The Voice to Parliament referendum is in danger of defeat

Why it’s vital to present a model before we vote

Shorter JQ: Albanese should release draft legislation before the Voice referendum if it is to succeed. Not doing so is a recipe for failure based in part on a mistaken analysis of the 1990s Republic referendum, which I shared for a long time.


Although polls suggested majority support for a republic, the Turnbull/Keating proposed model (appointed president) was defeated. Analysis assumes alternative of elected president would also be defeated. So, suggestion is “vote on principle of referendum first, then choose model”. Sounds convincing, BUT

On the stated facts, status quo would beat either alternative and is therefore the Condorcet winner. On most theories of voting it should be selected.

More, given the stated facts, and assuming rational voters, Republic should lose in the first round.

Suppose “appointed president” would beat “elected president”. Then “elected president” voters who prefer “no change” to “appointed” should vote “No” in the first round to prevent this happening.

On the stated facts, status quo would beat either alternative and is therefore the Condorcet winner. On most theories of voting it should be selected.

More, given the stated facts, and assuming rational voters, Republic should lose in the first round.

Suppose “appointed president” would beat “elected president”. Then “elected president” voters who prefer “no change” to “appointed” should vote “No” in the first round to prevent this happening.

Voters aren’t perfectly rational calculators. In the Brexit referendum, for example, people voted for radically inconsistent versions of Brexit (from Singapore-on-Thames to Hang the Bankers), all expecting that their own version would prevail

But, in the context of an Australian referendum, any ambiguity will be resolved by voting No. If there isn’t a clearly described model on offer, people will imagine the version they like least, then vote for or against that. I’m a Yes, pretty much regardless of the model, but I don’t think I’m representative of a majority of voters in a majority of states.

*This is an unrolled version of a thread on Mastodon (@johnquiggin@mstdn.social), so it may be telegraphic in places.

25 thoughts on “The Voice to Parliament referendum is in danger of defeat

  1. I am old enough to remember the 1977 referendum on Simultaneous Elections for the Senate and the House of Representatives. On that occasion there was a 62.22% YES vote nationally but the referendum was still defeated because there were wide variations in support for it between the States and majorities were only achieved in three States. On the question of Voice I also expect disparities in opinion between the States to be significant and so I think there is a real possibility that it could achieve a popular majority but not get up because of opposition in the “frontier states”. For this reason I think a decision by the Queensland Greens to commit their formidable on-the-ground campaigning abilities to the “YES” case could make a significant difference to the outcome by flipping Queensland.

    On the specific issue raised in the OP, an optimum needs to be achieved between constitutional and political considerations that don’t neatly align. It is true that, if the referendum proposal is too general, some potentially sympathetic voters could demur from supporting it because of uncertainty about what they are voting for. On the other hand, too detailed a proposal could cause other potentially sympathetic voters to vote “NO” on the basis of disagreement with specific details. There is a political course to be steered between these two hazards.

    There is also a good argument that an amendment to the Constitution should be phrased in general terms, especially if the amendment empowers the Parliament to legislate on the specifics of the matter. Anne Twomey has put the argument recently:

    https://www.smh.com.au/national/parliament-not-the-devil-should-control-the-detail-on-the-voice-20230101-p5c9pe.html

    However, what might be an appropriate level of generality from the standpoint of constitutional drafting may not align with the point of political balance I discuss above.

    There is also the important principle of keeping faith with the First Nations people who have formulated the Statement from the Heart and the Voice, Treaty, Truth program.

    https://ulurustatement.org/

  2. Paul, I think you, and Twomey, are missing the point. No one, AFAICT, is suggesting that the constitutional amendment should contain a lot of detail. The point is that the government should say what kind of legislation it has in mind before the referendum is held. That leaves it open to a subsequent government to change things, but means that people aren’t voting blind, which (contra Twomey) they will be if all they have to go on is a one-sentence amendment to the Constition

  3. Of course it is ridiculous to be asked to vote on a proposal to change the constitution without this being spelt out fully. It isn’t just a tactical error that might mean a dominant no vote (as you seem to suggest above) but is also just morally wrong.

    But there are worse problems than this. The most obvious is to try to understand why we are having a referendum at all. The “voice” group will not, it is claimed, have the power to veto legislation and its composition and structure will be entirely the business of the Parliament. In short, it is claimed to be purely an advisory body though with permanent existence but of form that can be changed at the whim of Parliament.

    Why not form an advisory group tomorrow and avoid the need for a referendum? the simple answer to this rhetorical question is that many think we are being sold bunkum by “voice” supporters. Will there be appeals to the High Court when Parliament overrules advice from the “Voice” irrespective of how it is comprised? If that is true we are being sold deceit. If it isn’t true and this cannot happen then why the need for a referendum to form a body which has no veto power and, in effect, which is purely advisory.

