Labor NT Senator Malarndirri McCarthy is on a media blitz to counter Coalition Senator Jacinta Nampijinpa Price’s portrayal of an Indigenous community divided on the Voice, an issue the Yes campaign has identified as its biggest challenge.
Leading Voice advocate Professor Megan Davis says a lack of detail was a key concern for voters late last year and early this year, but this has been overtaken by “the perception that black people are divided”.
“It’s the biggest thing that comes up in research, be it Essential, Crosby Textor, YouGov. And that’s where Price and [Nyunggai Warren] Mundine have been a coup for No.
“They’ve been able to prosecute this division argument which actually isn’t true. There has always been a resistance mob that has resisted every change. But it’s very small and social media has amplified it.”
Yes research also shows McCarthy, Labor’s 53-year-old senator and former journalist, is seen by voters as a compelling communicator who has authenticity as someone from central Australia.
McCarthy began Monday’s campaign as a guest on Sky and finished it a panellist on ABC’s and features in the latest Yes advertising campaign.
In an interview with this masthead, McCarthy said she respected the right of Indigenous people to vote No.
But after spending time at remote community voting booths and speaking to people in her home state, she said she was convinced “First Nations people want a better way … not only for ourselves but for all Australians”.
The assistant minister for Indigenous Australians said the Yes campaign needed to focus on “what Australia could look like” with constitutional recognition and a Voice, while acknowledging and respecting many busy Australians had not had time to engage deeply with the referendum.
“First Nations’ peoples lives will be better … in terms of health statistics, in terms of high rates of incarceration, rates of suicide, babies’ birth weights that are so low,” she said.
Yes campaign research of voter attitudes indicates a significant proportion of persuadable Australians have been convinced – largely by Coalition Indigenous Australians spokeswoman Price – that the Indigenous community is divided about the Voice proposal.
This research, confirmed by four Yes and government sources speaking anonymously to detail private findings, has been one of No’s most effective tools to weaken the Voice proposal, and one source said the prominence of Price, and to a lesser extent Nyunggai Warren Mundine and senator Kerrynne Liddle, was the referendum’s biggest “wildcard”.
A spokesman for the main No outfit, Fair Australia, said presenting the Indigenous community as divided on the Voice was “not a campaign tactic, it’s just the truth”.
A government source speaking off the record to brief on campaign planning questioned why McCarthy wasn’t more prominent earlier.
The senator is campaigning in tandem with Labor’s Indigenous Australians Minister, Linda Burney, who spent Monday talking to Yes campaigners in Tasmania.
While Burney has struggled to combat intense opposition pressure in parliament, she has proved popular with the campaign’s grassroots volunteers across the country.
Early voting opened in Victoria, Tasmania, Western Australia and the Northern Territory on Monday. It will open in NSW, Queensland, South Australia and the ACT on Tuesday following a public holiday in those states and territories.
Prime Minister Anthony Albanese has repeatedly accused opponents of misinformation, declining to give his view on why Labor voters were deserting the Voice, and declaring optimism despite sinking approval for the referendum across all major polls.
“No country was ever made more great by agreeing to a fear campaign. To enlarge a country, you need optimism,” he said in Melbourne’s outer north-west suburbs, asserting the Voice would create no losers and was “unifying for the nation, a prospect for which there is only upside, no downside.”
“This isn’t a radical proposal, nor is it a conservative proposal, it’s a mainstream proposal. And it’s a proposal which has come from Indigenous people themselves.”
Albanese’s positive tone contrasts with that of a new Yes23 advertisement released on Monday. It depicts, in black and white, an Indigenous family confronting infant mortality, financial insecurity and poor health in old age.
“A no vote means no progress,” the ad says.
Yes23 campaign director Dean Parkin said: “A successful Yes vote is our best shot at delivering better outcomes and better future. A No Vote will mean more of the same old policy failures”.
Midnight Oil, a band that has long campaigned for Indigenous rights, recorded and paid for a radio advertising campaign supporting Yes on the same day NRL star Nathan Cleary declared his support for Yes.
The Oils’ ad is set to the band’s famous song. Singer Peter Garrett, a former Labor minister, says: “Of course your vote is totally up to you but don’t get sucked in by all the bullshit scare campaigns. If you don’t know, find out!”
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