Australia’s Vote on Indigenous Rights: When Referendums Turn into Weapons of Polarization

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By Raquel Jesse, Program Officer, and Roshni Menon, Senior Program Officer, at the NYU Center on International Cooperation

Supports of the Yes23 vote at a rally in Brisbane.
March supporting the “Yes” campaign for Australia’s Indigenous rights referendum in Brisbane, September 17, 2023. Photo credit: Stephan Ridgway

Direct democracy initiatives, where citizens directly participate in decision-making, appeal to the basic human aspiration of having our voices heard in shaping our collective destiny. Referendums, a key facet of direct democracy, allow people to vote directly on specific issues or legislation, bypassing representatives.

While arguments that referendums may be a means to re-engage with the political process and with democracy itself may be seductive, experience suggests they can be savagely divisive.

Recent examples ranging from the Brexit vote in the United Kingdom and Chile’s rejection of a new progressive Constitution last year to the spurning of Colombia’s peace deal tell us that they are often blunt and risky instruments that descend into toxic and messy debates when applied to complex political questions, sometimes resulting in more harm than good.

In fact, the well-intentioned direct democratic exercise can be co-opted into a platform for spreading disinformation, deepening societal divides, and derailing progress toward equality and inclusion.

Counting Votes, but Missing Voices: Australia’s Failed Voice Referendum

Earlier this year, on October 14, Australians rejected the chance to acknowledge Indigenous Peoples in their Constitution and endorse an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Advisory Committee, which would have had the power to consult with Parliament on policies affecting their communities, echoing practices in Finland, Canada, and New Zealand. While recognition does not equate to material change, it is a step toward addressing historical injustices that continue to impact the Indigenous community today — an important point as Indigenous adults in contemporary Australia face a life expectancy almost a decade shorter than their non-Indigenous counterparts.

While the Voice referendum appeared to be a just method for enacting change, its inherent premise underlines that the inclusion of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders in sociopolitical life is conditional upon the preferences of the majority. Referendums are a numbers game: they hold the potential to grant the majority — in this case, an overwhelmingly white population — disproportionate influence in decisions that affect historically marginalized groups while forcing the latter to wage a battle of public opinion.

Thus, the viability of the proposal hinged on being able to effectively frame the Voice’s impact on the nation, set against a backdrop of deep-rooted prejudice and a strong tendency to overlook aspects of Australian history. In contrast, the opposition merely needed to peel away a fraction of conflicted voters to derail the proposal.

Yet, at the start, prospects for an outcome in favor of the Voice looked promising: October 2022 polling showed 60 percent of the population supported the initiative, with backing from influential figures (former prime ministers, the Business Council of Australia, sporting teams, former high court justices, and a host of celebrities). But by April 2023, polling dropped to the mid-forties.

Unfortunately, in the final October vote, the proposal was rejected by 51 percent of eligible voters, compared to 34 percent who voted in favor and 15 percent, equivalent to 2.6 million people, who chose not to vote. Majorities in five out of six states, all except the Australian Capital Territory, rejected the amendment. By Australian law, any change to the Constitution would require a national majority, as well as majorities in each of at least four of six states for the referendum to pass. This is an exceptionally high bar for change: only eight of 44 referendums have passed in the last 40 years. The most recent one, on whether to end the symbolic rule of the British monarchy, faced resounding defeat in 1999.

Text: I’m Voting Yes over abstract shapes
Promotional material supporting the “Yes” campaign for Australia’s Indigenous rights referendum.

Exploiting the Vote: How Divisive Entrepreneurs Capitalize on Referendums

Referendums can make complex issues seem daunting, especially for those unfamiliar with the policy, as they reduce them to a simple “yes” or “no” choice.

Centered around a topic closely tied to injustice and personal identities, the referendum created fertile ground for divisive figures to sow discord and fear.

Various actors, ranging from politicians to social media influencers, propagated lies and disinformation.

In the run-up to the vote, familiar tactics common to the divide-and-rule playbook were used. Along with a slew of racially charged hate speech and harassment directed at the Voice campaigners and Indigenous communities, misinformation was spread. Some claimed that the Voice would grant excessive power to Indigenous leaders, potentially leading to the formation of a separate Aboriginal state.

