Has it been a bad week for The Voice? Yes and no

Public support for The Voice had fallen from 53 percent three months ago to 47 percent now. And Dutton’s demands for details seemed to be confirmed; only 13 percent of respondents said they were confident they understood the proposal.

All of this is pretty hands-on work for a politician with a net performance rating of minus 17 versus Albaneses plus 35. And for a politician whose party is mired in an existential crisis after losing its traditional heartland bastions in May’s election, including the headquarters of the party’s founder, Robert Menzies.

Dutton isn’t the only doubter, but his words have the widest reach. His junior coalition partner, the Nationals, formally voted to oppose the Voice in November. The hardcore no-activists at the Nationals — Jacinta Price, Barnaby Joyce, Matt Canavan and Keith Pitt — work daily to build resistance to the Voice.

Joyce explains how his constituents view the Voice by saying he was in a cattle truck with a guy who raised the matter on the fly and asked Joyce what the Voice was about.

“It would give Aboriginal people the opportunity to be more involved in legislation,” the former Nationals leader replied. “Well, do I understand?” No, Joyce replied. The man wanted to know if Joyce supported the idea and seemed satisfied when the answer was no.


This anecdote that Joyce told me actually shows how he would like voters to see the vote, and not how they necessarily see it. His explanation for the man is slippery on two counts. Firstly, ‘participation in legislation’ makes it sound as if Aborigines have an extra bite in the legislative cherry and perhaps snatch the pen from elected members.

In fact, the draft text of the constitutional amendment creating a voice only says that it “may make speeches” to Parliament and the Government. So the vote would only be advisory. Parliament would remain sovereign. No pen grabs allowed.

Second, the draft states that the voice can comment “on matters relating to Indigenous people and Torres Strait Islander people”. On nothing else.

Still, this is a useful tip. The dedicated no-fighters don’t wait for opinions to be formed. And remember, it was the Nationals, and Barnaby Joyce in particular, that led the Liberals to break Australia’s bipartisan consensus on climate change in 2009.

Where Joyce led, Tony Abbott followed. At the time, an admiring Abbott described Joyce as “Australia’s finest retail politician”. A divisive decade followed, but it was a split that helped bring the coalition to power. And helped keep them there. Are we seeing something similar now?

Barnaby Joyce thinks the voice is going down.

Barnaby Joyce thinks the voice is going down.Credit:Alex Ellinghausen

“The Voice is going to go down, and it’s going to be one of the most divisive things to happen in Australia in a long time,” says Joyce. “But not because of the people who put it down, but because of the people who put it up.”

does it go here Will the Nationals and dedicated No activists ultimately get Dutton to defy the vote? If so, the story tells us what happens next. Of 44 attempts since federation in 1901, only eight referendums have been successful. No referendum was successful if the main political parties were divided about it.

Before you join the fashionable rush to declare an emergency, consider four points. First, the strongest evidence that The Voice could be in trouble, this week’s Resolve poll, is actually inconclusive.


While the yes votes fell, the no vote did not rise. Instead, the seemingly lost support went from the yes column to the tie column. And when pollsters were asked to give an outright yes or no without the opportunity to vote indecisively—in other words, as they would in a real referendum—60 percent voted yes. This was a 4 percentage point drop in three months, but still a clear majority.

Pollster, Resolve director Jim Reed, puts it in perspective: “The yes vote still has a head start nationally and in each state so that it passes the double majority test” as required by the constitution, “but this downtrend is making it.” noticeable later this year less clear now. The comments we’ve collected in this latest poll suggest the recent drop is because voters feel they don’t have enough information to make what they believe is an important decision.”

Okay, so the country is broadly positive about the idea. People want more information. The good news for Voice backers is that more information is on the way. Among other things, there will be a parliamentary inquiry into the proposed referendum and a subsequent parliamentary debate. This will unfold over a few months.

Second, before you panic about the slowness of the pace, remember that during the Morrison administration, Albanese faced just that pressure. As leader of the opposition, he was under intense pressure for years. To do more politics, to “deal more punches”. Albanese stuck to his plan. And of course it was confirmed.


It is the normal course of events in any campaign that the general objective comes first and the details are provided later. Whether it’s a promise of lower taxes or a vote. And Noel Pearson says, despite his concerns, “Whether the detail campaign translates into what Dutton wants is what Textor and the campaign people say won’t happen.”

Pearson gives us a look behind the scenes. Mark Textor, the most effective Liberal pollster and strategist in a generation, is advising the Yes campaign. If he’s not panicking, why should anyone else?

But what happens when voters eventually get more information about the vote? This is the third point. One of the Pro Voice panels conducted focus groups in Cairns. After being asked for their initial opinion on The Voice, voters were given the text of Albanese’s proposed constitutional amendment.

“When they saw it, they literally said, ‘Is that it?'” says one of the researchers. They saw The Voice as sensible and modest reform.

Finally, Dutton faces a momentous decision about The Voice. It’s not that easy to destroy. If the Liberals want to take back some of the heartland they lost to the Teals last year, they will not do so by defying the vote.

The teal seats are economically conservative but socially progressive. They are decidedly pro-Voice. Dutton knows his party is on the way to becoming a right-wing populist rear end. His job is to arrest them and make them eligible.

And even if Dutton decides to defy the Voice, history’s precedents might not stand. The last referendum took place in 1999. Before the spread of smartphones. The major parties have been the dominant sources of communication over the last century, but campaign communication today is radically different.

Some of the smartest political strategists claim that the coalition could resist the vote, but find that the referendum will go ahead anyway. So does Dutton need the voice to be successful more than the voice Dutton needs?

Peter Hartcher is a political editor

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Brian Lowry

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