Shaq is committed to promoting indigenous voice, but has he trivialized a serious issue?

The Prime Minister, the Minister for Indigenous Australians and an NBA legend go to a press conference. You’d be forgiven for thinking this is the setting up of a joke rather than the start of the Albanian government’s PR campaign on its central inheritance policy.

The 15-second appearance of 15-time NBA star Shaquille O’Neal certainly grabbed the headlines, but left many confused as to what message the Government is trying to send to Parliament on the voice native.

The prime minister said Shaq had requested a meeting to discuss the voice during his first visit to Australia in two decades as part of a lucrative speaking tour. Now he has signed up to create pre-recorded social videos promoting the voice – for free – in a real coup for the yes campaign.

Minister for Indigenous Australians Linda Burney understands the endorsement is key to the campaign.(PA: Flavio Brancaleone)

We will probably never know all the reasons why an American basketball player would willingly insert himself into a debate about indigenous rights in a country he does not live in and with which he has few ties.

From his short-lived stand-up alongside Prime Minister Anthony Albanese, it’s hard to tell if he grasps the importance of the debate he’s strayed into, or if it’s a misguided attempt by Shaqtin a jerk – his popular NBA talk show blooper in the USA.

If that’s a genuine interest, why not turn his attention to his own country, which has its own challenges when it comes to Native American rights?

Northern Territory Senator Jacinta Nampijinpa Price wrote in a Facebook post that the meeting was offline.

“Desperate times call for desperate measures,” she wrote.

“I don’t doubt Shaq is a top guy, but it’s kind of insulting to call on a black American to help black Australians like it’s all about skin color.

“Aboriginal Australians historically have more in common with Native Americans than [sic] African Americans.”

It’s a risk and no reward for him, given that no one was calling on him to speak, but the government will be looking to capitalize on his universal appeal and his ability to get his message across and that’s a shot thumb he badly needs.

Shaq speaks, who listens?

Polls and surveys show that while the majority of Australians support a vote, very few understand what it would actually be, a point on which the government has repeatedly been criticized.

Now, instead of a clear government ad that has all the cut of a dull butter knife, the government has served up a clickable, shareable and potentially viral masterpiece to reach Australians who are not engaged in the debate.

During his brief appearance, Shaq said he loved Australia and wanted to help out Down Under.

“I’m here in your country, anything you need me to, let me know,” O’Neal said.

Those feelings didn’t wash away with Greens senator and known voice critic Lidia Thorpe, who tweeted her thoughts directly.

“I thought a black man coming to our country would be more respectful to First Nations people than intruding on what is a controversial, divisive topic for our people,” she wrote.

“Badly advised [sic], I hope you will take the time to set it up properly. We do not come to your country and interfere in your affairs.”

There is no doubt that Shaq has a philanthropic form, but not in Australia. Perhaps more importantly for people the government is trying to talk to, it has business partnerships with a betting website and a ubiquitous presence on NBA talk shows that often generate viral content.

For now, it’s hard to say if the gambit will work.

We’ll be hearing Shaq again soon, in the form of pre-recorded social videos supporting the Voice campaign.

How they land will be a big indicator of whether this is a marketing genius or another example of Australia’s infatuation with America, seeking Uncle’s approval. Sam rather than confidently supporting our own ideas.

Are Indigenous Australians behind the Shaq campaign?

Taking the temperature of the Indigenous community after the stunt, it’s hard to see if this counts as a victory.

Many are still waiting for the government to provide firm details on the Voice body’s construction and representation, which it has so far failed to do, apart from pointing to a two-year-old report commissioned by the former government that had no intention of advancing the results.

The undecided among the wider Australian population are looking to First Nations leaders for guidance on this, and in a country obsessed with sport, you can see why securing an ambassador is an attractive option. However, it seems like a missed opportunity not to approach one of the many First Nations Indigenous sports superstars to lend his support to the campaign.

Minister for Indigenous Australians Linda Burney understands endorsement is key to campaigning, and it’s all part of building a ‘broad consensus’, but it’s a risk for the government to seek endorsement from someone so fundamentally out of touch with the issue.

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The moment Shaq meets Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese

Sure, Shaq has name recognition and status that make him a great vehicle for breaking through and reaching out to disengaged voters, but has his looks trivialized a serious issue?

It’s not a strategy we’ve seen tested on major government policies before, and it seems risky – and perhaps insulting – to roll the dice on an Indigenous affairs topic. Imagine if Usain Bolt stood up to support tax reform or health care policy. It would be ridiculously pathetic if it weren’t so bad.

Simply put, Shaq waterfall was not for the native community. Indigenous Australians have too much skin in the game to be swayed by a 15 second appearance.

While the government would like to reach a consensus within the indigenous community on one voice – it will be an uphill battle with almost irreconcilable divisions in the community around voice representation, powers and functions and few words of a retired American basketball player are hardly going to change that.

Ironically, as 3.2% of the population, the Indigenous vote will not decide the Indigenous voice.

It’s the much wider community that the government needs to win over if it wants this referendum to succeed, and some unlikely help from the Shaq could help get the message across.


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