When the date of the Voice to Parliament referendum was announced, it landed on the already-determined Yours and Owls weekend, and it was clear the festival would define the historic event for young people across the Illawarra. What ensued was a bubble of support for the Yes campaign, teasing what could’ve been, and making the No result more unbelievable.
Before the festival even began there was a clash of occasions. Three days before the vote, the Wollongong Undergraduate Student Association held a rally to show support for the Yes campaign, and through their chants, Aussie indie rock could be heard from the speakers of a nearby tent. In this tent, a lone beach-blonde worker was selling the last hundred Yours and Owls tickets to those on campus who hadn’t already purchased. Neither seemed disturbed by the other, and it foreshadowed the week ahead.
The decision to hold the Yours and Owls festival on the University of Wollongong campus was a big deal. UOW alum and organiser Ben Tillman called it a “full circle moment”. For students, the festival being on campus only solidified Yours and Owls’ place in the Gong’s social calendar; after two years of covid lockdown, it was back in a big way. Fifteen thousand people per day would walk the grounds: a time to see friends, foes, old and new, everyone was going to be there, and that made the Yes campaign very nervous.
There were fears that potential voters would forget, or run out of time, to vote on the day. This was primarily a problem for the Yes campaign, as it was predicted that they would find their support with young university-educated people. This was the same demographic attending Yours and Owls, and Tillman said it was not the festival’s place to tell people what to do or think when it came to which way to vote (he personally supported the Yes campaign). After a failed attempt to secure voting booths on site, they found the best way to minimise the festival’s impact on the vote was via providing information and heavily encouraging early voting.
“I’m hoping that taking that approach of just encouraging people to vote, but also to do the research — hoping once people do actually do that — it’s pretty clear which way to go,” Tillman said.
It was a strategy that worked. When submitting an early vote along with another student, we spoke to Yes campaigner Susan Engle, who told us that there had been “heaps of young people” at the Crown Street site early that morning. We also ran into other students who were voting in advance due to their weekend plans. In the end, Illawarra’s voting turnout was in line with the rest of the state, avoiding the drop people had feared. Of course, it was not enough to save the Yes vote nationally. Still, the electorate of Cunningham — on which the university, and more notably the festival falls — was one of two regional electorates to return a Yes vote.
Walking into Yours and Owls, it was not easy to forget the referendum outside the gates. However, it was easy, to question the polling we’d been seeing foretelling a clear No. The university grounds had been transformed to feel bigger than ever.
Immediately there were Yes23 shirts dotted in the crowd, despite the festival’s ban on political material, and US-born singer Hobo Johnson made a statement on the main stage supporting First Nations people. Early Saturday afternoon, the welcome to country by Yuin man Gerald (Uncle Gee) Brown, from the Gawura Aboriginal Corporation, drew a crowd almost larger than the previous performer on the main stage.
After acknowledging that we were meeting on the land of the Dharawal people of the Yuin nation, he told the crowd that the traditional name of the overlooking Mount Keira, was Djera; he expressed his support for the Yes campaign, and explained what it meant to him.
“It’s a big day for Aboriginal people today to see whether the Yes or No vote goes through. I voted Yes because I believe Aboriginal people don’t have enough input into education, schooling, and employment.”
Brown told the crowd about the elders he grew up with – four female mentors, as the men could not work within Aboriginal organisations as they were doing long hours at the local Sawmill. He reflected on how his father was in the mills supporting the family and how if he took a day off the family couldn’t eat. It was just a glimpse into his story and what had changed within his lifetime to allow men to be in his position of supporting the community. His speech elicited cheers and support. It felt unbelievable that a majority of Australians disagreed with the majority found here.
An installation was run by the Woolyungah Indigenous Centre (WIC), where people could write about how they plan to respect country whilst on site. Within hours the boards were adored in variations of “vote Yes!”. There were also more specific actions such as acknowledging elders, supporting Aboriginal acts, not littering, and knowing whose land you are on. The space was manned by people from WIC. Speaking to WIC Vice President Jaymee Beveridge, it became clear just how much effort went into supporting First Nations students.
“The strong sense of community here and within the UOW bubble has meant students have been safely held by our staff and community through the lead-up to the Referendum,” Beveridge said.
But the installation was not unchallenged. Someone had tried to write up “vote No” on the board, and another drunk festival goer was asked how his contribution of “yowza” would be respecting country. By Sunday, the board was mildly haunting: a reminder of how differently the nation had felt compared to a majority of those within the grounds.
This contrast points towards three things: the age of attendees; their level of education; and the position of the festival as a community event. The first two have been widely discussed as the most telling factors for predicting which way electorates would vote. It’s not a coincidence that the only two regional electorates in NSW to vote Yes included a university within their borders: Wollongong and Newcastle. The young people living on campus and around the area may have been the determining vote.
The second factor was the prevalence of university degrees in an electorate. Notably, it was the general percentage of those in one’s area with a university degree that became a predictor, not an individual’s level of education. This indicates it was more of a class divide than an issue of understanding. ANU social researcher Prof Nicholas Biddle told the Guardian this was because higher education is “more likely to lead to permanent, more stable income. That makes people more willing to take risks.”
This security would have been felt by more at Yours and Owls than not. The weekend ticket price was $296 as cost-of-living pressures affect festival ticket sales across Australia. Financial background and balancing study with work remain some of the biggest indicators of whether someone will complete their degree. During an expensive festival held on a university campus, the middle class was overrepresented. It has become one of the biggest criticisms of the Yes campaign; how they failed to engage working-class communities.
The final factor seen at the festival has been less discussed. It was found that those who were members of community organisations were much more likely to support the Voice. Whether it was a sporting club, religious institution, community organisation or union, those involved in the community were significantly more likely to vote Yes than others. A festival is one of our most traditional ways to come together. Since the ancient Greeks held Bacchanalia, we’ve felt the pull to drink and gather. Admittedly, there’s more glitter and mesh than before, but the core ideal of togetherness remains the same. Almost all those in attendance had their people there. A festival may not meet the criteria for a community group, but there was a level of overall connectedness that is hard to achieve elsewhere.
The news of the No result came in slowly. The bad reception meant many were disconnected and there was no main stage announcement to signify the moment; instead, many were getting food and relaxing in one of the lower energy moments of the day.
It wasn’t the celebration of a result Tillman and organisers had hoped for, but the party carried on through the night, seemingly unaffected.
One of the only acknowledgements came on Sunday. Australian artist Forest Claudette delivered a mourning acknowledgement of country before beginning their set. “It’s been a big day,” they said with a sigh, wearing a jumper with the words “Teach Blak History”. After a few songs, they performed Violence, which included the lyrics, “What’s been done in the past, you deny, you deny young blood, ‘Nother stain in the night, want us paying for peace, then you beg us to fight.”
It had been written about the black American experience, but the parallel between that and the Indigenous Australian experience was made clear by the artist as they introduced it.
Yours and Owls became an example of what the result and campaign could’ve been. When the vote was first proposed there was more support for the Voice than opposition. Instead, the festival became an example of how insular the Yes campaign was, only preaching to the choir. In the following days, it was almost too easy to pretend as if it had not happened at all. For non-Indigenous Australians, the referendum has already been repressed. Academics will analyse it to death, and politicians will study the campaigns, but for most, the opportunity for change had come and gone before the final roadie left campus.