The Politics    Thursday, October 12, 2023

Mistruth be told

By Rachel Withers

Peter Dutton is seen from one side, against a black background.

Opposition Leader Peter Dutton during a press conference in Brisbane yesterday, October 11, 2023. Image © Jono Searle / AAP Images

We should all be extremely concerned by the way misinformation has taken over our national debate

This morning on RN Breakfast, we saw a stark example of how misinformation has twisted the debate surrounding the Voice referendum. During a vox pop in Melbourne’s west, a “No” voter told reporter Luke Siddham Dundon that he wanted Indigenous Australians to have a voice, rather than for “someone else to assume things and say things on their behalf”. The man seemed surprised when told that the proposed Voice to Parliament would be made up of Indigenous people, saying he wasn’t against that. What, then, did he think the referendum was about? “I thought it was more of a land-grab type of thing,” he said. Where did he hear that? “Just TikTok,” he replied. The man had already voted “No”, as had his mate, having seen the same TikTok video. Misinformation has been a huge part of this campaign, on both social and traditional media; spreading conspiracies was an express tactic of the “No” outlet, Fair Australia, while an emboldened Peter Dutton’s flagrant lies continue to reach disturbing new heights. But this exchange caused many to shake their heads in despair. How many soft voters might have been persuaded to vote “Yes” were it not for the outright lies?

There are an overwhelming number of conspiracy theories currently flying around, many of which seem to be among the key drivers for people voting “No”. As Nine reported earlier this week, the “big lie” of the campaign – that the Voice will “divide Australians by race” (the Voice is about indigeneity, not race, with the claim not stacking up against the Coalition’s professed support for constitutional recognition) – is the most persuasive factor in turning people against it, followed by the claim that there “isn’t enough detail” (there is plenty of detail, including an in-principle guide of what the Voice will look like, with parliament to determine its exact form). The lies just haven’t stopped (if only we had some kind of truth-in-advertising laws). Last week, mining billionaire Clive Palmer began bankrolling ads claiming, without evidence, that a Voice would lead to financial costs for families, while anti-marriage-equality campaigner Lyle Shelton is encouraging Christians to oppose the Voice, claiming it will be a used as a “lever for anti-Christian ideology”. (Many religious groups strongly back the Voice, including the National Council of Churches and the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference.) Former One Nation candidate Kerry White, who denies the accepted history on the Stolen Generations, is now falsely claiming that Voice supporters want “their own military”, and spouting conspiracy theories about a UN takeover.

Guardian Australia has today added to the fact-checking done by several excellent social-friendly news outlets in fact-checking the biggest pieces of misinformation, noting that the same debunked claims have popped up time and time again. Some of these, such as the ludicrous claim that Australians will lose their homes, were also spread around the time of the Mabo and Wik court decisions. Another report notes that anti-lockdown groups have found a new focus here, with “freedom movement” members making wild claims about electoral commission manipulation and urging voters to “use pens” to vote (all happily pushed along by Clive Palmer and Peter Dutton). As 7.30 revealed earlier this week, the conservative lobby group behind Fair Australia plans to keep campaigning on its “core issues” beyond the referendum, with what major donor Simon Fenwick, who funds conspiracy candidates and rails against an “organised socialist threat”, has dubbed “world class” campaign infrastructure. 

It speaks volumes about the conservative “No” campaign that, much like the Brexit “Leave” campaign before it, they didn’t think they could win this fight without outright lying about what was on the table. As that vox pop showed, the idea of giving First Nations peoples a say over the specific laws that affect them, is – to most Australians – uncontroversial, logical and fair. People generally come on board once they have it explained to them, as Anthony Albanese keeps saying. The Coalition’s lies – coming from the very top – show how empty the conservative case against the referendum has been, and how pathetic their opposition to a Voice that was designed so as to be “so modest that no reasonable non-Indigenous Australian could reject it”. Anyone associated with the “No” campaign should be deeply ashamed of themselves, whether they themselves spread lies or simply denied the lies were taking place. Father of Reconciliation Pat Dodson yesterday urged voters to ignore the confusion and look in the mirror. But it’s the “No” leaders who will have the most soul-searching to do, having told and enabled racist lies, unleashing forces that may be hard to contain.

Rachel Withers

Rachel Withers is the contributing editor of The Politics.


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