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Why so many non-Indigenous people voted No in the Referendum - the data

Professor Andrew Gunstone -

Over the past week, there has been much speculation about why so many non-Indigenous peoples voted no in the referendum for a First Nations Voice to Parliament.

Research that I have conducted over the past two decades provides some insights into this level of opposition. This research has involved a series of social research surveys undertaken in 2005, 2010, 2015, and 2020 on the attitudes and understandings towards a range of reconciliation matters. About 97 per cent of the respondents in these surveys were non-Indigenous people. This series is the longest, and one of just three, such surveys in Australia (the other two are organised by Reconciliation Australia).

All four surveys in this series, conducted across 15 years, contained the same three sections. The first included a range of questions relating to the concept of reconciliation, examining levels of awareness, understanding, and support, and views on the importance of the concept. The second asked questions relating to attitudes towards Indigenous socio-economic conditions. The third contained questions on a number of key reconciliation matters, including Indigenous rights and truth-telling.

The results from all these four surveys consistently illustrated significant levels of racism, ignorance, and misunderstandings held by many non-Indigenous peoples towards a range of reconciliation matters.

For example, in the first section of these surveys, the responses illustrated racist and ignorant attitudes among many non-Indigenous peoples about the concept of reconciliation. In an open-ended question asking for comments on reconciliation, the two highest categories were first, negative and racist responses, and second, those with a limited understanding of 'equality' – that everyone should be treated exactly the same, regardless of circumstances. While the third highest category related to the importance of reconciliation, the next two highest ones were also negative, focussing on 'social problems' and 'high levels of government support'.

In comparison, those categories that related to truth-telling, addressing Indigenous socio-economic outcomes, and acknowledging the Stolen Generations, received considerably less support. In addition, in the over 600 comments across all surveys, there were a significant number of racist comments about Indigenous peoples, only four comments about Indigenous rights, which were all negative, and just 10 comments about racism, with eight of these comments negative to Indigenous peoples.

These findings were replicated across the other questions in this section that related to awareness, understanding, support, and importance of reconciliation. They provide insights into the opposition to a Voice among many non-Indigenous peoples, as they illustrate significant levels of racism, and a limited understanding of reconciliation that focussed on 'equality, rather than on key areas like Indigenous rights, self-determination, truth-telling, addressing disadvantage, and combatting racism.

Another example relates to the second section of these surveys that focussed on Indigenous socio-economic conditions. The findings of this section clearly illustrated the significant levels of ignorance among many non-Indigenous peoples regarding these conditions. In the first question, respondents were asked whether Indigenous peoples, as a group, are socio-economically disadvantaged or not disadvantaged, compared to other groups.

Across all four surveys, approximately one-third of respondents believed that Indigenous peoples, as a group, were not socio-economically disadvantaged compared to other groups. In the second question, respondents were asked where they felt Indigenous peoples were positioned in three key socio-economic areas – health, education, and employment – compared to other Australians. Approximately 40 per cent of respondents felt that Indigenous peoples were either positioned about the same as other Australians in these three areas or were better off than other Australians.

The findings from these two questions are shocking, particularly given the very clear and long documented evidence that demonstrably illustrates the significant socio-economic disadvantage experienced by many Indigenous peoples. The findings provide insights into why many non-Indigenous peoples might not support a First Nations Voice, as they are likely to not even accept the premise behind one of the main rationales for the Voice – that it will result in better socio-economic outcomes – as they choose to be ignorant of the existence of poor outcomes in areas like health and education.

Another example relates to the ten statements contained in the third section of the surveys. Respondents had to indicate their level of agreement or disagreement with each statement. In all four surveys, the statement that was overwhelmingly the one that respondents most agreed with was the one that related to 'equality' ('As far as possible, all Australians should have equal rights and opportunities'), with approximately 97 per cent of respondents supporting this statement.

Conversely, the four statements the respondents most disagreed with related to truth-telling and Indigenous rights. The statements 'Australians today are responsible for what happened to Indigenous people in the past' and 'The disadvantage experienced by Indigenous people today is mainly a result of the way they were treated in the past' respectively received approximately 20 percent and 40 percent support.

The statements 'Indigenous people should be entitled to special rights, such as native title' and 'Indigenous people should be entitled to special rights, such as reserved seats in Parliament', respectively received about 45 percent and 32 percent support. Further, the statement 'The Federal Government should negotiate a treaty with Indigenous people' received 42 percent support.

Again, these findings provide insights into the level of opposition to a Voice among many non-Indigenous peoples. The findings illustrate many non-Indigenous peoples strongly preferred dialogues of 'equality' (in a very limited sense) over those concerning truth-telling and Indigenous rights.

The findings from this 20-year longitudinal study on attitudes and knowledge of reconciliation, while not explaining all the reasons why so many non-Indigenous people voted no in the Voice referendum, certainly provides some key insights into the result. The limited understanding of 'equality' contributed to the opposition to a constitutionally enshrined Voice for Indigenous peoples. The poor awareness of Indigenous socio-economic conditions contributed to the low support for a key rationale for the Voice – addressing these conditions. The high level of racist attitudes contributed to both the opposition to recognition and listening, and to the appalling tenor of the campaign.

Professor Andrew Gunstone is one of Australia's leading authorities on reconciliation. He is Associate Deputy Vice-Chancellor Reconciliation and Professor Indigenous Studies at Federation University, where he established and leads the National Centre for Reconciliation, Truth, and Justice. He is also Co-Chair of Reconciliation Victoria and sits on several national reconciliation committees.

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