Why spectacular slogans and perfect pop ditties will never work

By Naomi Barnes

The phenomenon of moral politicking around an issue rather than a political party has been a key part of my research over the last five years. That’s been the case in many things to do with education – and education policy. Our social relationships now have a strong influence on our reality. Politics no longer works the way it did back in 1967.  Let’s look at what happened on the weekend as we voted on the Voice referendum.

On Saturday the No Vote for an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice to Parliament ( commonly called the Voice referendum) won in a landslide. It was a referendum clean sweep. All of the States and more than half the population voted No. There have been many over the weekend who have been deconstructing why. What did the Yes campaign do wrong? Whether there should have been a constitutional convention to avoid spending billions on yet another unsuccessful referendum. Whether there were truth or lies. 

We can analyse the should and the shouldn’ts for days. But in the end, voting on the Voice referendum should never have been the foundational mechanism for having a much needed national discussion about something so important. Maybe once it was. Maybe. But no longer. 

A national discussion

As I said, politics no longer works the way it did back in 1967. 

Back in the 1960s politics had the veneer of a powerful institution that could morally progress the nation. And I say veneer because it’s not like misinformation and politicians behaving badly didn’t exist back then. They absolutely did. But the social agreement was that the political system was represented as something that could be moral. Or at least held to account when it wasn’t. 

Today morality is politicised. In other words, the public are encouraged to gather around an idea because it is moral, not because a political party is moral. We saw this in the distribution of No and Yes votes in the Voice referendum. The Australian Labor Party (ALP) were campaigning for the Yes vote but traditional ALP seats resoundingly voted No across the country. 

Moral politicking around issues rather than  political parties has been a key part of my research findings since 2018. I’ve published a couple of times about it recently with my colleagues (here and here). We discuss how education issues are used as moral barometers in election campaigns and how education publics now tend to align themselves with a moral position attached to an education policy. An earlier finding showed that people are also more likely to make decisions that agree with their friends and family

Moral politicking

This is because our social relationships have a strong influence on our morality. 

The standard response to this phenomenon is ‘media literacy’ or ‘do your research’ or ‘google it’. Be critically literate. This is a great response and absolutely what should happen in the classrooms, in teaching reading and responsible authorship/creation. 

But, when morality is politicised, being critically informed as a moral position is simply not working. We should know that by now. Morality polarises. You can’t teach someone away from the opposite pole with snappy slogans, comedy and clever use of pop songs. They just make your pole feel good (and shocked when you lose). The most successful political actors (politicians/lobbyists etc) today are those who know that spreading misinformation is the best way to run interference – especially on a campaign so deeply concerned with telling the truth. And they are really, really good at it. 

Conservative political actors

These actors tend to be conservative. Conservative political actors, who are intent on wedging issues, do not care whether their descriptions are accurate or not. Indeed their whole purpose is to sow confusion and muddy the water to the point where people have no choice but to vote with their feelings. Meanwhile progressive political actors interested in accuracy, media literacy and fact checking spend all their energy correcting the misinformation or getting frustrated about people not researching. Finding the positive emotional register in “gotchas” when they evidence a flaw. This is a very normal reaction to misleading and inaccurate information. But while this critical energy is spent correcting information, no campaigning for change is happening. Indeed more often than not the conservative campaign is amplified, especially if these discussions are occurring in the media.

So what do we do about it? I’m certainly not advocating for less fact checking or critical media literacy. But we need to face the reality of the situation and consider where critical literacy fits in these times when clever campaigners don’t care if their facts are wrong and critiquing amplifies untruths. 

History and Geography’s poor cousin

It’s not just that people don’t understand how our political systems work that’s a problem, it’s that those who do know are concerning themselves with a system that no longer works the way it used to. Maybe Civics and Citizenship education needs amplifying. The poor cousin to History and Geography has been continuously overlooked in an education landscape dominated by literacy and numeracy. 

We have to have a hard conversation about how we teach people to deal with politics and campaigning texts in this political environment and it has to include the following. 

Less clamouring for the repair of a liberal-constitutional institution and its norms – something that no longer cares about truth. Find a way to make space for those who are grassroots campaigning because they are listening to people. Listening is how you reach people who vote with their family, friends and neighbours. 

Less bemoaning a crisis of democracy because people voted against repairing the Constitution. The logic is that their vote is not as valuable as your vote. A democratic crisis actually does exist in that slippery slope. That worries this ex-Citizenship Education teacher just as much as “If you don’t know, vote No” slogans

After the Voice referendum

Understand that we are in a significant political moment for Australia in 2023. We cannot connect this experience of the Voice referendum to Brexit or Trump or the 2022 Federal election. We cannot draw comparisons to the past when literacy became a policy object and critical literacy experienced a meteoric rise, full of hope for a well informed citizenry. Looking elsewhere is what we always do to make sense of unprecedented moments in our lives. We look back to work out what to do. But, according to Anthony Giddens, looking back for answers has always been what keeps conservative ideas in power. 

Looking away stops us looking our own uncomfortable politics square in the face. We saw racism and prejudice over the campaign. That needs dealing with immediately. We are not going to learn how to deal with our own future if we are looking to England, Europe or the US. Instead, we have to squarely look at our own situation and realise the answers are here already if we know where to listen. We also have to realise that a democracy means that ideas we find morally objectionable may gain traction and no amount of facts and critical thought will stop that happening. But moral polarisation will stop us talking and listening. 

Good can always be found and brought to the surface. That is the essence of politics. 

For instance, whether you voted Yes or No, the Voice referendum has repoliticised challenges faced by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in Australia. The past 40 years of neoliberal government has systematically privatised, proceduralised and neutralised the way issues like deaths in custody, welfare and healthcare, youth incarceration, mental health, access to food and water, access to education and addressing the literacy gap are dealt with in Australia. We know about it. It’s been campaigned about by both sides for 12 months. We know something needs to be done about it. Something with teeth.

Privatised, proceduralised, neutralised

That’s a good thing. That’s a grassroots thing. That’s a democratic thing. And educators who are well-versed in civics and citizenship, have inquiring minds, and listen, really listen, are going to be critical in moving forward. 

Dr Naomi Barnes is a network analyst and theorist at Queensland University of Technology. She is interested in how ideas influence education policy. She is a senior lecturer in literacy teaching and has worked for Education Queensland as a senior writer and has worked as a secondary English, history and geography teacher in government, Catholic and independent schools.