    I will vote “no” and its not because the details of the representation have not been spelt out and not because I oppose racially-based democracy – although I do oppose these things. This “Voice” proposal seems based on a deceit.

  4. Of course it is ridiculous to be asked to vote on a proposal to change the constitution without this being spelt out fully.

    Why, then, are you not reassured to know that this won’t happen?

    The exact text of the proposed change to the constitution will be spelled out in full before anybody has to vote in the referendum.

    But I bet that doesn’t reassure you, does it? I’m curious about how you’d explain why not.

  5. J-D, Try reading John’s post. You are as confused as usual.

    Your mental state appears to be as usual, although I am not sure ‘confused’ would be the best word to describe it. I have a suspicion, however, that John Quiggin would prefer us both to refrain from speculating about each other’s usual mental states, and I would certainly be happy to so refrain.

    I have read the post. I have also read about the history of constitutional amendment.

    Several past proposals to amend the Constitution, including some successful ones as well as some unsuccessful ones, have sought (and in some cases achieved) changes to the constitutional text which would grant power to the Commonwealth Parliament to legislate in stipulated areas. For that matter, the original proposal for the Constitution, stipulating areas in which the Commonwealth Parliament would have the power to legislate, was also submitted to popular vote; and, as with subsequent proposals, it was not stipulated in advance what would be the content of the legislation which the Parliament would use those powers to adopt.

    What is ridiculous is to suggest that it’s wrong to grant the Commonwealth Parliament power to legislate except where the content of the legislation to be enacted by that power is stipulated in advance. If the exact content of the legislation is stipulated in advance, then where is the need to grant legislating power to the Commonwealth Parliament?

    What I find in John Quiggin’s post, having read it, is no suggestion that it is ridiculous to grant power to the Commonwealth Parliament to legislate without stipulating in advance the content of that legislation, but rather a suggestion that in the circumstances of this particular case the likely attitudes of the voting population will be an obstacle to their adoption of a proposal without more advance notice of Commonwealth intentions, attitudes about which he suggests not that they are rightly avoiding the ridiculous but rather, in his words, that they are ‘not perfectly rational’.

  6. JQ thanks for the clarification. Yes, the government could do as you suggest, and should probably tack as closely as it can to the Calma-Langton proposal which is in the public domain.

  7. Why oh why does the Prime Minister provide a free FUD kick to, of all people, Ben Fordham!

    As usual, the fourth estate has skin in the game. Ours.

    “The prime minister, Anthony Albanese, has spoken to 2GB Radio about the Indigenous Voice, …. “but Fordham did not read the full quote.”

    https://www.theguardian.com/australia-news/live/2023/jan/18/australia-news-live-updates-chalmers-china-economy-gdp-storm-flood-fire-victoria-queensland-albanese-voice-referendum?page=with:block-63c709028f08700e2aeafda2#block-63c709028f08700e2aeafda2

    Albo may do a brochure to every household.
    Albo may make his own podcast.
    Albo may commision and pay for massive advertising, msm, social & influencer campaign.

    The quoted transcript ends with;
    Albo: “They’ll be processes to deal with these issues. A whole range of the further serious detail. Not whether they’ll be an office or not.”
    … am-BIG-uous! “They’ll be” “will be” “serious detail”…

    A whole range of serious detail post referendum. As JQ said “in the context of an Australian referendum, any ambiguity will be resolved by voting No”.

    Ambiguity aplenty.

    A John Hewson cake moment. Fordham got what he wanted and so did his listeners. They are influencers. Opinionated, negative and loud.

    My optimism just went down a notch or three.

  8. Why not form an advisory group tomorrow and avoid the need for a referendum?

    This seems to me a reasonable question. There may be a point I have missed which some more thoroughly informed person could elucidate, but as far as I can tell the Prime Minister’s suggestion is to propose an amendment to the Constitution to grant the Parliament power to make a kind of law which the Parliament would already have the power to make under the Constitution as it stands now. Why, then, have I decided to vote Yes if the referendum takes that form? Because if the referendum proposal is adopted, it will make people feel better, whereas if it is rejected, people will feel bad; and, on the whole, I prefer to make people feel better and not to make them feel bad.

  9. The link to the 260 page articulation of the “voice” is useful, Paul. A testimony to the standard consulting joke: We didn’t have time to write a short useful report so we wrote a long useless one. The report is dotted with inconsequentialities, verbiage and ambiguity e.g. “It is very clear that an Indigenous Voice is a necessary, pragmatic and natural step for our country as we work towards creating a better shared future for all Australians”. Nuh, don’t see that at all – not all Australians back this type of call at all. I don’t.

