For everyone The Lowdown: The Voice – try and understand it

The past, as they say, is another country. Looking back at the country Australia was in January of last year, that feels truer than ever. Back in those heady, innocent days, a ‘yes’ vote in the referendum for the Voice to Parliament seemed inevitable. The most conservative polls still had a safe majority of Australians voting to give our nation’s First People a voice at the heart of government. 

For a while, it seemed the referendum might even be a bipartisan issue. After all, what arguments could there be against guaranteeing First Nations Australians an advisory committee in Canberra, whose advice on legislation and matters affecting their communities could still be ignored by the government of the day?

But that was another Australia. The Australia that gave a resounding ‘no’ vote to the Voice was one riven by months of bitter campaigning and disinformation, as Peter Dutton and other figures on the populist right attempted to use the vote as a wedge to destabilise the Albanese government. Dutton promised a second referendum, run properly this time, only to reveal he had his fingers crossed.

What happened? Every pundit has a pet theory, blaming elites or racists or Johnny Farnham. But one stat from the voting demographics stands out – people who were highly educated were most likely to vote yes.

The Voice was, like climate change, an issue that couldn’t neatly be dissected along party lines. While Labor-voting areas with low levels of education were more likely to vote no, Liberal-leaning electorates – specifically, those seven seats that went Teal at the last federal election – all supported the Voice.

This divide was already apparent at the start of 2023. Support for the Voice soon dipped beneath a clear majority as polls revealed very few Australians understood what a ‘Yes’ voice would actually mean for the Constitution. Only 13% of Aussies polled said they had a clear understanding, which left a vast chunk of the country open to disinformation from the ‘No’ camp.

The antidote to fear, it seems, is comprehension.

Arguments from the negative tended to side-step the details of the proposed changes, focusing instead on the idea that it was a divisive notion to give one section of Australian society special access to power. This emotive argument drew on the mythical notions of egalitarianism that, for many, still underpin our national character. Secondary to this appeal – on much of the distributed propaganda – were unfounded claims that a Yes vote was a vote on changing the date of Australia Day or allowing Indigenous Australians to make a land grab on private property.

In the absence of understanding, these fearful whisperings were able to flourish. This is a moment of stress and uncertainty for many Australians, who are wracked by cost-of-living pressures. Positing the Voice as a grand change to the status quo, part of an inevitable march to progress, may have been counterproductive. Times of chaos tend to breed a wariness of change. For Australians lacking security, the ability to say ‘no’ to something – anything – may have offered a rare sense of control over their lives.

Education is crucial when it comes to creating change. It’s fair to say that, while most Australians are aware of the Constitution, most lack a clear understanding of what it actually is, beyond a supposedly sacred document. One of the starkest graphs from the referendum demonstrates the polar divide between Australians who finished Year 12 and those who left a year earlier. In short, completing secondary education made you far more likely to vote for the Voice.

The antidote to fear, it seems, is comprehension. Completing high school meant you were much more likely to understand that, while the Voice meant a lot for Aboriginal Australians, it would change very little for everyone else. Looking at how Australians voted underlines the importance of a thorough education, not just for those who can afford to pay for one, but for everyone. Ultimately, the failure of the Voice is a reminder of why we need to keep fighting for fair funding for our public schools.

Decades of underfunding and devaluing public education by successive federal governments is now having a damaging impact on our politics – in much the same way that decades of underfunding public schools in America is undermining democracy there.

The fact that Dutton attempted to tap into a well of ignorance to shore up his power is a warning that our own Trump moment could be coming. Good schools make a difference. To defeat fear, ignorance, and a rising populism, we need to make sure all Australians have access to the quality public education they deserve.

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