Don’t be distracted by ‘controversy bombs’, Pearson urges Yes campaign

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The Yes camp will use rallies for 50,000 people and concerts in capital cities on Sunday to try and draw a line under a messy opening fortnight, after the Voice referendum campaign became mired in a verbal crossfire about racism and the impact of colonisation.

Voice co-architect Noel Pearson said at a Yes23 rally in Sydney’s Redfern that the campaign would need to avoid “controversy bombs” over the remaining four weeks to referendum day on October 14, as he dismissed comments by Coalition frontbencher Jacinta Nampijinpa Price that British colonisation had no lasting negative impacts on Indigenous Australians.

Leading Voice architect Noel Pearson at a Yes 23 campaign event in Redfern on Saturday.Credit: Dion Georgopoulos

“What I believe, is the only path forward for the Yes campaign over the next four weeks is to keep pushing a positive message,” Pearson said. “Don’t be distracted by these attempts to chuck controversy bombs into the water to blow up an argument over here that’s got nothing to do with the referendum.”

He said Price’s comments, made in response to a question about colonisation at the National Press Club on Thursday, were “just provocative words”.

“They ought to be taken as, alright, she’s woken up or her advisors have woken up and thought, what is the most annoying thing I could say today to cause a controversy?”

Also during the week, the Coalition seized on comments by top Voice proponent Marcia Langton saying the No case’s arguments were “based in racism and stupidity”.

In a separate interview marking the one-month deadline until referendum day, Indigenous Australians Minister Linda Burney maintained she was not contemplating defeat on October 14, and expressed her desire to stay on in the role when asked about her post-referendum plans in the context of the toll of the campaign and her recently disclosed medical issues.

“I am resilient,” she said. “I think that in many ways just like Cathy Freeman didn’t give up and Vincent Lingiari didn’t give up, I’m here for the right reasons. I’m here to make this country a better place and I will continue to do that.”

After a week in which Burney came under intense Coalition pressure in question time over the Voice, and was accused by Opposition Leader Peter Dutton of responding with irrelevant scripted answers, Burney verged on tears as she spoke of the challenge facing Yes campaigners and Indigenous Australians over the next four weeks and beyond.

“I’m not contemplating defeat, so I’m not going to talk about if there is a No vote. But the most important thing is the message of love overcoming fear,” Burney said, as she went on to draw an analogy to her experience caring for her disabled husband Rick Farley before his death in 2006.

Minister for Indigenous Australians Linda Burney campaigning for a Yes vote in Sydney on Friday.Credit: James Brickwood

“I don’t want to get upset, but in my own life I have seen and been in a situation where I saw my husband become very sick and extremely disabled. For six months he was like that before he actually died. And I know that no matter what happened in that situation it was our love for each other that was the important thing.

“And that’s what will happen because we as a people, and the Yes campaign, we are not going to give up. The Aboriginal affairs agenda is huge … a whole range of issues to do with the issues facing First Nations people, that will not stop. But in terms of this referendum, it is our one chance as a nation to recognise and do better.”

Her comments came before she was caught on a live microphone on Friday while campaigning alongside NSW Premier Chris Minns, where she appeared to suggest she had been treated “appallingly” by the federal opposition during the parliamentary fortnight.

“We’ve just finished two weeks of gruelling parliament. To me, it’s just unbelievably racist and bullying. The way they have treated me is appalling,” Burney said to Minns.

She later issued a clarifying statement saying her office, social accounts and email had been inundated with racist abuse.

About 50,000 people had signed up to take part in the Walk for Yes events around the country, Pearson said while addressing the Redfern rally alongside Yes23 campaigner Rachel Perkins and Indigenous former AFL player Michael O’Loughlin.

The largest walks are expected in Sydney and Melbourne in what Yes23 campaigners hope will help arrest sliding momentum. A Resolve poll this week showed support for the Voice had slumped to 43 per cent after the first week of the campaign and the No case was leading in every state except Tasmania.

Prominent No campaigner Warren Mundine said his side was not worried about the Yes camp having a larger ground campaign, claiming that “people are rejecting the message that it is based on – that Aboriginal people don’t have a voice, which is utter nonsense”.

Warren Mundine at the press club on Thursday.Credit: Alex Ellinghausen

Asked about the Yes campaign’s struggles on Saturday, Minns said he believed the campaign still had time to make the arguments and assure people the Voice would be a positive change and would not replace representative democracy.

“Nothing will take precedence over the House of Representatives and the Senate. Nothing. That’s our system, our system works,” Minns said.

“Some people are saying that it’s already over before it’s begun. It’s not. Most people I speak to either aren’t engaged on the issue yet or haven’t thought deeply about it.“

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