    Let me pick out two more specific quotes:

    “Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people need to engage with all levels of government to have their voices heard. It is also imperative that the Indigenous Voice is not pigeonholed to only deal with the Indigenous elements of governments but works with all portfolios and agencies.” (P.222).

    Does that include foreign policy?

    Almost in contradiction to this inclusiveness on page 11:

    “The Australian Parliament and Government would be ‘obliged’ to ask the National Voice for advice on a defined and limited number of proposed laws and policies that overwhelmingly affect Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. There would also be an ‘expectation’ to consult the National Voice, based on a set of principles, on a wider group of policies and laws that significantly affect Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples”

    This narrows the scope of the “Voice” but is more direct about the requirements for Parliament to listen. Note the rabbit’s ears around the words ‘obliged’ and “expectation”. What is the meaning of these rabbit-eared selections? Why the coyness? How do proponents of the “voice” see themselves as constraining the current autonomy of Parliament. There seems to be some sort of belief that there will be some real transfer of power.

    I repeat my basic question. Why the need for a referendum if the “Voice” is purely advisory. We don’t need legislative changes for Parliament to legislate on recommendations from a representative body. If it isn’t a purely representative body then how does it bind the Parliament? What is the substantive power shift?

    Its a fair question that is separate from the far less important question of how the “Voice” body is to be constituted. Who cares about the former anyway if, as Albanese has said, Parliament will decide on how the “Voice” is to be constituted.

  10. I repeat my basic question. Why the need for a referendum if the “Voice” is purely advisory.

    Since you repeat your basic question, I repeat my basic answer: because it will make people feel better.

  11. “…we work towards creating a better shared future for all Australians”.

    Harry – “not all Australians back this type of call at all. I don’t.”

    Why not Harry?

    Why don’t you back a better shared future, Harry?

  12. Harking back to my first comment, Australia has had simultaneous HoR and Senate elections from 1972 onwards, including after the 1977 referendum. The passing of a Constitutional amendment at referendum may mandate the Parliament and/or government to proceed in a particular way, but the failure of such an amendment to pass does not preclude the Parliament and/or government from proceeding in that way. If a popular majority exists for Voice the Federal Government should certainly take account of that in deciding how to proceed if the double majority threshold is not reached.

  13. “…we work towards creating a better shared future for all Australians”.

    Harry – “not all Australians back this type of call at all. I don’t.”

    Why not Harry?

    Why don’t you back a better shared future, Harry?

    Obviously I don’t know what’s going on in Harry’s mind. However, I am reminded of a discussion I recall from a blog of how some people reason (wrongly) from alleged scriptural references to agents of the devil talking about peace to the conclusion (not only false, but harmful) that anybody who talks about peace is an agent of the devil.

    So I suppose it would be possible for somebody to reason (wrongly) from the (accurate) observation that sometimes ill-intentioned people talk about making the world better to the conclusion (not only false, but harmful) that anybody who talks about making the world better is ill-intentioned.

  14. An obvious snark J-D and Rog. If you cited the whole passage my opposition is clearly to the “Voice”. What a silly way of attempting to derail a discussion.

  15. This thread is about the Voice, I was referring to your reaction to the Voice and your misrepresentation of the Voice – how many voices are you hearing Harry?

    I see that the LNP/Murdoch coalition has ramped this issue to the nth degree – a cynical and unworthy campaign by the usual bunch of ratbags.

  16. Norway, Sweden and Finland have had Sámi parliaments with considerably greater powers than the proposed Voice for decades. Greenland has a level of autonomy from Denmark that dwarfs any other indigenous community in the world.The result simply hasn’t been the kind of social divisions that Voice opponents claim is inevitable.

  17. … obvious …

    Harry Clarke, the intentions behind a lot of what you write are not obvious to me, and if you are operating on the assumption that your meaning will be obvious, then either you’re giving me too much credit or you’re giving yourself too much credit (or possibly both, I suppose).

  18. The ABC report last night on the Advance Australia group, who are spreading misinformation, disinformation and outright lies re the Voice, revealed that Tony Abbott is one of their advisors. It now seems that the IPA are also involved in this campaign.

    Their goal is to use the Voice to establish a point of difference and then wreck the Voice, despite all the qualified and expert advice in support of the Voice. This is climate change all over again, their only policy is to wreck policy.

  19. rog says: ” how many voices are you hearing”?

