexpected impacts.

The Albanese government has not just been weakened, but exposed for what it really is: an old, out-of-date Labor Party captured by the irrelevant ideology of the 1970s baby boomer left, controlled by declining and militant trade unions, peddling a 1940s ideological agenda of increased government intervention, filling government offices with its cronies who – as the referendum showed – couldn’t display even a semblance of decorum, good practice, let alone goodwill.

Scott Prasser has worked in federal and state governments, and his forthcoming publication with David Clune is The Art of Opposition.

His Substack, Policy Insights, can be read HERE

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