What people inside the Yes campaign really think

Jul 4, 2023 •

The ‘Yes’ campaign has intensified its efforts this week, with thousands of people turning out for rallies nationwide to back the Indigenous Voice to Parliament on Sunday. Organisers hope momentum will build despite recent polls showing a drop in the ‘Yes’ vote over the last three months, from 58 to 49 per cent.

Today, Marty McKenzie-Murray takes us inside the ‘Yes’ campaign as it struggles to deal with declining support.



What people inside the Yes campaign really think

997 • Jul 4, 2023

What people inside the Yes campaign really think

[Theme Music Starts]


From Schwartz Media I’m Ruby Jones, this is 7am.

Over the weekend, the Yes campaign for the Voice to Parliament rallied thousands of supporters at 25 events around Australia.

That support came at the end of a difficult week for the campaign - with polling showing a conspicuous decline in support for the Voice, below 50 percent.

So what is driving those numbers, and how worried are those inside the campaign about the future of the referendum?

Today, associate editor of The Saturday Paper Martin McKenzie-Murray, has the inside story on how the ‘Yes’ campaign is responding to setbacks.

It’s Tuesday, July 4.

[Theme Music Ends]

Archival tape -- Reporter 1:

“Tens of thousands attending 30 rallies nationwide. Among them, campaigns in Sydney, Brisbane, Melbourne, Canberra, Adelaide and Perth.”

Archival tape -- Reporter 2:

“The Yes camp today also making a major change to its strategy as it stares down the possibility of defeat.”

Archival tape -- Reporter 3:

“The Come together for Yes events unofficially launch the next phase of the campaign and coincide with the beginning of NAIDOC week.”


So, Marty, on the weekend, we saw the Yes campaign kick into gear. There were events across the country that came, though, after a particularly bad week for the Yes campaign in the polls. In the wake of that. You got in touch with several high profile members of the Yes campaign. To begin with, can you tell me a bit about how hard it was to get them to talk, at least on the record, about where things might be going wrong with the campaign at the moment?


Yeah, I spoke with I think it was four, kind of significant figures in the campaign. The majority of our conversations were off record or even on deep background elements of them. And I think understandably, there's a certain suspicion of the media, a certain exhaustion about litigating and relitigating the same arguments over and over. I mean, the pressure of the kind of historic stakes that are at play here and then the additional pressure of subsequent polling that suggests that for the first time, national support has gone beneath 50 percent. So that was the sort of difficult context for these conversations. But I was very grateful for their candour.


Can you tell me a bit about what they said to you about the polling? Because last week we saw support for the campaign dropped to 43 percent, I believe so below support for the No campaign. That was just according to one Newspoll. How worried were those inside the campaign about those numbers?


Sure. Well, I'll make a couple of points. One, a campaign as large as this or let's say a movement I think might be a better description for it is comprised of lots of people and they're going to have different views and interpretations of things. And additionally, polling is a quality of all campaigns. Right. And I think this is probably a crude simplification, but I think privately there are kind of three categories to the interpretation of polling. One is a bit of a shrug and the suggestion that polling is a fickle instrument. It goes up, it goes down. The second kind of interpretation is kind of a form of denial or an insistence that the data is wrong. And then thirdly, those who become, you know, sincerely believe in it, become a little spooked and believe that the polling is dire and obliges some kind of shift in strategy. And I think these interpretations are kind of shared amongst those in the movement. Some were much calmer about the polls. Others were insistent that they were just plain wrong. And there were others who thought that it kind of it obliged a shift in directional strategy.


And you mentioned that there was this suspicion of the media. Among those that you spoke to. Can you tell me a bit more about the kinds of things that they said? What are their frustrations with the reporting of the voice to parliament referendum?


Well, there's several Ruby.

A recurring complaint and frustration amongst those in the Yes campaign is misinformation and disinformation. It's very difficult, as we all know now, and there are plenty of international examples. It's very, very difficult to regulate misinformation and disinformation, to run a campaign of confusion and exhaustion, to sow confusion and exhaustion in the public. It's very easy to do. It's kind of low cost and low effort. This was a recurring frustration, particularly on social media.

Archival tape – Speaker 1:

“G’day, folks. I don't know about you all, but I'm getting sick and tired of hearing about the Voice or having to sit through Welcome to Country ceremonies…”

Archival tape – Speaker 2:

“This was the only piece of information that I could find that apparently deep dives into the voice that literally profiting off the Voice.”

Archival tape – Speaker 3:

“We talk about this indigenous voice to Parliament as though Indigenous Australians don't already have a voice to Parliament. That is absolutely untrue.”


