Analysis by Kalinga Seneviratne
SYDNEY | 17 October 2023 (IDN) — The resounding defeat suffered by the Australian Labour Government on the 14 October referendum to amend the constitution to recognize the “First Australians” (indigenous people) exposes the flaws in the Australian democratic architecture, especially the role of social media and concentration of media ownership in election campaigning.
During the referendum campaign, the behavior of recently retired media tycoon Rupert Murdoch’s Media Corp has added voice to a Royal Commission into his media assets and its influence in Australia.
Indigenous leaders across Australia have expressed dismay at the negative vote to recognize that they need a voice in the Australian democratic system, in which they have been marginalized. “This heartbreaking result comes after rampant online disinformation in Australia about the consequences of the referendum, and the reverberation of the racist myth of Terra Nullius” Tasmanian Aboriginal elder Rodney Dillon told the national broadcaster ABC.
Australian Aborigines, known as “First Nation People,” are only 3.8% of the nation’s total population. Until 1962, they were not even counted as “people” to vote in Australian elections.
In 1992, known as the ‘Mabo Case’, the High Court of Australia, in a landmark verdict, ruled that Aboriginal people had a concept of land ownership before the arrival of British colonizers in 1788. But, the Australian constitution is still enshrined with the words ‘terra nullius’ or land belonging to no one. It is this lie the referendum was supposed to correct.
Recognising the First People of Australia
The referendum question Australians were asked to vote yes or no was: “To alter the Constitution to recognise the First Peoples of Australia by establishing an Aboriginal and Toress Strits Islander Voice”.
If the government stopped at “..recognising the First Peoples of Australia” it would have been difficult for anyone to oppose it, as they would be seen as racists who do not want to correct a lie written into their constitution.
However, conservative forces opposed to losing any of the White privileges and a historic sense of ownership of the land by European settlers mounted a concerted campaign to discredit the “yes’ campaign by spreading fear, which even convinced many of the non-European migrant voters to say “no” in the referendum vote.
How ‘no’ campaigners could do it was through a sophisticated social media campaign and support from the Murdoch-owned newspapers and TV news channels. This has shown the flaws in a democratic system, where dismantling the concentration of media ownership and better regulation of the social media sphere may be needed.
In social media, in a playbook similar to during the pandemic, conspiracy theories were built around the idea of a “voice” claiming that it involves reparations, land seizures, involvement of the United Nations, and claims of “apartheid”—effectively non-Aboriginal people will lose its status and privileges. Social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter (now X), and TikTok were widely used to share these ideas.
Duncan Ivison, Professor of Political Philosophy at Sydney University, argues that the Voice referendum was a choice about “hard democratic conversations and owning up to our history. The question is whether we’re ready to have them”. In 360info.org, he noted that the referendum debate “has been marred by fear”.
He believes what the referendum did was a call for a deepening of Australia’s democratic conversation rather than special pleading for a separate or illiberal set of alternative political arrangements. But it is unclear whether the non-indigenous Australians have heard these appeals, ”wherever Indigenous peoples have pressed their claims for greater equality and their rights to lands, territories, and resources, they have been met with resistance”, he noted.
Rather than seeing it as a threat to democracy, the discussion about regulating social media platforms will surely gather momentum in Australia. According to some media academics, this may need to include transparency when spreading political messages, knowing how algorithms work so that its role in spreading disinformation can be monitored; and some content moderation without stifling free debate.
Another area where regulation may be needed is using “opinion polls” to misguide voters, where such polls reflect a self-fulfilling prophecy when the numbers become the story rather than being used to help tell it. During the referendum campaign, polling numbers became the narrative to tell voters that the ‘yes’ campaign was losing steam.
The narrative spread by the media started with a “slim majority” for the ‘yes’ vote, and as the weeks went by, the media started using words describing the ‘yes’ vote as “plunges”, “freefall,” and “plummets” in that order. Such fixation in polling creates a media ecology that researchers have called “exaggerated narratives” to distort perceptions.
Murdoch’s News Corporation is estimated to control about 60% of Australia’s media, including the country’s only national daily ‘The Australian’, other vast-circulation dailies ‘Daily Telegraph’ in Sydney and ‘Herald Sun’ in Melbourne, and the you-tube based Fox News channel, is well known to manipulate Australian elections. Two former Prime Ministers of opposing political camps, Kevin Rudd of Labour and Malcolm Turnbull of Liberals, have called for a Royal Commission into Murdoch’s media holdings. In recent years, both of them have described the News Corp as a “political party”.
After doing an extensive content analysis of the Fox News and other Murdoch media during the referendum campaign, the University of Adelaide’s Victoria Fielding, who is the lead researcher of their Murdoch Referendum Accountability Project, said that in a democracy, there needs to be robust, honest debate about the ideas presented by political parties. Still, the public debate leading toward the referendum was soured by the widespread dissemination of “misinformation, scaremongering and racially charged discourse”.
Mainstream media also faulted
While social media is often blamed for spreading such information and hate speech, she noted that Australia’s mainstream news media also failed to deliver accurate, quality information about the referendum. “Instead, the media have collectively let hostile and politically motivated ‘No’ campaigners promote false information without accountability,” Fielding claims.
Based on research findings, Fielding says that though News Corp reporters presented both sides of the story in their referendum coverage, many commentaries were published and broadcast, predominantly promoting the ‘no’ argument. There was no fact-checking here because it was argued that they were expressing opinions.
“News Corp’s extensive commentary on the Voice referendum more closely resembles a political campaign than mere news reporting or a diverse presentation of opinions,” concluded Fielding in an article published on the eve of the vote by 360info.org.
Veteran indigenous rights campaigner and chair of the Aboriginal Land Council of Tasmania Michael Mansell wants the momentum created by thousands of non-Aboriginal ‘yes’ campaigners to be harnessed to create a movement towards a truth-telling campaign and on the campaign for designated Aboriginal seats in parliaments.
Meanwhile, Queensland Aboriginal elder, Dale Ruska says that he wants all Australians to understand that his people have international legal options and will use the international treaty models as the way forward. “I believe that we could only have any advantages to success as a people if we go to the International Court of Justice to have our First Nations sovereign rights recognized independently,” he told the ABC. [IDN-InDepthNews]
Photo: ‘No’ vote success in Australian referendum, no huge win for Coalition. Source: The Canberra Times.
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