The inner city of Melbourne is often caricatured by conservatives as a progressive, woke, almond-latte left-wing heartland.
With those assumptions, you could conclude that in this part of Australia, understanding and support for issues about Indigenous rights would be well established.
On Wednesday evening I quietly sat in on a “focus group” organized by consulting group Redbridge in the inner-city Melbourne seat of Richmond, largely about the state election campaign.
The group of six shared their views about the Liberals, Greens and Dan Andrews Labor government.
Their general take was that the election was uninspiring and that after this year’s federal election they are a bit over hearing about politics. They couldn’t wait for it to end.
The focus group ended by discussing an Indigenous voice to Parliament. They were asked if they’d heard of the proposal and how they would vote.
Only half of the group had even heard of the proposal and needed a simple explanation from the moderator. Keep in mind it is five years since the Uluru statement was delivered.
It’s too small a group to lead to any firm conclusions, but the responses hold a cautionary tale on the level of civics education that will be required to achieve a successful yes vote.
‘It should be inherent’
Some of the more progressive people in the group were opposed to the idea of a referendum because they believed it would be harmful to Aboriginal people, believing that the government could just deliver constitutional rights without the vote.
One man said: “I’ve heard about it, but I don’t truly understand the consequences and the implications.”
Another said: “It sounds like any other sub council thing and can only be a good thing”
A progressive woman said: “It’s like the gay marriage thing, don’t have a referendum. Indigenous rights should not be the choice of 25 million Australians, it should be inherent.”
Another said: “I don’t think we should have a vote on rights.”
Most of the group — after a brief explanation — supported the idea of Aboriginal people having a voice.
And then it got interesting: they overwhelmingly said “get on with it” about the timing. They didn’t think there was much time to waste.
“It’s probably best to do it as soon as possible because I feel like if there’s a change of government or if we leave it for the future, it might never happen.”
Support strong, understanding weak
The focus group comes as another national survey shows support for an Indigenous national representative body – such as constitutional recognition through a Voice to Parliament – continues to grow.
The Reconciliation Australia biannual Barometer report, released yesterday, found 80 percent of Australians believe the creation of a national representative Indigenous body is important, with 79 percent believing it should also be protected under the constitution. When it comes to Indigenous people, 86 percent back a change.
Dean Parkin, director of From the Heart said: “The Australian community is fully behind taking practical action on reconciliation, while some members of the political class are taking up column inches in the newspapers.”
Simon Welsh, who founded consulting group Redbridge in 2020 with former Victorian Labor deputy campaign director Kos Samaras, told me that the group, and others they are conducting across the country, “show that the federal government still has work to do in building the case for the Voice to Parliament and for the referendum”
“There are two risks here. Firstly, we see even here there are still knowledge gaps on the issue, and that makes voters susceptible to an “if you don’t know, vote no” sentiment,” he warned.
“Secondly, if it doesn’t address the need for a referendum.
“The government may be held responsible for unleashing hell — in the form of a toxic campaign — on the Indigenous community, in the same way that the Marriage Equality vote crystallized a values disconnect from the Liberal Party for many Millennial voters.”
Waiting for more details
The government is expected to provide more information about the Voice and referendum in early 2023, when a civics education campaign and a public advertising push from supporters are scheduled to begin.
Minister for Indigenous Australians Linda Burney told me a civics education campaign will be rolled out next year.
“We also plan to harness the reach of partners across the community including footy clubs, schools and businesses to spread the word about an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice.
“We are optimistic that a Yes campaign will resonate and bring Australians together to support the Voice.”
The Liberal party is looking increasingly likely to allow individual MPs the freedom to campaign however they want to on the referendum. In the meantime, there are polarized views on the referendum within the opposition.