The hole

It is telling that Peter Dutton’s letter on the Voice was sent only to his electorate. Partly, this is about printing allowances. His convictions always have a budget. Partly, it is a reminder that Dutton’s concern is not about the Voice but the people who vote for him. He sees this as a winner.

“The government has overlooked the concerns of many legal experts,” Dutton wrote in the letter, sent this week. “It is pursuing a voice that covers all areas of ‘executive government’ … Many legal experts warn this voice could risk years of litigation. The High Court would determine its powers, not the parliament.

“This voice is legally risky, with unknown consequences. It’s divisive and permanent. Yet when Australians raise reasonable concerns, they’ve been dismissed.”

Alongside the letter, Dutton sent a  six-page pamphlet criticising the Voice. It described the Voice as unknown and disruptive. It would be ineffective and costly and forever.

“The Liberal Party supports regional voices, with powers clearly defined by parliament,” the pamphlet said. “However, the Albanese government wants to go much further – enshrining a voice in the Constitution, with few limits to its scope and few details.”

The trouble with writing is it makes ideas concrete. The slipperiness of language is suddenly fixed in place. The unnamed legal experts are 11 words on a line, a half-truth not worth the energy of embellishment. Suddenly the absence of detail is everywhere. The holes are clear.

When Dutton says the High Court will determine the powers of the Voice, he is describing its role in interpreting and applying Australian law. He could make the same observation about any piece of legislation. The banality of this is extraordinary. It is essentially saying the parliament should not make laws because a court will be able to review their use.

The argument around scope is just as weak. As Ken Wyatt tried to explain to his former colleagues, he’s never known an Indigenous group that wanted to talk to the Reserve Bank about interest rates or to Defence about expenditure. If they did, what would be the problem?

Wyatt doubts the people left in the party he quit have read the consultation reports on the Voice. When they ask for detail, they ignore hundreds of pages of patient explanation. When they talk of unknown consequences, they mean only that there is some limit to the lies they are prepared to tell about the Voice.

Dutton’s pamphlet is the clearest account yet of the Coalition’s position on the Voice. It is proof of the smallness and unscrupulousness of the campaign he is running. The Voice was offered to the country as an opportunity. Dutton so misunderstands this he can see it only as an opportunity for himself. That is the way he thinks, after all: in printing allowances and pamphlet subheadings.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on July 1, 2023 as "The hole".

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