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Labor is approaching the referendum to secure an Indigenous Voice to Parliament with extreme caution, as the political attacks begin to take shape. By Royce Kurmelovs.

Inside Labor’s Voice strategy

A bald middle-aged Caucasian man appears to be speaking at a press conference. His expression is grumpy and his brow is furrowed. He's wearing a blue suit jacket and shirt, with green trees visible in the background.

Peter Dutton won’t say if he actually opposes the Indigenous Voice to Parliament. He says he is just asking questions.

“You can’t say to the Australian public, ‘We’ll vote on the Saturday and we’ll give you the detail on Monday,’ ” he said in an interview on Wednesday.

“Australians won’t cop that. They understand that there is a very big difference between enshrining something in the constitution and putting it into legislation, which the prime minister could do tomorrow.”

The appearance was the latest exchange in a skirmish that began last Sunday. On a quiet afternoon, when the news was slow and Indigenous Affairs Minister Linda Burney was on leave, the opposition leader called a press conference to discuss a letter he had sent to Prime Minister Anthony Albanese about the Voice.

The letter – dropped to News Corp and Nine newspapers prior to the press conference – was also sent to a generic email within the Prime Minister’s Office.

It contained a list of 15 questions about the eligibility and appointment of members of the Voice, its power and costs, and how it would interact with the Closing the Gap process.

“I believe you are making a catastrophic mistake in not providing accessible, clear and complete information regarding your government’s version of the Voice, condemning it to failure and, in turn, damaging reconciliation efforts in our country,” the letter said. “Your approach will ensure a dangerous and divisive debate grounded in hearsay and misinformation.”

The letter said Albanese had “engaged two of our country’s smartest political operatives” but warned “their advice to you on rushing the referendum and not providing details to the Australian public is wrong and must surely go against your natural instinct”.

At the ensuing press conference, Dutton continued his offensive, accusing the prime minister of treating people like mugs. “He’s made a conscious decision not to release the details, so the prime minister has to answer the question, frankly ... Why won’t he provide the detail?”

When asked about the detail that was already available to the public, such as the 269-page Indigenous Voice co-design report produced by Tom Calma and Marcia Langton, Dutton said it was a “good report” but Labor had yet to adopt it.

It was an obvious provocation, but no Labor figures took the bait. The only response on Sunday came in the form of a single social media post from the prime minister, responding in a personal capacity, describing it as a “cheap culture war stunt”.

A follow-up from Linda Burney added that the Voice would be “a unifying moment for Australia” that was “about improving the lives of First Nations people by making our voices heard, and taking this country forward, for everyone”.

 

The Saturday Paper contacted 20 people for this article, from different sides of politics. Many would not go on the record. Many others refused to talk.

Labor politicians are worried about saying too much too soon, while the Coalition’s key supporters are still sceptical of how the referendum is being approached.

Shadow Indigenous Affairs minister Julian Leeser, a supporter of the Voice and a veteran of the “No” campaign during the republic referendum, said it had been the Coalition’s policy in government to set up local and regional bodies first to build support for a national body, “as suggested in the Calma and Langton report”.

Speaking to The Saturday Paper, Leeser said the government is taking a risk in working to create the national body first.

“Uluru changed everything, and what we’ve been doing is follow the process from Uluru. That process said follow the co-design process, and then that process said roll out the local and regional first,” Leeser said. “But they’re not, they’re rushing to the national and then they’re rushing straight to a referendum.”

Liberal senator Andrew Bragg, who wrote a book outlining the conservative case for the Voice and has called for a parliamentary inquiry to build bipartisan support for the national body, said the issue is “probably not super popular” among some Liberal Party branches but “I think in general our members are wary of groupthink as well”.

Beyond that, he said, it is not clear how enthusiastic the public would be about a Voice enshrined in the constitution.

“Potentially the Voice could be popular, but at the moment I think it’s a bit undercooked. I think there are still opportunities for bipartisanship, but they need to be taken up and taken up quickly,” he said.

“I’m loath to attack the government on those points because I don’t want to injure this agenda. I think these issues are of great national importance and they transcend the week-to-week political cycle.”

 

On Monday, while still on the ground in the Kimberley with Senator Pat Dodson during the flood response, the prime minister appeared on the ABC’s 7.30 to address what he described as “disingenuous” aspects of the debate.

Albanese stood firm on his party’s decision to release six design principles, saying the party had taken a “bottom-up” approach that wanted to be “inclusive”.

“There isn’t actually even a recognition of the position of prime minister in the constitution at the moment,” Albanese said. “So, it is a simple proposition, that we recognise Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in our constitution, and that they have a voice, that they be consulted. I regard it as good manners.”

For those wanting more detail, Albanese said that “people can log on now” to read the Calma and Langton report or the interim report of the parliamentary committee, co-chaired by Leeser.

Asked why his government had not adopted the report, Albanese said, “What we’re trying to do here ... is trying to reach out and get as much support as possible.”

The Calma and Langton report was itself the product of 18 months of consultation across 115 communities with 9478 people and organisations. The process received more than 4000 submissions and surveys, and conducted more than 120 stakeholder meetings.

