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View from the street: Referendums in review

Iain Gibson headshot

Iain Gibson


Well, at least it wasn’t 52-48.”
These words were spoken to me by an old and dear friend who has spent the past decade and a half living in Australia. They were uttered in jest, although with a tinge of regret given he had voted Yes in the referendum to change the country’s constitution. “The Voice” referendum was to decide whether to entrench an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander advisory voice to Australia’s executive and legislative bodies. The overall result looks likely to finish somewhere around the 60-40 mark, against the proposed changes.
What I think he meant is, despite the recriminations that have already begun, the result is fairly clear. There is no room for mistaking or misinterpreting the outcome. Whatever improvements could be made in the short and medium term for Australia’s indigenous peoples, it will not be via this proposed mechanism.
The past ten years in the UK have been shaped politically and economically by two referendums, which finished with narrower margins of victory than the one handed out in the southern hemisphere this weekend. These narrower margins, especially for the 2016 EU referendum, enabled multiple competing factions to dream up their own analysis of what voters had really said.
Business leaders could draw some parallels between our own referendum experiences and the events down under this weekend, notably the lack of a clear vision and cohesive message from the losing sides. The most frequent criticism of the ‘Yes’ campaign in Australia thus far has been that they were unable to articulate in simple terms what the proposed new body would do and how it would operate (partly because different advocates had different ideas). It afforded their opponents a golden slogan, “If you don’t know, vote No”. As The Spectator noted, the lack of detail on offer unsettled voters.
So, is this Australia’s Brexit? Such simple comparisons lack nuance, but there is no doubt that much of the country’s corporate, cultural and political elite backed a proposal that was rejected by the wider public, the same as happened here seven years ago. Looking through a Scottish lens, the Australian government was coy about what the changes would mean practically, similar to how many felt about the SNP’s strategy for an independent Scotland in 2014.
Of the three referendums being discussed here, only one delivered a break with the status quo. Vote Leave was able to successfully frame exiting the EU as being a step back to ‘how it used to be’, offering nostalgic comfort to insecure voters. This messaging option was not on offer to either former Scottish first minister Alex Salmond or current Australian prime minister Anthony Albanese.
In the western world, public trust in our leaders is low, and it has been since the mid-2000s. Meanwhile, the pace of technological change is staggering. As a result, faith in governments’ ability to manage complex new projects is not high, even more so if these governments struggle to explain how said new projects will function.
Good communications cannot save flawed, divided or lacklustre campaigns, but bad communications can sink just about anything. As the dust settles in Australia, we’ll probably find that its own campaign for change had the worst of both worlds. 


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