Social media was awash in misinformation and disinformation. Marcia Langton, for instance, called for much more fact checking to occur. Another frustration in the media was what was kind of thought a disproportionate attention given to Lidia Thorpe and Jacinta Price, two Indigenous parliamentarians who opposed the voice for very, very different reasons. The frustration was that there was this disproportionate attention and it seemed to stand in as a de facto representation of Indigenous and Torres Strait Islander people's views. Many campaigners kept saying over and over that polling suggests at least 80% support amongst Indigenous and Torres Strait Islander peoples. But the media has this kind of undue or distorting emphasis upon Jacinta Price and Lidia Thorpe. Another frustration was that they invoked this very old idea or cliché about the media, which is that bad news sells, which is true. And so this has a distorting effect. While the Yes campaign have for some time now been running local campaigns, town hall meetings, explanation groups, they've been doing a lot of work and a lot of positive work. And they say it's working and people are very responsive and receptive to their arguments and ideas. We don't see stories about that. Instead, we see stories about rancour and dispute and political jousting. So they felt that the idea that bad news sells put them at a disadvantage because they insisted that they have a very positive and constructive message. But the media's interest or inclination or attraction to bad news kind of played against that.


And just on this idea of the politicisation of the debate, I mean, it sounds like you're saying there is frustration at the attention given to people like Lidia Thorpe and Jacinta Price. But now that some like Lidia have adopted, no is their position and will campaign for a No vote. It is a bit hard to make the case that this referendum should be above or can be above politics anymore, isn't it?


Yeah, I agree. I mean, I'm relaying to you the conversations I've had, but to sort of editorialise briefly, I think it's a little wishful to want the debate over the voice to be entirely above or beyond Canberra and politics. It's an impossibility.

But I can sympathise with the frustration. And the frustration is this that and this was mentioned to me a couple of months ago in other conversations with with the campaign is is their insistence upon what is a self-evident truth that the referendum is for all of us and it will fail or succeed or it will pass or not according to us, that this is a matter for all voters. That's self-evidently true, but it needed to be legislatively conceived. The wording of the proposed alteration to the Constitution had to pass Parliament. Inescapably, it was subject to politics, inescapably subject to parliamentary process and debate. I think the frustration is that this insistence upon it being important for all of us that history will be made or it won't be according to us, is sort of battling the gravity of Canberra. And I think there was a sort of a strategic point to it as well, which was to try to diminish Peter Dutton's insistent framing of the voice, as he always refers to it as the Canberra voice. And the implication there is that the notion of the Voice is kind of insular product of Canberra elitism, and he's staked a lot of political capital into this and it's become in a way, a lot of media framing inescapably has bowled it down to this hyper partisan affair that it's Dutton versus Albanese. And I think the gravity of that can be frustrating to a few campaigners.


We’ll be back in a moment.



Marty, we’ve been talking about this frustration that the Yes campaigners who you spoke with feel – that the Voice has now become a very partisan issue, when that was not the intention they set out with. Tell me, why is it that Peter Dutton’s strong stance on this has frustrated the Yes campaign so much and the message that they want to be spreading?


Yeah sure well Dutton has really defined himself at the moment by his opposition to the Voice.

Archival tape – Peter Dutton:

“He wants to leverage the overwhelming public support for constitutional recognition to piggyback his poorly defined, untested and risk ridden Canberra voice model. And isn't it telling that the Yes campaign's first video, the advertisement mentions recognition, but it fails to mention the voice even once.”


You know, I can certainly sympathise with the frustration that it simplifies and distorts the broader appeal to all people by framing it kind of expressly as Peter Dutton versus the Prime Minister. The Prime Minister himself wanted to kind of vacate the space a little bit. And by that I mean once, once the referendum was legislatively confirmed, Albanese then said over to you

Archival tape – Anthony Albanese:

“Because this will be something that the nation will own. The change will be owned by people, regardless of what way individuals will vote, and they will make up their own decision..”


That is history will be made or it won't be according to you. This is now a point for voters. We've done our job now over to you. But Dutton won't relinquish this and he won't relinquish how kind of ferociously he's invested his capital into opposition. So we have a forthcoming by election in the Gold Coast seat of Fadden. And Dutton has very explicitly made this a mandate on The Voice and he's said as much to voters.


And there have been various criticisms of the way that the Yes campaign has met the challenge so far of trying to convince Australia to vote yes on the question of strategy. What are you hearing from those in the campaign about whether or not a change is needed and to what extent do you detect there is internal dissent around the way that the campaign is being run?


