How might the First Nations Voice to Parliament referendum affect Australia’s international
In late September, American rap legend MC Hammer made a spectacular intervention into Australia’s upcoming referendum to establish a Voice to Parliament for First Nations people. In a tweet, he urged Australians to “repair the breach”.
Hammer’s tweet garnered some 1.1 million views, 1,300 retweets and 5,700 likes. It also triggered a wave of online criticisms from “no” supporters. Some accused him of being a “one-hit wonder” with no place in the debate.
While Hammer seemed to enter the fray on his own accord, Labor’s recruitment of retired American basketballer Shaquille O’Neal to the campaign in support of the Voice to Parliament last year drew similarly mixed reactions.
While it is not yet clear whether these endorsements from overseas celebrities help or hinder the “yes” campaign, there are bigger questions here about the extent of global attention on the referendum and whether the result will affect Australia’s international reputation.
International attention on the vote
On October 14, Australians will vote whether to amend the Constitution to establish a new advisory body for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people called the Voice to Parliament. The new body would provide advice and make representations to parliament and the government on any issues relating to First Nations people. If the referendum passes, the body’s powers would be set by federal parliament.
The Voice model has been fiercely debated in Australia. Supporters say it will help remedy a litany of failed policies in health care, employment and education for First Nations people, while opponents claim it is divisive.
Using data from Meltwater, a global media monitoring company, we have identified more than 1.7 million mentions of the Voice to Parliament referendum in traditional and social media globally over the last three months. Much of this has been generated in Australia, where the Voice has been mentioned 887,000 times.
Once we exclude content generated in Australia and unknown locations, the number of mentions drops to around 148,000 in the last three months.
International attention on the Voice for Parliament referendum peaked on August 30 when Prime Minister Anthony Albanese announced the voting date. Global news outlets such as the BBC, Time and Financial Times produced explainers for their audiences.
Which countries are the most interested?
Most news and social media mentions of the Voice were generated in “Anglosphere” countries, such as the United States, United Kingdom and Canada. Meltwater data had the US well out in front with over 63,000 mentions of the Voice in the last three months, with the UK second at just over 16,000. New Zealand is also following the debate, with more than 2,000 mentions, as well as politicians in the Pacific.
Launches and rallies in support of the “yes” campaign have also been held in the US and UK, receiving online attention:
But the Meltwater data is restricted to English, and can only reveal so much about how much attention people in other countries are paying to the Voice referendum.
And while there are public reports on Australian attitudes to other countries, there is much less research on how people in other countries think about Australians.
Previous research by Professor Simon Jackman shows a general sense of ambivalence towards Australia’s national character among people in Japan, South Korea, China, Indonesia and the US. The lack of research on Australia’s reputation in other countries will make it difficult to assess the impact of the Voice result.
What does seem likely, however, is that a “no” result will be weaponised by other countries against Australia. While the Global Times, a leading Chinese English-language news outlet, has been relatively quiet on the Voice so far, it has a history of using strategic narratives to blunt criticisms of China’s human rights record.
For example, China has cited the gaps in health, life expectancy and incarceration rates between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians as a way to criticise Australia’s “systematic discrimination and oppression” of First Nations people in international forums such as the UN Human Rights Council.
The Global Times has also reported on the effects of colonialism on First Nations people, the deaths of First Nations people in custody and the destruction of cultural sites such as Juukan Gorge.
The groundwork for using strategic narratives around the Voice has already been laid. Albert Zhang and Danielle Cave from the Australian Strategic Policy Institute have tracked how inauthentic social media accounts that are likely linked to the Chinese Communist Party have sought to amplify “division over the Indigenous voice referendum”. This is also a central message being used by the “no” campaign to argue against the Voice.
A “no” result will make countering these hostile narratives more difficult. In addition, it would likely compromise Australia’s moral authority when it seeks to advocate or pressure other states on human rights issues.
Australia’s foreign policy
The referendum result could also affect Australia’s ability to employ a foreign policy approach that seeks to “elevate” Indigenous people and issues.
In 2021, Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade released an Indigenous Diplomacy Agenda committed to reconciliation in Australia and supporting Indigenous rights globally.
At the time, DFAT Secretary Frances Adamson cast First Nations people as key to how Australia defines and expresses itself globally. She argued a foreign service that properly represents the diversity of Australia has “a genuine competitive advantage”.
Foreign Minister Penny Wong has also sought to centre and value First Nations people in Australia’s modern identity and diplomacy, including in international speeches. To the UN General Assembly last week, she said Australia draws “on the knowledge of First Peoples carrying forward the oldest continuing culture on earth”.
As a result, a “yes” vote could provide Australian diplomats with “the momentum” to embed a First Nations foreign policy into their practice. A “no” vote, meanwhile, will make it more difficult to establish Australia as a credible leader on Indigenous and human rights issues, particularly in its relations with neighbours in Asia and the Pacific.
How to position the Voice internationally may become a problem for the government as polling has shown dwindling support for the measure.
When questioned by CNN’s Christiane Amanpour about what the low support for the Voice means for Australia’s commitment to Indigenous people, Wong responded:
referenda are hard to win in Australia because of the nature of how our voting [works], of what is required to change the Constitution. But, you know, we remain hopeful.
This points to the government’s careful international messaging as the success of the referendum – which the Labor government supports – becomes less certain.
If the “no” vote succeeds, as polling suggests is likely, it will be interesting to observe how other governments and people around the world respond to the result (if at all) and how the Australian government will seek to manage any international fallout.