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“We’ve botched this campaign”—NUS calls for a student led 'Yes' campaign in Voice referendum

The National Union of Students (NUS) is calling for a more grassroots approach to the ‘Yes’ campaign for an Indigenous Voice to Parliament after a heated debate at June's Education Conference (EdCon) forced Labor students to concede that the party “[has] botched this campaign.”


The National Union of Students (NUS) is calling for a more grassroots approach to the ‘Yes’ campaign for an Indigenous Voice to Parliament after a heated debate at June's Education Conference (EdCon) forced Labor students to concede that the party “[has] botched this campaign.”

This follows reports that support for the Voice to Parliament has fallen below a majority, with recent Newspoll figures indicating that 47% of respondents intend to vote ‘No’ in the upcoming referendum, compared to 43% intending to vote ‘Yes’.

The NUS publicly announced their support for the Voice to Parliament back in May, launching the Students for Yes campaign online and on social media. While some NUS factions—including Socialist Alternative—were previously opposed to the Voice, they have since changed their stance to support a ‘Yes’ vote to fight against the “racist No campaign”.

NUS First Nations’ Officer and Wiradjuri man Patrick Taylor opened the conference’s discussion on the Voice in Tuesday’s plenary.

“The Yes campaign, as we know, has gone off on the wrong start”.

NUS President Bailey Riley, who is Wiradjuri, said that the NUS, and students more broadly, need to be organising more around the ‘Yes’ campaign. Despite broad institutional support from universities, Riley said that “knowledge of the referendum is incredibly low” amongst students.

Riley, who is a member of Labor Left-aligned faction National Labor Students (NLS), criticised the current state of the ‘Yes’ campaign and called for greater involvement from student unions.

“This shouldn’t be top down like Yes 23… this should be bottom up”.


Factions united on Voice support; split on Labor involvement

Whilst all major NUS factions are united in support of the Voice, tensions still exist between the Labor-aligned factions and other students over the ALP’s involvement in and management of the ‘Yes’ campaign.

NUS Queer Officer and senior Socialist Alternative figure Grace Hill accused Labor of “conceding… [to] racist No attacks”, referring to statements made by opposition leader Peter Dutton claiming that the Voice referendum is divisive and will “re-racialise Australia”, and criticised the party’s approach to the ‘Yes’ campaign.

“Why [is] a campaign that looked like it would be such an easy win… now looking like it is likely to lose?”

NUS General Secretary Sheldon Gait, who is a member of Labor Right faction Student Unity, agreed with some criticisms of Labor’s approach to the Voice referendum and acknowledged the campaign’s failures.

Drawing comparisons to the marriage equality plebiscite in 2017, where campaigning started over a year before voting, Gait said “we’ve botched this campaign… we’ve started way too late.”

Oskar Martin, a Bundjalung-Gamilaraay man and member of Socialist Alternative, condemned Labor governments’ broader violations of Indigenous rights, specifically highlighting the Palaszczuk Government’s decision in Queensland to override the state’s Human Rights Act to make breach of bail an offense for children.

Martin also called out former WA Premier Mark McGowan’s for calling riots at the Banksia Hill youth prison—where the majority of detainees are Indigenous, some as young as ten years old—“a form of terrorism.” The Banksia Hill prison has been widely slammed for human rights abuses, including by the United Nations.

Riley agreed with Martin, saying “I am Indigenous, I know these issues first fucking hand…I completely agree… we should campaign against the ALP for all the racist shit they do… of course I call Anastasia Palaszczuk a racist.”


UMSU undecided on Voice, leaning towards ‘Yes’

The University of Melbourne Student Union (UMSU) has not yet adopted a public stance on the Voice, with internal discussions and consultation on the organisation's position currently underway; some individual OBs, however, have expressed their support. Women’s Officer and Gunaikurnai woman Ngaire Bogemann was vocal in her support for the voice at the conference.

“The voice isn’t a Labor Party idea…. this is an ask for us by Indigenous Elders”, said Bogemann, elaborating that for her, a ‘Yes’ vote for the Voice is a vote for a “Yes and”, referring back the three pillars of the Uluru Statement from the Heart: Voice, Treaty and Truth.

“If [SAlt] won’t go out in the street and fight for a ‘Yes’ vote, I think that’s pretty fucking shameful”.

UMSU Indigenous Officer, Harley Lewis, “hates the whole stance idea”, as Indigenous students’ stance at the University of Melbourne “is too complex”.

“I wish I could vote ‘No’” Lewis said to Farrago, referencing his dislike of the Voice and Uluṟu Statement.

“But I feel a ‘No’ vote will stall progress worse than a ‘Yes’ vote”

Riley shared similar views during the conference, saying that “a vote for ‘Yes’ isn’t just a vote for the Voice; it’s for Treaty and Voice. If the Voice fails, Treaty fails… we have to recognise that particularly”

“If it fails, we set Indigenous rights… back by decades… it’ll be fucked”, Riley said.

“We need to come together as a National Union of Students and fight for something.”

Harley Lewis says UMSU’s plans “are to focus more on educating students about both sides, and the context of issues”.

The University of Melbourne has previously expressed support for the Voice back in May this year. The referendum date hasn’t yet been announced, though is expected to be in October.





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