There's certainly internally some disagreement about strategy, about messaging. This is all very normal. Campaigns are high pressure affairs, especially in this kind of rare and historic moment that we're in now. Once a campaign starts, there will be disagreements about strategies and messages as time goes on and that pressure increases and maybe unflattering polls come out, the pressure intensifies and those disagreements can be magnified. So, yes, internally, there are some disagreements about messaging. There is pretty consistently, though, an insistence that what is referred to as a very constructive and positive message be repeated. Some are dismayed by the polling. Others are much calmer about it and stressed that there's still a really long time to go. We don't yet have a date for the referendum. It's likely to fall on a Saturday in October. They stressed that there is plenty more time to go. And this is sort of one of the polite disagreements, I guess, is how much you deploy and how quickly. So some have an anxiety to kind of do more and others say this is a long process and will ratchet it up as it goes on.

Some of the things being mulled over or mused upon internally is the economy and this belief that if economic uncertainty increases, people have a tendency to become perhaps a little more insular and less generous, certainly more risk averse. That's a consideration. And I think another consideration. This was something that was mentioned to me with the same sex marriage plebiscite from a few years ago. It was put to me that most Australians would have known somebody directly affected by that. But it was put to me that most white Australians don't know any Indigenous peoples, that there's this kind of disconnection. And I think that's central to the campaign, is trying to correct that in some way.


Yeah, and it does seem like the Yes and the No campaign are having very different conversations about the vote. The Yes campaign is keen to talk about this in non-political terms, whereas the No campaign are doing the opposite. They're trying to pin this on politics and on personalities. So how long do you think that can last, that the two campaigns can keep sort of talking past each other in this way? Or do you think that we're going to see more direct engagement with each other's ideas as we get closer?


I wouldn't think so. You know, as I mentioned before, Dutton has really worked very hard to make his opposition to the Voice a kind of defining feature of him.

You know, some of the hardheads put it to me that this is obviously going to be politicised. That won't stop and there's no point wishing otherwise. Politicians will be politicians is how it was put to me and that no one owes anybody harmony in the debate. It will continue to be rancorous and the asymmetry will continue and that's the asymmetry of the burden of persuasion rests obviously with the yes camp and on the other side it's very low cost and low effort to kind of spin things or prosecute arguments that are meant to exhaust or confound or confuse. That asymmetry isn't going anywhere. So at the moment, it was put to me that you don't get spooked by polls and you can continue to insist upon that constructive and positive message.


Marty, thank you for your time.


Thank you.



Also in the news today…

PwC has completed its internal review into how the firm used confidential tax information to benefit clients.

Yesterday it was announced that eight senior partners involved in the scandal will exit the firm, including its former CEO Tom Seymour – the other seven were also named publicly for the first time by PwC.


Paul Brereton, the head of the new National Anti-Corruption Commission revealed yesterday that his agency had already received 44 online referrals about alleged corrupt conduct – only two days after opening its doors on Saturday.

Brereton, a former NSW appeals court judge and major general who authored the report into alleged war crimes in Afghanistan, said on Monday, quote: “This is a historic moment … the people of the Commonwealth are no longer prepared to tolerate practices which might once have been the subject of, if not acceptance, at least acquiescence…”

I’m Ruby Jones, this is 7am. See you tomorrow.

[Theme Music Ends]

The ‘Yes’ campaign has intensified its efforts this week, with thousands of people turning out for rallies nationwide on Sunday to back the Indigenous Voice to Parliament.

It’s the kind of visible community campaigning that ‘Yes’ organisers have long been promising would ramp up as the referendum approaches.

But it came at the end of a difficult week for the campaign, with some major opinion polls showing support is declining – and may have fallen behind the ‘No’ vote.

Today, associate editor of The Saturday Paper Marty McKenzie-Murray, on what’s going on inside the ‘Yes’ campaign as it struggles to secure the necessary majorities.

Guest: Associate editor of The Saturday Paper Marty McKenzie-Murray

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7am is a daily show from The Monthly and The Saturday Paper.

It’s produced by Kara Jensen-Mackinnon, Zoltan Fecso, Cheyne Anderson, Yeo Choong, and Chris Dengate.

Our technical producer is Atticus Bastow. Our editor is Scott Mitchell.

Sarah McVeigh is our head of audio. Erik Jensen is our editor-in-chief.

Mixing by Andy Elston, Travis Evans, and Atticus Bastow.

Our theme music is by Ned Beckley and Josh Hogan of Envelope Audio.

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997: What people inside the Yes campaign really think