Public support from wealthy celebrities and high-profile companies can be the death-knell for referendums.
ANU College of Law
What do IKEA, David Beckham, ABBA, Carlsberg and Stephen Hawking have in common? Not much, I admit. But they were all on the losing side in referendums they had endorsed.
During the Brexit campaign in 2016, soccer ace Beckham urged his compatriots to vote against leaving the European Union – and did so in his trademark cockney accent. One of his more famous countrymen, astrophysicist Hawking, did the same to no avail. A majority of voters opted for Brexit.
There is a pattern here. In Sweden, both ABBA and IKEA urged the Swedes to vote yes to joining the European Single Currency in 2003. They might sing ‘Money, Money, Money’, but in this case, the winner did not take it all. The referendum was defeated.
And in Denmark, a few years before, brewer Carlsberg endorsed a referendum – only to see the proposition defeated.
I probably don’t need to add that Scottish tennis player Andy Murray failed to convince a majority in Scotland to vote for independence in the referendum in 2014.
Endorsements by celebrities and major companies often spell the death-knell for referendums. But as a visitor to Australia, who has made a living writing about and researching referendums, I am puzzled to see that politicians supporting the Voice to parliament have not learned from these cases.
In August last year, basketball legend Shaquille O’Neal, here on a whistle-stop tour to promote a sports betting company, shook hands with Prime Minister Anthony Albanese, and promised he would help mobilise support in the run-up to the vote on enshrining an Indigenous Voice in the Constitution. Australians were bemused, and confused. Was the support of a US celebrity, visiting to promote gambling, really that helpful to the cause?
Based on the experience from abroad, the public endorsement of the Voice from the famous, cashed-up and elite never helps the cause.
But it is not just celebrities who can kill the chances of a referendum success. The same applies to businesses. In the above cases, Carlsberg and IKEA wanted to be on the supposedly “right side” of history.
Here, companies like Bunnings, Rio Tinto and Telstra all publicly support the Yes campaign. They seemingly hope this will give their brands a nice fuzzy glow. But anyone who dislikes large corporate profits, or mining, or has been stuck in limbo after being overcharged on their phone bill, is probably more likely to swing against the cause than towards it.
The more interesting question is why celebrity and company endorsements fail to convince voters.
There are several reasons.
Fundamentally, voters have little time or incentive to read about politics, so they take cues and use short-cuts.
Voters seek people with whom they can identify. Celebrities with multimillion-dollar lifestyles, and even more so corporate giants, are unlikely to appeal to the average voters of Ballarat or Bendigo. And still less likely to those in Badger Creek, Bailieston, and Birchip.
Often, people vote in referendums not on the basis of the proposition, but based on who endorses or opposes it.
Politicians have to be wary of this tendency, too. They are often also seen to be out of touch. And their association with a position can be fatal.
That, perhaps, offers a bit of hope for the Yes camp. Opposition leader Peter Dutton has actively campaigned against the Voice. Given that he overall has a negative approval rating according to all polls, his support is likely to alienate voters.
A story has it that in 1905, Norway’s national poet and Nobel laureate Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson wanted to use his fame to win support for secession from Sweden in a referendum of that year.
“It is time to speak up,” he reportedly told the leader of the independence movement, Christian Michelsen, who became Norway’s first prime minister after independence.
“No”, responded the politician, “it is time for you to shut your mouth.”
Those wishing the Voice to parliament to stand a chance at the referendum should follow this advice.
This piece was co-published with The Age.
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