Why is the campaign for an Indigenous voice struggling? It’s not just the media

How does a nation change its mind? In the case of Australia, the answer is not quickly, and usually not very much.

Some of the things we value most about our country are stability and little political passion, let alone violence. Australia is one of the few countries in the world where people are able to say, without sounding patently ridiculous, that politics should “stay out” of large areas of life.

The political analyst Grant Wyeth has argued that Australia is conservative – not in the political sense, but psychologically and philosophically. We think of government as being mostly about administration, not ideals.

Related: Coalition frontbencher condemns anti-voice rallies as ‘shameless’ attempt to push ‘extreme causes’

The downside of this, argues Wyeth, is that we can’t adjust quickly to changed realities. For example, we cling to longstanding alliances, such as that with the United States, and fail to contemplate – let alone plan for – the possibility that its democracy might fail.

It can be a luxury to have a mostly boring public life. Which raises the question of why, in less than a year, the Australian people, usually slow to change, have moved from a clear majority of the population supporting the voice to parliament to only around 45% planning to vote yes in the forthcoming referendum.

That’s if the public opinion polls are to be believed. I admit to some scepticism about those polls – largely because of the speed of that supposed change. (See here for an explanation of the complexity). But there is no escaping the fact that they are all telling the same broad story: if they are wrong, it will be one of the biggest upsets in polling history.

What accounts for this shift in public opinion? The favourite explanations among the political class, going by recent commentary, are that a negative scare campaign is more powerful than a positive message – that and racism.

In this, the media comes in for its share of blame. And there is no doubt that certain outlets have amplified the negatives and the fear.

I don’t want to discount either scare campaigns or racism as factors. The referendum debate has surfaced toxic examples of both. But I think that for the great mass of not-rusted-on voters, it is probably mostly about other things.

The media’s role is complex, and influential, but not a force acting in isolation. We journalists like to think of ourselves as superior to the misinformation spread on social media, but there is now quite a lot of authoritative research that shows we operate in the same ecosystem.

When we report on extremism, or misinformation – even to debunk it – we risk amplifying it. Those who whip up a storm on social media end up being interviewed on Sky News, or even hosting shows. That content, often edited and distorted, is then shared on social media by extremists. The liberal media reports on that and responds to it – and on it goes.

But such fusses, I suspect, don’t turn many votes.

For the most part, we are a country of the centre, including in our media. This remains true even now, when most people point to an increasing partisanship.

The best source of data on this is the University of Canberra’s Digital News Report, part of a long running international survey coordinated by the Reuters Institute of Journalism at Oxford University. The 2022 report found that our media are less polarised than in most other countries, and certainly less partisan than in the US.

For most Australians, free-to-air television is both an important source of news and the great centraliser. The ABC – Australia’s most trusted news brand – is more popular than Sky News. The digital news report found “even among rightwing participants, ABC TV News is more popular than Sky.” And by a massive margin.

It is true that Sky is growing its audience among rightwing viewers, mostly through its YouTube channel, but it is hard to judge how much of that is due to an Australian audience. It is clear that much of the content on the YouTube channel is designed and packaged for the US audience.

There are other facts about the media that are relevant. Apart from the ABC, most media outlets are not trusted, and the Murdoch outlets are trusted least of all. Only about 17% of Australians pay for a news service. An increasing number avoid news altogether. Most people are cynical about news media organisations, and a majority – 52% – want journalists to stick to reporting the facts and not parade our opinions.

Which makes writing this column nothing if not ironic.

Media influence is far from simple, as the libraries of research and theorising on how it works will attest. The media helps set the parameters of debate. It provides a language and vocabulary for argument. Hopefully, some of the better content will inform kitchen table and workplace conversations about the voice and thus reach a wider audience.

But I doubt if the media are the dominant reason the nation appears to have changed its mind on the voice. So what accounts for it?

The dip in those intending to vote yes began when Peter Dutton decided to oppose the voice. That, I guess, was a signal to many Australians that this was not something they could comfortably leave a unanimous political class to determine.

The national mood is sour. People are struggling. Even the comfortably off have less money to spend.

Many Indigenous Australians live with a much greater sense of insecurity and danger. But it is a terrible time, in this distinctly downbeat nation, to make an ask – even such a modest, generous and conciliatory one as the voice.

I suspect that the downward trend in the opinion polls reflects that, as the date nears, many Australians resent being forced to turn their mind to the matter at all. And when they encounter the toxicity of the debate, they resent it more. I suspect the no campaign’s more toxic outbursts are actually counterproductive, if anything. So, too, the high-flown rhetoric of yes.

Related: Guardian Essential poll: slim majority for a no vote in Indigenous voice referendum, survey shows

For the yes campaign, the remaining slim hope is that the trend, having emerged fast, might be reversed even more quickly. We are told that up to 30% of voters remain essentially undecided, and I find that easy to believe.

In my attempts to escape my bubble and speak to voters, I find not hostility to the voice, but a lack of engagement. Many people still haven’t thought about it much, and are reluctant to do so.

So what, in this sour mood in a conservative nation, might convince them? Perhaps the modest proposal that the voice might improve administration – which equates to government in the Australian mindset.

That is, thankfully, the essential message behind the latest yes campaign ad – the declaration that yes “makes possible” better outcomes. I suspect it would have been better to begin that conversation many months ago – quietly, without drama or righteousness.

But hindsight is a wonderful thing.

  • Margaret Simons is an award-winning freelance journalist and author. She is an honorary principal fellow of the Centre for Advancing Journalism and a member of the board of the Scott Trust, which owns Guardian Media Group