    We don’t hear the zombie voices – lobbyists. How many special unseen contacts?
    *

    “How parties and interest groups protect their ties: The case of lobbying laws”

    Michele Crepaz

    First published: 20 March 2020
    https://doi.org/10.1111/rego.12308

    “Through a comparative case study of the introduction of lobbying laws in Austria, Australia, and Ireland, this paper suggests that parties and groups shape the content of lobbying regulations in such a way to protect their relationship.”
    *

    And read our Exemptions. You could drive a Spacex Falcon Heavy through them;

    “Foreign Influence Transparency Scheme Act 2018
    – C2019C00133
    “Division 4—Exemptions https://www.legislation.gov.au/Details/C2019C00133
    *

    And I expect Tony Abbott to be in favour of The Voice!
     Wikipedia:
    “Abbott said:[241]
          “Australia is a blessed country. Our climate, our land, our people, our institutions rightly make us the envy of the earth, except for one thing—we have never fully made peace with the First Australians. This is the stain on our soul that Prime Minister Keating so movingly evoked at Redfern 21 years ago. We have to acknowledge that pre-1788 this land was as Aboriginal then as it is Australian now. Until we have acknowledged that we will be an incomplete nation and a torn people … So our challenge is to do now in these times what should have been done 200 or 100 years ago to acknowledge Aboriginal people in our country’s foundation document. In short, we need to atone for the omissions and for the hardness of heart of our forebears to enable us all to embrace the future as a united people.”

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tony_Abbott
    (Political Views tab)
    *

    And the new lobbyists;
    …”a far greater threat looms: artificial intelligence replacing humans in the democratic processes — not through voting, but through lobbying.”

    “How ChatGPT Hijacks Democracy”

    nytimes
    com/2023/01/15/opinion/ai-chatgpt-lobbying-democracy.html

  20. As a general observation, pointing out the bad motives of those opposing the Voice referendum is unlikely to help in getting the referendum passed. (Nearly all of) those who respond favorably to points like this are already committed Yes voters.

  21. To committed No voters, perhaps you’ve missed Victoria. Although a National Voice enshirined in the Constitution may seem absolute, we as a federation of States have examples which would to me, as a Yes to the Voice, make the current Federal debate about the Voice seem more culture war than an appraisal. What is wrong with the Victorian Voice & Treaty?

    “Completed: A representative Voice for First Peoples
    A Statewide election established the First Peoples’ Assembly of Victoria to represent the voice of First Peoples in the Treaty process”

    From :
    “The Treaty journey to date

    “Completed: Laws to protect Treaty
    The Advancing the Treaty Process with Aboriginal Victorians Act 2018(Treaty Act) was enacted as Australia’s first ever Treaty legislation.

    “Completed: A representative Voice for First Peoples
    A Statewide election established the First Peoples’ Assembly of Victoria to represent the voice of First Peoples in the Treaty process.

    “Completed: Truth-telling
    The Yoorrook Justice Commission is established to inquire into historic and contemporary injustices experienced by First Peoples across all areas of social, political and economic life, and the relationship between historical injustices and ongoing systemic injustices experienced today.

    “Completed: An independent ‘Treaty Umpire’
    The Treaty Authority is independent from Government and will consist of five to seven members who will oversee and facilitate Treaty negotiations. The Treaty Authority and Other Treaty Elements Act 2022, supports the establishment and ongoing operation of the Treaty Authority.

    “Completed: Agreed rules and process for Treaty-making
    The Treaty Negotiation Framework sets out the process and rules for negotiating a Statewide Treaty and Traditional Owner Treaties between the State and First Peoples. The Framework establishes a Treaty process in Victoria that is inclusive and open to all First Peoples, as well as ensuring the protection of Traditional Owners with existing legal rights, such as Native Title.

    “Completed: Independent funding for Treaty negotiations
    The Self-determination Fund will provide First Peoples, including Traditional Owners, with a financial resource, independent from the State, to achieve ‘equal standing’ in Treaty negotiations. The Self-determination Fund will also build capacity, wealth and prosperity for First Peoples.

    “Next step: Treaty negotiations commence
    With these elements in place, Treaty negotiations can now commence. The Treaty Authority, once operational, will support First Peoples groups to register for Treaty negotiations and will invite the State to join Treaty negotiations.

     https://www.firstpeoplesrelations.vic.gov.au/treaty-victoria

  22. Gareth Evans describes the draft text that is to be provided with the ballot paper;

    1. There shall be a body, to be called the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice.

    2. The Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice may make representations to Parliament and the Executive Government on matters relating to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.

    3. The Parliament shall, subject to this Constitution, have power to make laws with respect to the composition, functions, powers and procedures of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice.

    It would seem that opposition to the Voice has no basis in fact.

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