Michael Pascoe: Fear, outrage and ‘Trumpian schtick’ derailing Voice to Parliament

The post-mortem of the Voice referendum should find the shallow nature of mass media did not by itself reject the invitation offered by the Uluru Statement – but it sure as hell did not help.

Political opportunism tapping into a combination of innate timid conservatism and a sour meanness within the Australian spirit did that job, steadily eating away at the initial positive response to the Voice.

Maybe the optimism of the years of conversation that built the Uluru Statement did result in the wrong order – maybe Australia needed the truth-telling education first.

But in near-retrospect, the timidity that has seen Australians reject such no-brainer referenda as securing trial by jury, fair and democratic elections and simultaneous Senate and House of Representatives polls was always going to be easy for the No camp to tap into.

Media played handmaiden, both unintentionally and, in the obvious outlets, with malice aforethought.

For mass media, it’s about the clicks and the nature of news.

For social media, it’s the algorithms driving “engagement” – clicks by another name – and the nature of fear and outrage.

Clickbait brings imbalance

The problem for news outlets is, well, news. The usual cliches apply – “bad news is good news”, “dog bites man is not news, man bites dog is”.

An outrageous statement by a No campaigner is “bad” (i.e. “good”) news. It gets the clicks clicking. Offended Yes voters engage with the outrage and it kicks on in social media, the No cheer squad and trolls amplifying every lie.

Meanwhile the Yes story has remained the same from the outset. It hasn’t changed, can’t change. You can’t invent fresh explanations of goodwill, saying the same thing.

For most of the Murdoch media, running a No campaign either explicitly or by the “balance” subterfuge was a foregone conclusion given their political and social alignment with the Liberal and National parties, which in turn were always going to oppose the Voice.

The balance question also features in media that don’t operate as a political party, to use Malcolm Turnbull’s description of News Corp.

The easy example of “balance” failure is the disproportionate coverage that has tended to be given to Indigenous No campaigners when the overwhelming majority of Indigenous Australians are in the Yes camp.

Partly, there’s the “news” value of the minority example, a different angle, but often it is news judgment failing Jonathan Foster’s admonishment to journalism students: “If someone says it’s raining and another person says it’s dry, it’s not your job to quote them both. Your job is to look out of the f—ing window and find out which is true.’’

If anyone has wanted to know, the truth has been readily available. The window has been wide open.

Voting Yes won’t insert racism into our racist Constitution, it won’t give one group of Australians more power than any other group, it won’t stop cows milking or overturn the High Court or confiscate your backyard.

But the majority of people haven’t really wanted to know. They’ve been content to have their fear response triggered and leave it at that.

Elite billionaires

The far-right’s standard trick of branding any progressive initiative as the work of shadowy “elites” never tires, despite the actual “elites” bankrolling the No campaign.

You can’t get more “elite” in Australia than the billionaires Murdoch, Palmer and Rinehart – but the Trumpian schtick works.

jacinta price

Despite the treatment meted out to her forebears, Senator Jacinta Price is siding with Voice opponents. Photo: AAP

Their power and influence is without parallel, every syllable and nuance of their voices distinctly heard and noted whoever is in government, in some cases placing politicians in Parliament to echo their voices.

Yet it seems the majority of Australians can be persuaded that what used to be called “civil society” is made up of dangerous elites bent on causing harm.

The absurdity of the MAGA-like fear-and-loathing tribe preaching American-style reverence for the constitution is clear to anyone who has basic knowledge of our constitution. It borrows some ideas from the American constitution but is a very different animal.

More about the constitution

Barry Jones provided examples in The Saturday Paper:

As written, the constitution would see the office of prime minister disappear. There would be no cabinet or opposition. There is no reference to democracy or democratic practice, or what happens after an election. Executive power is exercised by the governor-general, who would also act as commander-in-chief, perhaps in the field. He would make all appointments, frame the budget and veto legislation, or refer it to Buckingham Palace, at whim.

The constitution is a profoundly racist document, an expression of White Australia, of settler history, with the concepts of Australia having been “discovered” by Europeans under the fiction of terra nullius. Implicit in it is “the passing of the Aborigines”.

The one issue on which all parties in the Australian colonies agreed in 1901 was White Australia. The Australian Labor Party was zealous on this. The Australian way of dealing with racism was to deny it existed.

Failure to recognise the suffering and marginalisation of First Nations people was the core of what anthropologist WEH Stanner, in his important Boyer Lectures for the ABC in 1968, called “the great Australian silence”.

Indian soldiers were invited to the inauguration of the Commonwealth of Australia in Sydney at 10am on January 1, 1901, but no Aboriginal Australians. The omission may not have been deliberate – perhaps it never occurred to the organisers to ask any.

It is egregious cynicism to argue in 2023 that a positive reference to First Nations people would bring a divisive racist element into the constitution.

The polls tell us the majority of Australians have bought that egregious cynicism.

The nature of news media and the nature of deeply partisan news organs have assisted in the sale, but the sour nature of the pitch still needed to resonate within Australia’s national character to succeed.

I live in hope that the polls are wrong and Australia’s soul turns towards the light to vote Yes on October 14. If you’ve read this far, I suspect you carry similar hope.

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