Man bites dog

Stop the presses! Abandon the broadcast schedule! Flood your social media sites with your posts! Man bites dog!

An Australian media outlet has described much of what the Yes campaign is actually doing rather than focussing on who said what about the latest No talking point. It did, nevertheless, tack on to the article some of the latest details of what the No campaign was doing even if they were more aspirational than reality. But despite that the article was revelatory.

The Sunday Age 27/8) featured the headline ‘Yes campaign to wage battle for the suburbs’ and said the Yes campaign was ‘resetting’ its strategy. The only problem was that the so-called reset was simply what the strategy always was – but just never got mentioned by the media.

The article quoted Noel Pearson – describing him as the architect of the Voice – who would be surprised by the claim given all the others who worked with him and others on the Uluru Statement.

It also suggested that his comments were a shift from using celebrities to target ‘ordinary’ Australians and away from corporate sponsorship – the source of No claims that the campaign was elitist.

In fact, what was always intended by the Yes campaign was a massive grassroots campaign aided by advertising.

The Sunday Age did concede that the ‘campaign’ war chest of millions of dollars in corporate donations would flow into a surge in advertising. The corporate donations are supplemented by significant donations by organisations and individuals.

The article also didn’t mention that the expertise available to the campaign should make it one of the best resourced and most carefully targeted political campaigns in decades. Plus the added advantage of some of the campaign strategists having usually worked for the conservative parties.

The Sunday Age said Yes’ ‘claimed’ volunteer base of 25,000 would be key to reaching densely populated areas in city fringes such as western Sydney. This implies this was the target audience rather than one part of a bigger campaign. It also conveniently missed the fact that referendum campaigns are not just about what are regarded as marginal electoral areas but all electorates.  For instance, in the blog’s local Federal electorate – which is fairly safe Labor – the grassroots campaign, staffed by hundreds of people, has been underway for weeks.

In contrast, the article quoted the Fair Australia No Campaign fronted by Coalition frontbencher Jacinta Nampijinpa Price as saying the No campaign needed 40,000 volunteers to cover 170,000 hours of campaigning. That, along with the Fair name, is one of the best examples of chutzpah one can imagine.

More importantly, given the demographic differences between many Yes and No campaigners the majority of Yes campaigners, although sadly not the ageing and arthritic blog, might cover more ground each day than the No ones do.

Amidst all these claims and counterclaims Victorian Labor MP Rob Mitchell, the McEwen MHR, injected another bit of reality into the current situation when he told The Sunday Age that a key challenge was reaching disengaged voters who were actually unaware of the forthcoming referendum.

This is a reminder that the media often assumes the electorate is concerned by the issues the media and the political staffers who have briefed them are.

The reality is that more people are open to persuasion with compelling information and messages than opinion poll findings at particular points suggest – as Bill Shorten discovered in 2019 to his eternal regret. Moreover, the strategists who were on the Liberals side when they brought about that unexpected result are now on the Yes side.

Currently bookies don’t seem to be offering odds on the referendum outcome but if they were the odds would probably be shorter on the No case – as surveys are showing – but not generously so. That’s hardly surprising given the nature of the No campaign and the massive media failures in covering the issue.

But after six weeks of a huge door-knocking campaign and millions in advertising, the odds may well shift the other way. So, if you could get odds right now it would be well worth a punt.

For those not familiar with journalistic history the phrase man bites dog provided a rough and ready guide to young reporters (as they were then known) to the sort of things which were newsworthy.

Today the story would be up on social media within minutes while journalists were racing around getting reactions to the event and wildly speculating on what it meant for the future rather than reporting the event itself.