The body proposed in the final report would advise the Australian parliament and government on matters relating to the social, spiritual and economic wellbeing of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. These include issues relating to native title, incarceration, employment, housing, transport, the National Disability Insurance Scheme and heritage protections.

The model suggested for the national body would consist of 24 members, with gender balance structurally guaranteed. The base membership would consist of two members from each state, the Northern Territory, ACT and the Torres Strait Islands.

There would be five additional members to represent remote areas, one each from the NT, Western Australia, Queensland, South Australia and New South Wales. Another member would represent the Torres Strait Islands. The government has also promised a public education campaign ahead of any referendum.

Attorney-General Mark Dreyfus, acting for the Indigenous Affairs minister, said in a statement that the government has been “consulting with the Referendum Working Group on key aspects of the Voice, including design principles and the constitutional amendment”.

The statement made clear that “the Voice will not have a veto or have a program delivery function”.

 

As the referendum on constitutional recognition and the Voice is expected this year, the feeling within both parties is that it’s still early days as each looks to history as a guide.

There is, however, little recent experience from which to draw. Over the past 25 years there have been two nationally significant votes from which to take lessons: the 1999 referendum on becoming a republic and the recent postal survey on same-sex marriage.

How the parties are shaping up to approach the Voice depends on their reading of those events. Labor has so far treated the republic experience as a cautionary tale. A specific model was set out as part of that referendum’s question – voters were asked whether they approved of altering “the Constitution to establish the Commonwealth of Australia as a republic with the Queen and Governor-General being replaced by a President appointed by a two-thirds majority of the members of the Commonwealth Parliament”. Those who were supportive of a republic but didn’t like the model voted “No”. The concern now is that if the referendum on the Voice becomes a complex question on constitutional law, it will fail.

Labor has also drawn lessons from the Recognise campaign, which attempted to build support for constitutional reform between 2012 and 2017 but was criticised for being imposed from the top down. This time around Labor has been cautious about being seen to “own” or direct the campaign around the Voice.

Few would know the delicacy of this process better than Albanese’s chief of staff, Tim Gartrell, who directed the campaign for both Recognise and for the legislation of same-sex marriage.

The read within the Coalition is somewhat cooler. There is a sense the result of the same-sex marriage postal survey was the product of 15 years of agitation, at which point most Australians had already made up their minds on the issue.

Among those who supported the “Yes” campaign during the postal vote, there is a belief that the existence of a bill introduced by Dean Smith gave conservatives some basis to push back against voices on the fringe. If someone argued a “Yes” vote might mean priests could be arrested for refusing to perform same-sex unions, they could point to the text of the bill.

On the issue of a republic, the Coalition’s interpretation differs sharply. It argues that the “Yes” campaign lost because it did not listen to the public and failed to put forward the more popular model that would allow for a directly elected president.

 

Since the federal election, Labor has shown strong internal discipline. The memory of its win is still fresh as it looks to secure the support of a younger, more socially aware voter base.

At the same time, this has left a vacuum for the Coalition to fill in the lead-up to the campaign – and with the opposition’s demands for “more detail” on the Voice there lurks a potentially effective strategy of playing politics without playing politics.

Dutton presents himself as someone just asking questions and builds pressure by pointing out Labor has not adopted the Calma and Langton report. If Labor doesn’t budge, it feeds the perception that the government is withholding detail, but if it moves to adopt it, the Coalition will make Labor own the process. If the vote fails, it will be framed as a “failure of management”.

There are other risks for the Coalition, however. Dutton needs to keep moderates and supporters of the Voice on side, while at the same time ensuring he doesn’t alienate the ascendant right wing of the party.

Even if the opposition leader can thread the needle, the Coalition has baggage. Dutton walked out during the apology to the Stolen Generations – which he later acknowledged was a mistake – and opposed marriage equality. His predecessor, former prime minister John Howard, refused to apologise at all.

Should Dutton or the party come down in opposition to the Voice in a once-in-a-generation referendum, it will entrench the perception of the Liberals as intractable and hostile to any form of change.

There is also the question of how far the Coalition can creep towards opposition without repeating the mistakes of its junior partner, the Nationals, in refusing to support the Voice.

When party leader David Littleproud made the announcement last November, the response was immediate. On smaller radio stations in their own communities, constituents called in to chastise Nationals MPs as they attempted to defend the decision. Even Sky News host Chris Kenny bailed up David Littleproud during an appearance.

As Littleproud tried to lay out his party’s opposition in preference for “local Voices”, Kenny – who has been supportive of the Voice – lashed the Nationals leader for not waiting for more information.

“I find it a particularly contradictory because you’re saying you oppose the Voice because it won’t work. Yet everybody agrees what we’re doing now hasn’t been working,” Kenny said. “You’re saying we need voices from grassroots communities; that’s precisely what this Indigenous Voice is supposed to try and deliver.”

It was also a costly decision. Within weeks, former Nationals MP Andrew Gee resigned on principle, saying the party “today is very different to the one of my youth”.

Albanese’s office did not respond to a request for comment.

The Referendum Working Group and Referendum Engagement Group are expected to meet in early February.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on January 14, 2023 as "Raising the Voice".

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