The Politics    Thursday, September 28, 2023

Divide and conquer?

By Rachel Withers

Tony Abbott and Warren Mundine are seen laughing side by side at a table at the National Press Club

Nyunggai Warren Mundine (right) speaks to former prime minister Tony Abbott ahead of his address to the National Press Club, September 26, 2023. Image © Lukas Coch / AAP Images

With its calls for fistfights, “declarations of war” and literal neo-Nazis, the “No” campaign is seeking to tear the country apart

There is a Steve Bannon phrase that is increasingly being used to describe the tactics of the “No” camp, as it seeks to tear down the Voice: “flooding the zone with shit”. The goal is to contaminate the information ecosystem, disorienting voters to the point that they simply switch off. This week has been a doozy, even by the appalling standards of the “No” campaign. Saturday saw disturbing anti-Voice rallies organised by a pro-Kremlin activist, and attended by conspiracy theorists and neo-Nazis, railing against the elite, among other conspiracies. One attendee’s shirt read: “Rope. Tree. Journalist.” On Tuesday, “No” campaigner Warren Mundine told the National Press Club that the Uluru Statement from the Heart – which won the 2022 Sydney Peace Prize – was a “symbolic declaration of war against modern Australia”, and the Voice a “political ploy to grab power”. (Uluru Dialogue co-chair Megan Davis labelled the comments “Trumpian”, and Noel Pearson, delivering his own NPC address yesterday, promised a “peace dividend” from the Voice, calling on Australia to reject the confected culture war.) And just when you might’ve thought things couldn’t get any worse, Warren Mundine shared a post about retired boxer Anthony Mundine threatening to beat up “Yes” campaigner Thomas Mayo, writing, “I want to see that!!!” Tell me, which side of this debate is seeking to divide Australians?

Mayo, for his part, responded as gracefully as he could to the threat – or as the Uluru Dialogue put it, the “abhorrent leap to encouraging violence”. While declining to officially comment, Mayo posted on social media last night, echoing Mundine’s wish for his menacing remark “to go viral”. “The only fighting I’m doing is for a better future for all Australians, using words, patience, understanding and acts of love and solidarity,” Mayo wrote, alongside smiling photos of himself on the campaign trail. Of course, if you ask former prime minister Tony Abbott, and much of the Murdoch media, it is the “Yes” camp that is behaving aggressively. “There has been a lot of bullying, and a lot of moral intimidation, and a lot of nasty vicious accusations of racism thrown at people who have had the temerity to say that, to say no, to this divisive proposal,” the former PM told a crowd at Wednesday’s “No” event, at which Warren Mundine repeated his claim that he was “tripping over blackfellas everywhere” when he went to Canberra.

It has long been hypocritical to hear “No” accuse “Yes” of seeking to “divide Australians” – an established strategy that the “No” campaign found played well in focus groups. This, after all, is exactly what the “No” camp is doing, whether that’s through spreading misinformation about the Voice, stoking conspiracies about the voting process, making inflammatory comments about colonisation, propagating false claims about spending, twisting “Yes” campaigners’ words, or telling angry “No” voters to “maintain the rage”. It’s widely understood that those behind the “No” campaign will be turning to other culture war issues after the referendum, with shadow minister for Indigenous Australians Jacinta Nampijinpa Price signalling her intention to go after trans people next. As I wrote last week, it is simply galling for the opposition to argue that the “Yes” camp is the hateful group here, when the “No” camp can’t seem to go a day without finding itself mired in a new racism scandal (today’s is brought to you by LNP senator Gerard Rennick).

Hypocritical and galling. And yet. The media coverage continues to treat these as serious arguments, with the Coalition – which, as has been well established, is only opposing this for political gain – still mostly getting away with the unchecked claim that Prime Minister Anthony Albanese is the divisive one. As Kalkadoon and Arrernte filmmaker and Yes23 co-chair Rachel Perkins says in today’s Full Story podcast, opponents are “doing their best to create division”, with “Yes” contending with a “disgraceful set of lies”. “History will remember their behaviour in relation to this really historic opportunity for unity,” she said, before referencing the words of her father, trailblazing activist Charles Perkins. “My dad always used to say, ‘we forgive, but we never forget’. And this will not be forgotten by Indigenous people.”

Whether or not the referendum succeeds (and it’s looking increasingly likely that it won’t, with the PM preparing his messaging), it’s almost guaranteed now that “No” will achieve its aim of a divided Australia – it can’t even seem to keep its own campaign united. Writer Nick Bryant suggested earlier this week that we may soon be referring to this country in the binary terms of Yes Australia and No Australia, not unlike Red/Blue America and Leave/Remain Britain. It didn’t need to be this way: the Coalition could have chosen to accept what it knows deep down is a very modest proposal. But if you’re in any doubt as to which side of this referendum debate is seeking to divide, just look at the gracelessness with which the PM’s weekend olive branch – saying that he would set up a bipartisan committee if the referendum succeeds – was mocked and rejected by the “No” camp.

“The prime minister is playing political games here,” said Peter Dutton, arguing that people would see through the “farce”. But we can all see it is Dutton who is playing Trumpian (or Nixonian) games, tearing the country apart and hoping to pick up the bigger half.

Rachel Withers

Rachel Withers is the contributing editor of The Politics.


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