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Voice referendum Australia's Brexit?
Elite left-wingers say racist voters are duped by misinformation, but the Taranto Principle suggests that, once again, it is the elites who are duped by the reverberations in their own echo chamber
Early voting has begun ahead of Australia’s Voice to Parliament referendum this Saturday and if the polls are even close to accurate, it’s set to be a devastating loss for the Yes campaign.
Australians will vote Yes or No to a proposed constitutional amendment which would recognise First Nationals peoples by establishing a permanent advisory body to the parliament on matters affecting Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders, called the ‘Voice.’ For the referendum to succeed, a majority of people in a majority of states need to vote Yes.
At the beginning of the year, voter sentiment was mostly favourable towards the Voice. But as the campaign has progressed and voters find out more about the proposition, they are increasingly likely to vote No, with every state except for Tasmania currently polling with No in the lead.
The most recent poll (Newspoll), conducted between 3-6 October, suggests a 58–34 lead for No. With the 8 per cent of undecided voters excluded, No leads by 63–37. Significantly, support for the Voice has dived among the young, university educated and Labor voters, all groups that were previously safe bets for Yes.
The Yes campaign, spearheaded by the left-wing Labor party, blames their almost certain impending loss on racism, stupid or apathetic voters not informing themselves - or getting informed with the wrong information - and No campaign disinformation.
This explanation assumes that there could be no valid argument for No, either morally or intellectually, which is a view that I have frequently encountered amongst Yes voters online. ‘If you had the right information you would vote Yes.’
It also overlooks the fact that mis- and disinformation abound on both sides. A sample of disinfo emanating from the Yes campaign in recent weeks includes voter suppression tactics, encouraging No voters to cast informal votes, crafting Vote Yes signs to ape official Australian Electoral Commission signage, and conspiracy theories so silly they have caught international attention.
A more plausible explanation for the Yes campaign’s declining support is the Taranto Principle, named after Wall Street Journal (WSJ) editorialist, James Taranto. Taranto rose to niche notoriety through his cult blog, Best of the Web Today, which was then brought in under the WSJ banner as a regular column. Taranto is now an editorial editor at the WSJ.
In his commentary, which focused not just on politics but on the way the media covered politics, Taranto suggested that a fawning left-wing media can convince the left-wing political class that the overton window has moved further left that it has.
The press’s failure to hold its preferred politicians accountable for bad behaviour encourages left-wing politicians to continue acting in a way that the broad base finds repellent, as they overstep what the base deems to be desirable or acceptable.
This results in electoral losses such as what happened with Brexit, or Clinton’s loss to Trump in the 2016 US presidential election, which came as a great shock to the elite left-wing, and no one much else.
We see the Taranto Principle playing out in the lead up to Australia’s Voice referendum, as left-wing politicians, campaigners and media perpetually backslap and cover for each other, to their increasing detriment in the polls.1
For example, when Yes campaigner Marcia Langton said that all No arguments boiled down to “base racism” and “sheer stupidity”, and that hard No voters were “the ones spewing the racism,” fawning media were quick to jump to her defence. She didn’t mean that! And anyway, Australians are racist!
A viral video shared on social media depicting undecided voters as vacuous airheads who hadn’t thought of googling their brain farts was applauded in the media, but prompted comments of feeling bullied and patronised among the people it needs to persuade if Yes is to win.2
Veteran journalist Ray Martin said of the No campaign’s slogan (‘if you don’t know, vote no’), “… what that slogan is saying is ‘if you’re a dinosaur or a dickhead… who can’t be bothered reading, vote no,” and Prime Minister Anthony Albanese (of the Labor party) commended the speech as being “very powerful.” This last example shows how the Taranto Principle runs on a feedback loop of perpetual high-fives between media and politicians.
Meanwhile, support for Yes continues to fall away.
The Taranto Principle is not the only problem for the Yes campaign, but it goes a way to explaining why Yes messaging is so consistently missing the mark, and why the further the campaign progresses, the more entrenched they become in their extreme positions and rhetoric.
If the referendum is lost, and short of a miracle, that is what will occur this weekend, you can bet on a media blitz to the tune that ‘disinformation made the deplorables vote wrong.’ There will be hand-wringing over our international reputation as racists, and calls for tougher controls on information flows online.
What there won’t be is much self reflection from the Yes campaign as to what part they played in the outcome.
*Update 10 October: This is not a left-bashing post. Personally, I’m not partisan. Taranto’s observations were on the dynamics between the media and political class on the left, which I think fits neatly on our current political climate in Australia. However, we would presumably see a similar scenario if the balance of power in both media and politics were held by conservatives.
I would also add that my experience of people aligned with Yes in real life has been completely different to the campaign messaging and online. Offline, the Yes people I encounter are thoughtful, sincere, and compassionate. In the campaign and online however, the hypocrisy is rank. I want to be careful not to slide into partisan ‘other side bashing’ and rather focus on the principle, which is that eventually, fawning media can do the political class a disservice by giving them a false sense of security. That said, the chickens haven’t hatched yet, so best not count them… 🐣
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Further reading from the DDU archives:
Murdoch’s conservative Newscorp somewhat balances the fawning left-wing media environment, though Newscorp has offered more of a balance of views that its critics admit. Its various outlets are home to high profile anchors for both Yes (eg: Chris Kenny) and No (eg: Peta Credlin), and they regularly run articles critical of both sides, including ‘cooker watch’ attacks on No.
The video, Far Enough - Vote Yes is not funded by the Yes campaign. It is an independent collaboration between Indigenous rapper Adam Briggs and comedians Vic Zerbst and Jenna Owen.