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Yes and No volunteers at Orange referendum pre-poll are getting on. Mostly

October 5, 2023

Some of the many Yes and No volunteers at Orange Function Centre. None of those in the photos were involved in the alleged dispute. Copyright: Orange News Examiner.

By Peter Holmes

Tempers have flared over recent days at the Orange Function Centre pre-polling for the referendum on the Voice to Parliament, according to volunteers.

Pre-polling opened on Tuesday after the long weekend, and a few dozen volunteers are working shifts handing out leaflets and flyers for the Yes and No campaigns.

There is consensus that, generally, volunteers have been getting on famously. However, one alleged incident on Tuesday has risked souring relations.

The truth of what actually happened is difficult to discern, as only the two people involved are believed to have witnessed it.

The Yes campaign is saying a No campaigner pretended to spit at one of its volunteers, after a heated discussion that ended with the Yes campaigner walking away to stand elsewhere. The No campaign says no such incident occurred, and that its volunteers have behaved impeccably.

One Yes campaigner said they were standing close to the incident, and heard the Yes and No campaigner sharing a difference of opinion, but didn’t see it.

They said that as the debate escalated the Yes campaigner said to the No campaigner that they should agree to disagree and move on, but that the No campaigner wanted to keep arguing. This Yes campaigner said he offered to swap places with his fellow Yes volunteer, and they did so.

Two sources, who were present at Orange Function Centre shortly after the dispute, said that two Yes campaigners entered the centre to advise the Australian Electoral Commission (AEC) of the matter.

On Tuesday, The Orange News Examiner put this claim to the AEC staff on hand. One officer rejected the idea that a report had been filed, however one Yes campaigner said that while technically true - no written report had been filed at that stage - they had definitely made a verbal report to the AEC at the function centre. They said a written report would be made.

One onlooker said that the two Yes campaigners had definitely entered the function centre following the issue with the No campaigner. They said that the Yes campaigner who was involved in the dispute was clearly shaken and had ultimately left the site.

Most of the Yes and No volunteers on site on Tuesday when we visited had started their shift after the dispute, and couldn’t say what occurred.

A No campaign organiser who wasn’t on site at the time of the alleged fracas said they were sure it didn’t happen. But a Yes campaign organiser, who also wasn’t there, said they believed their fellow campaigner was telling the truth about the dispute.

Meanwhile, one No campaigner told The Orange News Examiner that Orange Function Centre was not a “neutral” venue. Asked why, they said that there was an Aboriginal health service behind the function centre.

Behind the function centre is a car park and Orange Indoor Tennis Centre, and then over the road is Yiriyirimbang, which is operated by Orange Aboriginal Medical Service and “aims to strengthen a child and young person’s connection to family, community and country by establishing a sense of belonging for Aboriginal children in care”.

The No campaigner also questioned why a delivery of a pallet load of No corflutes to the site had not arrived, suggesting that perhaps greater forces were at play. They said they’d been told that the company delivering the corflutes had said they had been delivered, but that he believed they had not.

Multiple sources said the same No campaigner had been handing out Allen’s snake lollies, and had made the comment that the confectionery item was the highest selling grocery product in the Northern Territory. The Orange News Examiner was not able to find any evidence to corroborate this claim about the food's popularity.

When asked if they were trying to make some link between lollies and diabetes in the Top End, the No campaigner smiled and nodded.

A No campaign organiser dismissed any concerns about corflutes, and the venue not being neutral, and said words to the effect that the lollies were just for sharing around.

Volunteers told The Orange News Examiner that most people coming to vote weren’t taking information from either side, suggesting that minds had been made up.

State MP Phil Donato voted on Tuesday. He has avoided talking about the Voice to Parliament, and upon exiting the pre-polling station said he would keep his vote to himself, as it was a national and not a state issue.

Tensions related to Tuesday were said to have escalated again on Wednesday, according to one source, resulting in one volunteer using their phone to film an argument.

"The general advice we get from campaign headquarters is to try and disengage from debates with those supporting the opposite view," said a Yes campaign organiser.

They said it was "long established that volunteers [at pre-polling or polling booth] leave each other alone - you don't try and get into a debate".

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