Other misinformation alleged that the Voice was inherently racist and would discriminate against white people, suggesting they would have to pay “rent” to Indigenous people if the referendum passed. Conspiracies about a covert plot to redistribute wealth or land also circulated. Some even suggested this was part of a broader scheme to marginalize conservatives in the country.

Woven into the narrative was the harbinger of dissent and discord: actors publicly casting doubt on the integrity of the electoral process. Such rhetoric has incited the recent storming of government buildings in countries like the United States and Brazil. These baseless claims, once relegated to far-right fringes, have progressively infiltrated mainstream political discourse worldwide — increasingly so, it seems, in Australia.

Such messaging is designed to instill fear and confusion, spread division, and pit groups against one another. The goal is to frame equality as a zero-sum game, suggesting that advocating for Indigenous rights inevitably means taking away from white Australians. The narrative of some “losing out” emerges at a time when economic insecurities are already high due to high inflation and a cost-of-living crisis in the country — a situation that, ironically, disproportionately affects Aboriginal communities.

This strategy of sowing fear and division not only exacerbates hate and prejudice, which are linked to an increase in hate crimes and harm against targeted groups, but it also misrepresents the true intentions of the referendum. This approach deepens societal rifts, casting the pursuit of equality as a threat rather than a collective step toward a more inclusive society that ultimately benefits everyone.

Strategic division — the spread of disinformation, polarizing narratives, and lies — is unfortunately here to stay, fueled by tangible financial and political incentives for those who choose to engage.

It has already proven to be a winning political strategy — as evidenced by the rise of political figures like Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil, Donald Trump in the United States, and Giorgia Meloni in Italy — and a potent tool for obstructing crucial measures for equality and inclusion, as seen in the Australian referendum.

Although not a novel concept, divide-and-rule tactics are amplified by social media and online communications platforms, allowing for an unprecedented frequency and reach of divisive messages, and have decentralized such that many non-traditional political actors benefit.

As an illustration, many of the same anti-government social media pages that emerged during the COVID-19 pandemic went on to broadcast anti-Voice messages. Conspiracy entrepreneurs who amassed significant audiences during COVID-19 seized a new opportunity to garner more likes, clicks, views, and, therefore, money. For instance, an Australian doctor, who has been stripped of his medical license, amassed a following by spreading vaccine misinformation. When addressing his followers, he likened the Voice to Germany’s Enabling Act of 1933, which catapulted Hitler into power as the Führer. This underscores the dangerous impact of provocative and extreme content in the attention economy, where the more sensational the information, the greater the potential reward.

An investigation by The Guardian shed light on the extent of manipulation and the lengths to which groups will go to influence public opinion. They exposed that two popular Facebook pages with opposing views on the Voice — one conservative, branding it as “radical” and “dangerous,” and another progressive, discrediting it as ineffective — were both orchestrated by a key organization opposing the referendum.

Such strategies not only mislead the public but also seriously threaten the integrity of democratic processes.

Yes 23 inside a shape of Australia. Background is a teal color.
Promotional material supporting the “Yes” campaign for Australia’s Indigenous rights referendum.

Promotional material supporting the “Yes” campaign for Australia’s Indigenous rights referendum.

Navigating the Divides

The Voice has brought to the forefront how referendums on policies related to equality and inclusion can become lightning rods for polarization, opening political space for divisive tactics and misinformation to exploit fears and differences. These tactics aim to spread confusion and fear, sway public opinion during its formation, and deter voter participation.

A striking example is the primary slogan of the No Campaign, “If you don’t know, vote no,” serving the political and financial interests of a select few. This should act as a warning for the 2025 general election in Australia, potentially signaling the emergence of the kind of polarizing narratives to come and underscoring the need to navigate an evolving political landscape to create more inclusive, just, and peaceful societies.

Yet, while many across Indigenous communities are hurting, it is important to remember that the outcome of the vote does not provide clear insights into the reasons behind the “no” votes or the thought processes of those who abstained. Painting all ‘no’ voters or non-voters as a homogenous, unchangeable group of racists plays into the divisive agendas that thrive on fostering discord, and the loud voices of divisive entrepreneurs do not always accurately represent the often-conflicted views held by these voting blocs.

Finally, it is worthwhile to underscore how it is no small achievement that 5.5 million Australians across race and ethnic lines voted “yes” in solidarity with Indigenous peoples — signaling a significant movement for justice for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders, an inclusive Australia, and a First Nations Voice in Parliament.

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