The uphill battle: Convincing Australia to Vote Yes

Bob Tronson and Colin Jowell
By Bob Tronson and Colin Jowell | 21 September 2023
Bob Tronson and Colin Jowell.

Bob Tronson, Head of Strategy at Good Behaviour and Colin Jowell, Principal at Good Behaviour


Here at Good Behaviour, we’re unapologetic supporters of the Voice. For personal, political and practical reasons we see it as both a unifying step towards reconciliation as well as a mechanism to improve on-the-ground outcomes for Indigenous Australians.

But successful Australian referendums are rare. The men who wrote the constitution were rightly pleased with their work but probably too keen to protect it.

Given the outcome is permanently changing the rule book for how we govern ourselves, successful campaigns have to convince Australians of two things: first, why the change is a good thing; and second, why the change won’t be a bad thing. Or the converse for a campaign against change.

Let’s review how both “Yes” and “No” campaigns are addressing these two questions using a Behavioural Science lens.

THE YES CAMPAIGN’S FIRST AD: A case study of positive framing

The first Yes campaign ad is a good case study in positively framed narrative storytelling and does a good job of convincing us change will be a good thing.

It uses a linear temporal structure we often recommend to our clients wanting to influence their people, customers or wider stakeholders in uncertain environments. It works because it’s a familiar structure able to be grasped quickly and builds interest by inviting us to predict where it’ll go next.

The ad crafts a connection between important (mostly progressive) moments in living Australian memory. Presenting these as linked, necessary steps in a maturing nationhood and placing a yes vote as the next step.

Focussing on how a semi-typical Australian family experiences these moments over time makes the topics easier for its target audience to relate to. And showing the family as participants rather than cheerleaders for change invites contemporary audiences to vote yes without necessarily having previously thought or felt too deeply about the cause.

But we do see a risk. Aligning the referendum to polemic cultural moments (and ‘that’ song) may make the change feel bigger than it needs to for undecided voters. Status Quo Bias suggests people resist big changes, which undermines the Yes campaign’s ability to explain why the change won’t be a bad thing.

THE NO CAMPAIGN: Capitalising on our aversion to ambiguity and loss

Unsurprisingly, it’s here the No campaign has been focussed. And on current polling, it may be a winning strategy.

Even famously progressive inner-city suburbs have been carpet-bombed with the pamphlet on the left. And you’d be hard pressed to have missed the catchy line on the right.

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Both ads neatly play on Status Quo Bias as well as Ambiguity Aversion, our tendency to choose options where there is a more predictable outcome.

The pamphlet makes (contested) claims about potential consequences of an Indigenous Voice. Asking more and more questions without answers increase our tendency towards Ambiguity Aversion. Sadly, whether the claims are true or not doesn’t really matter, it’s the seed of doubt the no campaign hopes to reap, simple lies are often stickier and more viral than complex, nuanced truths.

Likewise, “Don’t know? Vote no.” has a rich history as a slogan because it pulls its audience towards Status Quo Bias in less than five words, while its short rhyming nature may act as shorthand for statement accuracy in our minds.

THE YES CAMPAIGN’S SECOND AD: Delivering clarity?

The second Yes campaign video remains generally positive and emotionally focussed. The agency brief was to “create clarity and take politics out of the equation; to focus on combatting misinformation in the media; and ultimately rally the country to vote yes”.

The ad’s voice over asks us:

‘Will I grow up in country that hears my voice?

Will I live as long as other Australians?

Will I get to go to a good school?

Will I be able to learn my people’s language?

Will I be seen beyond the sports field?

Recognised by the decision-makers of our country?

Yes makes it possible’

It’s apolitical and creates clarity as to the intended outcomes of the Voice, so nailing the brief. But it also plays directly into the No campaign’s hands. Because while each question in the ad can be answered by the final line, the No campaign merely needs to ask another question: how?

How will the Voice make all this possible? How will the Voice engage with parliament and the executive and on what topics? How will it make sure the narrator does go to a good school or live longer? How will the Constitution be different if the referendum succeeds? How are we sure there’s no unintended consequences?

All questions that if left unanswered will continue to distract and dissuade undecided voters.

And to be clear, we not critiquing the creative but the strategy. The Yes campaign know their task is difficult but they appear to be treating the referendum as if it were a regular political campaign, likening voting to a purchasing decision. But a referendum is quite different: a voter at a regular election has the choice of many options catered to their needs; but on October 14 Australian citizens must vote and they can only vote yes or no.

We propose that referenda campaigns should be treated as a behavioural challenge, with an entirely different decision architecture.


Central to this is the Yes campaign convincing Australians that the change won’t be a bad thing? If forced to choose one of two options, people generally pick the less risky approach.

So how does the Yes campaign overcome this? Without knowing their strategy, a few hints can shed some light.

A so-far emotionally-driven ad campaign low on detail, Anthony Albanese’s proclamation that this isn’t a politician’s referendum, polling undertaking by Essential Report (as part of the Yes campaign) showing undecided voters trusting family and friends most for information about the referendum and the army of Yes volunteers in community spaces around the country would all suggest the Yes campaign are relying on community conversations to make the case that the Voice will do no harm.

Behaviourally, this makes sense. By having conversations with friends and family, three of Cialdini’s Seven Principles of Influence come into effect:

o   Authority – we do things that people we respect advise us to do

o   Liking – we do things for people we like

o   Unity – we do things for people where we believe we have a shared identity

But a strategy that relies purely on community conversations is also risky. The Voice is a complex and difficult issue to talk about and these conversations have the potential to come across as patronising, accusatory or simply confusing.

Most of us aren’t perfect communicators but Behavioural Science can provide two clear directives to promote success in these conversations.

To counter Ambiguity Aversion: Make it Clear.

o   The Voice is not risky or unknown, it is a modest change with a structure that can be changed by future parliaments. This ensures coming governments can best use the input from Indigenous Australia in working to close the gap.

o   The Voice is permanent, but this is a feature, not a bug. It means a future government can’t just throw it away if it all gets too hard. They must evolve how the Voice works it to make it work better.

To counter Status Quo Bias: Make it Small.

o   Yes, this is a hugely important change for the 3 per cent or so of Australia that identify as Indigenous as well as their loved ones.

o   But for the rest of us, beyond a sense of pride, it will have almost no impact. It will not create two types of citizens and it will not affect how we govern ourselves.

Clarity is a common communication objective, but making your message seem small may be counterintuitive in the standard marketing playbook. The best thing the Yes campaign can do now is convince Australians that it’s no big deal, and not a bad thing at all.

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