The selection of John Farnham’s ‘You’re the Voice’ as the soundtrack for the ‘Yes’ campaign promised to change the ‘whole vibe of the thing’. So far, however, the polls are not encouraging.
Initially, many hoped, this would be the point at which the Yes vote regained some momentum. Furthermore, anchoring their television campaign to Australia’s ‘unofficial national anthem’ looked like a major reset of the emotional dynamics of the referendum debate.
In a significant shift away from the self-interested political games being played around these debates, the ‘You’re the Voice’ advertisement frames the referendum as an opportunity for popular celebration. The nostalgic montage of key moments of political progress and national pride tells a story of a nation that has repeatedly managed to come together to do things that have proven worthwhile.
What makes the ad particularly powerful, of course, are the emotional and cultural associations that ‘You’re the Voice’ brings with it. They are irresistibly there, hardwired into our memories of national celebration. Time and again, in the culmination of big national events celebrating the common good, Australians have joined their neighbours in belting out that chorus with hope and enthusiasm. Its cultural currency crosses generational boundaries, recognized with pleasure and affection by the baby-boomers, their children and their grandchildren.
‘You’re the Voice’ has been the national anthem Australians wish they had.
Farnham’s personal standing as one of Australia’s favourite sons has a lot to do with this, of course, but it is also to do with how his actual performances highlight the celebration of community, the power of the people, which lies at the heart of the song’s lyric.
The Coalition’s initial response to the song’s recruitment for the Yes case overlooked all of that. Instead, they came up with what they clearly thought was a gotcha moment. The song’s first line ‘you’re the voice, try to understand it’, was offered up as a pointer to the weakness of the yes case. Australians, said Peter Dutton, didn’t understand it.
Really, though, it is Dutton who didn’t understand it. As Farnham has explained in the past, this is a song about agency, about taking control of your own destiny. What the listener is asked ‘to understand’ is their power to generate change. This is what the advertisement says, too. Indeed, on watching the full two and a half minute advertisement, it is striking how closely the song’s lyrics align with a progressive take on the present moment.
This song has changed the mood of that moment for many who will watch it, to be sure. To be successful, though, it also needs to change the meaning.
A couple of years ago, I wrote a little book for Bloomsbury’s 331/3 series about the album that gave us ‘You’re the Voice’, Whispering Jack . Whispering Jack was the breakthrough album for John Farnham’s career as a serious rock artist, but it was also the moment when he began his journey towards becoming the much loved national figure he is now. ‘You’re the Voice’ is central to that journey and hearing it calls up all the memories, the cues to a positive sense of national identity, it has gathered along the way.
Will that be enough, though, to push aside the doubts, the fears, and the misinformation that have been strewn in the path of the ‘Yes’ campaign? It seems that those who are already on that side of the debate have been energized and relieved to see a positive shift in the campaign. But I wouldn’t be alone in thinking that such a shift is well overdue.
The fact that something like 80% of the population were in favour of supporting a Voice to Parliament a year ago might have looked promising back then, but that level of support has proven extremely vulnerable to the questions, doubts and fears that have been raised since. The ‘yes’ campaign has been inexplicably, frustratingly, slow to respond to this. Consequently, this latest development could be a case of too little, too late.
The latest polls I have seen https://www.smh.com.au/politics/federal/voters-continue-to-turn-against-the-voice-and-albanese-along-with-it-20230910-p5e3fy.htmlwould suggest that not only is the new ad campaign failing to shift votes but also that Albanese is suffering some damage himself. It is starting to look unlikely that a television ad blitz, even one based on the themes of national unity underpinning ‘You’re The Voice’, will be sufficient to turn that around.