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If the campaign is lost the war is still won

By Graham Young - posted Friday, 15 October 1999


With just one week to go before the Referendum it is apparent that while the "Yes" case has won the argument – being a Republican of one hue or another is the clear majority position – it has lost the campaign. That does not mean that the "No" case will win, just that it has made better use of what it was given.

The "No" case had some natural advantages. In the first place, people know what they dislike more than they know what they like. It is easier to mobilize them against a proposition rather than for it.

Secondly the onus of proof is always against the reformer. There has to be a very clear and demonstrated benefit before people will change.

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Thirdly, John Howard opposes change and has loaded the bases against it. A more open approach to the republican question would have been to first establish whether the country wanted change, and then to determine from a number of models, which one it was that they wanted. That would have taken a number of referenda, and been cumbersome, but would have represented a high point in participatory democracy in this country. Its result might also have been the same as what we will get from this poll, but there would have been less cause for complaint if it had.

What the Prime Minister has done is to set up a ballot where the choice is between one form of Republic (which polls at the time of the convention showed to be perhaps the least popular republican model), and all the other possible forms of Government. Of course it was always a natural dynamic of the situation that the more closely people looked at the ARM model, or any other, the more likely they would be to find things with which they did not agree. The choice in this referendum accentuates that dynamic.

So the ARM and their allies always had an uphill battle. They have magnified those problems with their campaign tactics and strategy. The "Yes" Campaign has lacked focus. While some of us are clearly obsessed with the referendum, most of the public really couldn’t give a damn. Politics repels them. For a political message to reach these voters it has to be immediately and apparently true, simple, and repeated so frequently that it cannot be ignored.

The "No" campaign has found that focus with the slogan "Vote No to the politicians’ republic". It is simple, taps into the fears and prejudices of ordinary Australians, and unites the various factions within the campaign.

What is the phrase that sums up the "Yes" case? There is no single phrase. As a result "Yes" has run a series of advertisements pushing a number of different lines. This has two effects. None of the messages achieves the reach and frequency for them to sink in. And a multitude of arguments makes the proposal appear complicated, to which the response of the public is "If you don’t understand it, don’t vote for it."

The "Yes" Campaign seems to be labouring under the delusion that you can win a political argument by carefully explaining things to the electorate. This view got a boost after the deliberative poll screened on ABC TV last weekend. There was a significant move in favour of the "Yes" republican model once the participants had been educated on the concepts.

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Every political apparatchik dreams that if only he or she could speak to each elector independently and explain the concepts to them, then they would be sure to win their vote. The catch is that you can’t, and even if you could most electors wouldn’t want to know anyway. That most of the participants in the deliberative poll, after years of constitutional argument, didn’t understand the concepts to start with, just proves the point.

It is symbols and emotions that move the average voter. While this seemed to be initially understood by the "Yes" case, they have moved away from it. But symbols and emotions have always been most effective in communicating messages. The great salesmen of ideas from the past all used stories and catchy phrases to communicate. And by great salesmen I am talking of people like Christ, Confucius and Buddha – complicated ideas can be expresssed simply. Most of us understand the world in which we live through emotions and lack the experience, understanding and cranial horsepower to understand it analytically. That is not to be sneered at. It is just the human condition.

The "Yes" case has also failed to learn the lessons from recent election results. The electorate is in a rebellious mood. Tell it what to think and it will do the opposite. It feels excluded and marginalized, and resents the clever middle class, particularly that part of it that resides in Sydney and Melbourne.

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About the Author

Graham Young is chief editor and the publisher of On Line Opinion. He is executive director of the Australian Institute for Progress, an Australian think tank based in Brisbane, and the publisher of On Line Opinion.

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