Not many people would find John Farnham’s You’re The Voice a difficult song to understand. Borrowing from the chorus for a moment, it makes a noise and makes it clear: we all have a role to play in civil society. From its opening line, it’s an imperviously optimistic appeal to human nature’s better angels: “We have the chance to turn the pages over”.
Most people, fortunately, are not a desperate politician on the hustings. Responding to Farnham’s endorsement of a constitutionally enshrined Indigenous voice to parliament – and his offering of You’re The Voice to the yes campaign – the opposition leader, Peter Dutton’s take on the song was obtuse, to say the least.
“The key line in the lyrics there, ‘You’re the voice, try and understand it,’” he told Sky News. “I honestly don’t think most Australians understand it and they want to be informed.” Apart from Dutton’s apparent unwillingness to educate himself (much less inform anyone else), attempting to sow further confusion out of such an obvious song is breathtakingly cynical.
The use of You’re The Voice by the yes campaign, and the timing of Farnham’s intervention, is pivotal. The no side has been successful so far in capitalising on uncertainty with its own appeal to ignorance, via its “If you don’t know, vote no” messaging. All recent polling points to the referendum failing.
The yes side will be hoping that Farnham’s broad appeal to baby boomers and generation Xers, who grew up with You’re The Voice, will help lift the yes case above the tide of disinformation and confusion that has dominated the discourse. These are, of course, the exact demographics most in need of persuasion.
The timing is even more potent given that Farnham himself has been terribly ill. His year-long battle with cancer, and a recent documentary (which drew in enormous ratings for Channel 7 on release) has resulted in a new outpouring of public affection for the singer. Whether you’re a fan or not, Farnham has been part of our lives for as long as most of us can remember.
The use of You’re The Voice at this critical moment for the nation also shapes as an interesting test of the power of a song to change the narrative. Like all great anthems, you can feel the uplift of You’re The Voice before the chorus even arrives. The song is possessed by a surging momentum that the yes campaign to date has lacked.
And unlike other Australian protest songs – Midnight Oil’s Beds Are Burning, say, or Archie Roach’s Took The Children Away – You’re The Voice levels no accusations at anyone. It merely implores us all to have our say in participatory democracy. That its title lends itself so neatly to inviting First Nations voices to have their say is one of those marvellous accidents of history.
The Uluru Dialogue advertisement released this weekend effectively harnesses the nostalgic appeal of the song, while looking to the future. It touches on moments of national transformation – the 1967 referendum; the ultimately successful postal plebiscite for marriage equality – and in so doing, cleverly invites us to view a no vote as a missed opportunity.
In the ad’s final scene, as Australians approach the voting booths while sausages sizzle outside, a daughter gives a handmade “Yes” card to her uncertain grandmother. This is a moment to be seized, for what we do now will outlive us all. The chorus of You’re The Voice rises and tells us one last time: we’re not going to live with fear.
It’s a powerful pushback against the no campaign, which has relied upon and cultivated fear and distrust to sell its own message. (Farnham’s representatives have already been moved to formally refute claims that Farnham was seeking an extra payday, confirming that You’re The Voice had been given to the yes campaign gratis.)
Borrowing from the song one last time, You’re The Voice is about knowing we all have the power to be powerful when we stand together. That’s a pop lyric that everyone can understand. And that’s what the traffickers in confusion and division from the no campaign really fear.
First published in the Guardian, 4 September 2023