Two-in-three Australians, 66.1 per cent, who voted ‘no’ to an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice to Parliament said they rejected the proposed constitutional change because it would divide the nation, according to new research from The Australian National University (ANU).

The survey, which examined the views and voting behaviour of more than 4,200 Australians, is the most comprehensive study of the 14 October referendum and the factors that led to its rejection at the polls.

Less than four-in-10 Australians voted in favour of the proposed Voice, with all states and territories, except the ACT, also voting against it.

The study, which tracked voters’ views between January and October 2023, also found that very few people switched from voting ‘no’ to ‘yes’ during the referendum campaign.

Australian voters said they feared stoking division through the Voice to Parliament. Photo: Australian Electoral Commission/Flickr (CC BY-ND 2.0 DEED)

“Of those who said they would have voted ‘no’ when asked in January, only 4.8 per cent ended up voting ‘yes’,” study co-author Professor Nicholas Biddle said.

“In contrast, 42 per cent of those who said they would have voted ‘yes’ in January ended up voting ‘no’ in October 2023.

“Our study also shows the ‘yes’ vote declined much more for those who would have voted for the Coalition than for the other two party groups. The ‘yes’ vote among Coalition voters was roughly one-quarter of what it was in January 2023.”

The survey provides a comprehensive overview of which Australians were likely to vote ‘yes’ and which Australians were likely to vote ‘no’.

Females were more likely to vote ‘yes’ than males, as were younger Australians, with voters aged 18 to 24 more than twice as likely to be in favour of the proposed constitutional change. Education was also a strong factor in determining how Australians voted.

“The ‘yes’ vote was predicted by four Gs — gender, generation, graduation and geography,” study co-author Professor Ian McAllister said.

“’No’ voters were more likely to be male, older, speaking a language other than English at home, with low levels of education, living outside of capital cities, and living in low-income households.

“Our study also identified those people who were most likely to change their vote. For example, over the course of the campaign, the fall in support of the Voice was much larger among those who spoke a language other than English at home.

“There were also large flows from those intending to vote ‘yes’ in January 2023 to actually voting ‘no’ in October 2023 among less educated voters and those with lower incomes.”

“42 per cent of those who said they would have voted ‘yes’ in January ended up voting ‘no’ in October 2023.”

Professor Nicholas Biddle, ANU Centre for Social Research and Methods

Voters’ perceptions on the rights of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people were also a major factor in the referendum’s defeat, according to the survey’s findings.

“Many Australians feel that special rights for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians are unfair, with a sizable number of Australians also thinking that the reason for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander disadvantage is a lack of effort,” Professor Biddle said.

“Those Australians who hold these views were far more likely to vote ‘no’ than those that did not.”

Despite the defeat of the referendum, the vast majority of Australian voters — 87.2 per cent — think Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people should be able to decide their way of life for themselves, according to the survey.

“This is one of the biggest paradoxes of this referendum result,” Professor Biddle said.

“Even after the referendum, almost nine-in-10 Australians think it is important for First Nations peoples to have a voice or say in matters that affect them. This includes around three-quarters of ‘no’ voters.”

Professor McAllister said: “Our study also shows Australians think that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians continue to suffer levels of disadvantage that are both caused by past government policies and that justified extra government assistance.

“However, it is clear from our findings that voters did not see the Voice model put to them as the right approach to remedy that disadvantage.”

The survey also looked at a range of political attitudes and how they changed over the campaign. There have been declines in confidence in government, satisfaction with the direction of democracy and trust in some institutions in 2022 and 2023.

“Declines were greater for those who voted ‘yes’ in October 2023 than those that voted ‘no’, and there is clearly an interaction between voters’ views on political issues and how they ended up voting,” Professor Biddle said.

The survey results are available on the ANU Centre for Social Research and Methods website.

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