One in five Australians are still undecided on whether to support a referendum to establish an Indigenous voice to parliament, and Linda Burney says the government has a “very sequential” plan to reach those people before they are asked to vote in late 2023.
The minister for Indigenous Australians made the comments ahead of two meetings on Thursday which will determine the shape of the referendum. The first is of a reference group advising on the question and the mechanics of the vote, and the second larger meeting will advise on how best to engage the public.
It is the way they propose to engage with voters that may be the most challenging part of the referendum process, with key players acknowledging that while recent polling shows a lot of goodwill among Australians, there is a cohort who are undecided, say they need to know more, or are opposed.
“One of the roles of the engagement group that’s coming together Thursday afternoon is working out exactly that, who it is we still need to reach,” Burney told Guardian Australia.
This week, a Resolve poll showed 64% of people surveyed were in favour of an alteration to the constitution to establish a voice to parliament. In the poll, published by the Sydney Morning Herald and the Age, a majority of voters in a majority of states chose yes when asked for a clear answer – meeting the threshold for a successful referendum. The results back up a Guardian Essential poll in August which showed 65% of respondents were in favour.
“I was really encouraged by the polling and it is very consistent with other polling that we’ve got access to,” Burney said. “The fact that there was an identified 20% who were undecided tells us that we’ve got a job to do.
“And I think it’s just a given that there’ll be at least 10% of people who will never change their mind, no matter what you do.”
Burney said it would be wrong for critics of the voice to see recent anti-monarchy protests following the death of the Queen as a reason to reject a voice to parliament.
“We need to be clear there are obviously going to be a variety of views in the Aboriginal community, just like there’s a variety of views anywhere,” she said.
In an apparent reference to Victorian senator Lidia Thorpe, who has criticised the proposal, Burney said polling showed “the strongest yes votes are amongst Green voters”.
“So the Greens are going to have to make a decision about their base, basically. But I’m not going to get caught up with that, I’m going to just stay true to the path that we’ve set,” Burney said.
“We have a very sequential way in which we’re dealing with issue. We’re putting in place the structures that we need to consult. And we won’t be rushed, but we are very conscious of what needs to happen.”
One of the first steps is to modernise the “mechanics” of how to hold a referendum. Burney described the 1984 Referendum Act as “archaic”. It requires the government to publish a 2,000-word essay for the yes and no sides then mail them to every eligible voter which, at a cost of roughly $13m, she described as “the biggest exercise in landfill ever”.
“The Referendum Act has not been used for 30 years in Australia, and the last time it was used was before we had Twitter or Facebook or any social media,” she said. “So what we need to do is modernise the Act, take on board the fact that … there are other ways for people to get information than having a booklet mailed to them.”
Director of the From the Heart campaign, Dean Parkin, who is a member of the reference group, said there had been a lot of interest in and speculation about the vote since Anthony Albanese’s speech at the Garma festival in July, but the yes campaign hadn’t even started yet.
“There’s actually a fair bit of time between now and when the referendum might be – at the end of next year – for people to get comfortable with the idea, to bring them along on that journey,” he said. “So I know there’s a bit of excitement about demanding answers right now from some quarters, but the information will come. And it’s important that we step people through that information as it emerges.”
Parkin said the campaign would likely start early in the new year, with the vote expected by the end of 2023.
“It does take some time to ramp up the campaign infrastructure needed to run a full-blown national campaign,” he said.
The first vote yes ad, an emotive pitch produced by the Uluru Dialogue group, was released this week. Parkin said campaigners know they need to reach people from different cultural backgrounds, in different languages, and all ages.
“There’s many people out there who have a low understanding of Indigenous affairs [but] feel things could definitely be better,” he said. “They need some information about how the voice is a practical change, and how it’s something that can deliver better outcomes for families.”
Parkin said campaigners were also preparing for the backlash that will inevitably come from those opposed to the voice, and others who hold racist views about First Nations people.
“It’s an unfortunate reality that there will be pockets of that,” Parkin said. “While it is absolutely very difficult to experience, we are talking about a small minority of Australians. The vast majority are willing to be convinced and are willing to come along on this movement towards a referendum on a voice. Like the same-sex marriage campaign, we’ve had previous campaigns for Indigenous issues, even constitutional recognition, where life could get quite hard for advocates and proponents.”
The mayor of Inner West council in Sydney, Darcy Byrne, said it shouldn’t be left to Aboriginal and Islander people to “do the heavy lifting on their own”.
The council has called for 1,000 local volunteers to do civic education training, to spread the word about how the referendum will work and what the Uluru Statement is about.
Byrne said the approach had been supported in principle by the Australian Local Government Association and he had issued a call to other councils to do the same.
“We had 600 people turn up to our town hall meeting about this [in June], so we know there is an enormous amount of goodwill out there,” he said.