As the Nationals revealed its opposition to an Indigenous voice to parliament this week, the Victorian Women’s Trust were putting the finishing touches on its model of kitchen table conversations as a national campaign tool ahead of the voice referendum.
Mary Crooks, who hails from country Victoria, is the executive director of the Trust and the architect of the Purple Sage project – the original model of “kitchen table conversations” that engaged regional voters and acted as a lightning rod for dissent ahead of Jeff Kennett’s defeat in the 1999 state election.
It went on to be used by independent political campaigns, including former Indi independent Cathy McGowan’s 2013 victory as well as metropolitan independents such as Warringah MP Zali Steggall and the current crop of independent MPs elected in the 2022 federal election.
“When I first designed Purple Sage project in Victoria, way back in 1990s, the Victorian government at that time was riding roughshod over Victoria, and especially people in regional and rural Victoria,” Crooks says.
“That whole position of the National party this week, was redolent of that in my mind: ‘You can stop right now, and pick up a ballot paper and fill it out because we know what’s best for you. And if we’re opposed to the voice, then you should be too.’”
Now, the kitchen table model will be used across the nation in a project provisionally known as “Together, Yes”. The concept would allow people to register for a process where they invite small groups into their homes for respectful conversations about the voice.
“Men and women on farming lands in regional hinterlands – they’re not empty vessels waiting to be filled with political speak,” Crooks says.
“These are people who have lived rich lives and work hard. They have all the wisdom and experience in the world about a whole lot of stuff.
“And so you want to provide an encouragement and a process whereby they can stop and have a think about this and apply their own wisdom and experience and filters to it and come up trumps, in terms of what they think they’ll do – not to be told how to think.”
Crooks has been in contact with campaign group From The Heart and other Indigenous leaders. The Victorian Women’s Trust works side by side with Koorie Women Mean Business. They have been planning the strategy since the prime minister, Anthony Albanese, pledged to hold the referendum earlier this year. It is expected registrations for people interested in the kitchen table sessions will be open in February next year and run until June.
‘The worst sort of opportunistic party politics’
Australian history shows bipartisan support has been required on referendum, which need a majority of people in a majority of states. So the question this week was: if a rural based party like the Nationals opposes the voice, does it stand a chance?
Essential polling conducted for Guardian Australia in August suggested there was majority support for the concept among rural and regional voters. This view was backed by Noel Pearson, who told ABC radio the Nationals MPs had been most supportive of the idea of the voice.
Certainly the Nationals’ decision sparked conversations in its own electorates.
It made three things clear in country Australia this week.
First, the decision has energised engaged sections of National party electorates, particularly those targeted by centre-right independent campaigns.
Those electorates include Calare, where Nationals MP Andrew Gee revealed he was still a supporter of the voice, and Nicholls in Victoria, where newly elected Nationals MP Sam Birrell reserved his position.
Birrell’s independent opponent in the recent election, Rob Priestley, made his first Facebook post since the election on Thursday, with the hashtag #sufficientlypissedofftoreactivatefacebook.
He wrote: “Sam Birrell MP, this issue is too serious to let the party play politics with it.”
“Trying to kill the voice to parliament before we have even had the conversation is not coming to an informed position and deciding against it, it is the worst sort of opportunistic party politics. You are better than this.”
In nearby Euroa, resident Kate Auty said a loose coalition of local people had begun organising a series of education forums in the Strathbogies and surrounds to give people opportunities to talk about the voice and share any concerns.
Second, there are a lot of assumptions made about the voting habits of rural electorates, including that most rural and regional people did not support marriage equality.
Only three of the 17 electorates that voted against marriage equality in the 2017 plebiscite were classed rural or provincial. They were all in Queensland. Of those, only one is a Nationals seat – David Littleproud’s seat of Maranoa, where the yes vote was 43.9%.
That plebiscite was a reminder that in spite of the teeth gnashing over whether rural and regional electorates would support what was seen as a “progressive” issue like same-sex marriage, they did. Or at least, they didn’t care about it enough to come out and vote no, given the high proportions in some seats – including up to 49% in Lingiari in the Northern Territory who did not bother voting.
The third point to make about rural and regional areas is that, according to polling, most people don’t even know about the referendum and if they do, they don’t know the details.
However, Crooks says from her conversations, there are plenty of groups getting energised across the country on the voice.
“My advice to people is put your fingers in your ears for the moment and just wait for what are going to be a lot of special opportunities around the country, you know, with local government or faith communities or our own approach,” she says.
“People think there’s a void but I don’t think there is a void. The void is actually people getting ready.”