Public statement July 22, 2023

This week, the Australian Electoral Commission released the long awaited Yes and No campaign information pamphlets.  I flicked through my usual media outlets and social media feeds to find every single one purporting to provide a “balanced view”.  In particular, I was dismayed to see Crikey syndicating Senator Jacinta Nampijinpa Price’s opinion piece from the Australian Financial Review, asserting – without evidence – that corporate Australia had not done due diligence on the referendum and its advocacy for Yes was against shareholder best interests. I disagree profoundly with this view, but if Senator Price is to make the case she should be required to substantiate her assertions.  

I had a visceral reaction to Crikey’s syndication of Senator Price’s empty argument, a feeling I am all too familiar with. As a seasoned climate policy advocate, over the last 30 years I’ve watched the press make this careless and frankly dangerous decision before: to give even time to ‘two sides’ of a ‘debate’, even when the arguments for one side consists of nothing but fearmongering and baseless assertions.  

Specious arguments are the tools of climate change deniers and vested interests. We need a media that calls that out, not one that reproduces media releases uncritically as news. 

In choosing this path, our media is more than complicit; it has been an actor in delaying climate action across the Australian economy. Now we play painful, socially divisive, and costly catch up with the EU, China and even the USA. It is no accident that the media was similarly supine during Robodebt. Apparently, it is easier to republish political talking points than it is to engage with nonsense and call it out. 

Cue the Indigenous Voice to Parliament referendum.  Just because, by nature, a referendum requires a binary response (yes or no) does not mean that each argument for each side is of equal value, and it is not the role of the media to echo misinformation. It is to call out bloviating, irrespective of which side it’s on. A cogent argument with which you may disagree is not ‘balanced’ by blather on the other side. 

We need to recall – our media needs to remind us – that recognising Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders in the Australian constitution and providing a Voice to Parliament had bipartisan support well before the Uluru Statement of the Heart was delivered to the people in 2017. In 2012 Alan Tudge spoke on the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Recognition Bill in Parliament: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander… 

“I rise in support of the Indigenous Recognition Bill before us today. ...The Bill acknowledges the unique and special place of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples as the first inhabitants of Australia. … The purpose is to maintain momentum towards a national consensus for a successful change to recognise Indigenous Australians in our Constitution. This is an idea that was initially proposed by John Howard in 2007 … It was again proposed by Tony Abbott in the lead-up to the 2010 election. I am pleased to see that the concept also has strong support in the Labor Party.” 

It had bipartisan support until the moment the newly uplifted leader of the Liberal National Party realised, they were in Opposition. 

Over 80% of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have shown their support for the Voice. Policymakers, high court judges, sportspeople, and global Australian stars have shown their support, just as the LNP did before it weaponised the No case. 

What the media is missing is that if, after reading the volume of coverage given to the No campaign, the Australian people vote No, then they are voting for doing nothing. For the same.  There is no other model being offered up at the end of the year, no treaty, no alternate wording. This is it. A No is a vote for the status quo and the status quo is not working. 

So if the media again chooses to ignore the evidence, peddle disinformation and report on the referendum as if there are genuinely two well thought out sides to this offering, then they are complicit in our nation’s egregious misstep to the wrong side of history. They are colluding in spurious assertions about division, diminishing rights of non-Indigenous Australians and power grabs.  

The Voice is about making decisions WITH Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders rather than FOR them. It is a vehicle for fierce and frank advice, which is not always possible inside the government departments where bureaucrats are responsible to Ministers who in turn are answerable to their party. We need to learn this lesson from reporting on climate change and on Robodebt and on the Murray Darling and on issues too numerous to mention. Both-sidesism, the view from nowhere, is not only poor journalism, it is dangerous.