The Politics    Wednesday, September 20, 2023

‘No’ nonsense

By Rachel Withers

Sussan Ley makes a questioning gesture in the House of Representatives.

Deputy Liberal leader Sussan Ley during Question Time last month, August 10, 2023. Image © Mick Tsikas / AAP Images

It is simply galling for the opposition to argue that the “Yes” campaign is the problem here

Olympic champion Cathy Freeman’s entry into the Voice debate could not have come at a more necessary time. “We have the chance to be part of a moment that brings people together,” says Freeman in a new Yes23 video, “to work hard for something that we can all believe in … to stand together and to show our support for Australians who need it the most.” The video has put some “No” campaigners in an awkward position, loathe to disagree with the national icon, who knows a thing or two about bringing Australians together. Probed on Sky News, Liberal deputy Sussan Ley said Freeman was a great Australian, adding that she would love to see her in parliament, before quickly pivoting to the “Yes” camp’s “abuse”. “It’s okay to vote ‘Yes’ and it’s okay to vote ‘No’,” Ley said. “What’s not okay is the type of disrespect and abuse that people experienced only a day or so ago in Adelaide.” We have now spent several days talking about the protest in Adelaide, with everyone from Prime Minister Anthony Albanese to Yes23 director Dean Parkin condemning the 20-odd activists who picketed the Fair Australia event. But when are Ley and co going to condemn the abuse, hatred, dog-whistling and eugenics-laced rhetoric that is overwhelmingly coming from the “No” camp, which can barely go a day without finding itself mired in a new racism scandal?

It is genuinely staggering that Ley expects anyone to believe that the “Yes” campaign – which saw tens of thousands of people march in cities around the country over the weekend, bearing messages of love and unity – are the nasty ones, while the “No” campaign (where you will likely find every racist troll in the country, thrilled that the Overton window is shifting) are the innocent victims. This is a core part of the “No” campaign strategy, which is intent on painting “Yes” as “vile” and “aggressive”. But it simply doesn’t line up with the facts, as anyone observing the referendum will tell you. Former Liberal MP Pat Farmer, who today reached Adelaide on his 15,000-kilometre lap of Australia in support of the Voice, has seen his fair share of it. “The ‘No’ voter will go out of their way to cross six lanes of traffic and point in your nose and tell you that they’re going to vote ‘No’ and they’ll scream it from the rooftops,” Farmer told reporters. “Everybody else is just getting on with their lives.”

It’s telling that the “Yes” protest – in which a rather small group of activists chanted “always was, always will be, Aboriginal land” outside a convention centre, and “at least one person could be heard yelling abusive phrases” (as the ABC has it)  – has attracted several days of News Corp coverage, and a prime ministerial rebuke, while the “No” campaign’s near-daily scandals barely warrant a mention. Last night, 7.30 made further revelations about last month’s highly problematic CPAC conference, reporting that a far-right US media figure who has made racist attacks on Indigenous Australians had also spoken at the event. Pressed on Elijah Schaffer’s inclusion, CPAC chairman Warren Mundine said he was unaware of Schaffer’s views, but refused to say that CPAC would not have him back. (In related news, contentious campaigner Gary Johns remains listed in official “No” leadership positions, despite Mundine suggesting he would not be representing the campaign publicly.) Curiously, the 7.30 report was framed as being about the “tone of the debate”, foregrounding Mundine’s complaints about the toll it is taking on him, despite the fact that every major example of racism cited had come from the “No” camp.

Sussan Ley has taken on a special role in this campaign, using her media appearances to rail against any perceived slight from the “Yes” campaign, whether that’s Marcia Langton’s suggestion that some “hard No” voters are “spewing racism” (an incontrovertible fact) or a bunch of socialist alternative protesters chanting against genocide (another incontrovertible fact, as former Liberal minister Ken Wyatt emphasised yesterday, as he rejected Jacinta Price’s claim that there are no lasting negative impacts of colonisation). It’s unclear whether Ley truly believes the things she is saying when she suggests, with a straight face, that the “Yes” campaigners are the ones showing “disrespect and abuse”, as she wriggles out of any question about the “No” campaign’s appalling tactics. There are no doubt heated comments flying around on all sides of this debate. But Ley’s refusal to condemn the ugliness coming from her own side shows wilful blindness, and an utter lack of interest in the real “disrespect and abuse” warping our national debate. 

Rachel Withers

Rachel Withers is the contributing editor of The Politics.


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