Peter Dutton claims his position on the Voice is informed by Indigenous communities, but the communities he names say they are being misquoted or that he refused to meet with them. By Rick Morton.

Dutton refuses to identify ‘Elders’ he met over the Voice

Shadow Minister for Indigenous Australians Jacinta Nampijinpa Price with Peter Dutton in Adelaide on Tuesday.
Shadow Minister for Indigenous Australians Jacinta Nampijinpa Price with Peter Dutton in Adelaide on Tuesday.
Credit: AAP Image / Michael Errey

Peter Dutton won’t say what her name is. He won’t say where he spoke to her. All he will say is that she is an “Aunty” whom he met “recently at a function”. 

This vague description is still the most detail Dutton has given about the unnamed Indigenous figures he says have told him to oppose the Voice. 

He has quoted this Aunty at least twice, claiming that she said to him: “We don’t want 24 academics. They’re not going to be our voice.” Reflecting on this, he said: “We need to take their advice.”

Announcing the Coalition’s opposition to the Voice, Dutton said he had spoken to “many Elders” as “we’ve moved around the country”. Attempts to identify the depth of this consultation reveal that it is informed mostly by brief encounters in shopping centres and on street walks.

In some cases, Dutton has refused to meet with Indigenous community leaders who are keen to discuss the Voice. In other cases, community leaders who did meet Dutton, such as Laverton’s Marty Seelander, say he has misrepresented them as opposing the Voice when they were simply asking for detail about its operation.

Dutton’s office did not respond to a request to identify which Elders he has spoken to or provide a breakdown of those who supported a Voice, those who rejected it and those who were unsure or who sought amendments to the model. 

“We’d all like to know what questions he is asking these people. Are they leading questions?” Lhere Artepe Aboriginal Corporation chief executive Graeme Smith tells The Saturday Paper.

“Look, I just can’t believe that he has consulted the community because when the Central Land Council campaigns for a ‘Yes’ vote, Lhere Artepe campaigns for a ‘Yes’ vote, just about every Aboriginal organisation in this town campaigns for a ‘Yes’ vote.

“We represent thousands of members. We represent their interest and their views and when we sit with our board and we carry on and have the chats, when we come to a position to say yes or no, that is on the back of a mandate given to us by our members.”

By Dutton’s own admission, he and his team did meet with “Indigenous leaders who were strongly in favour of the Voice, no question about that, particularly in East Arnhem Land – that was the general consensus”. Yet even this was confused in another answer to a question from a journalist on April 5, when Dutton announced the Coalition would campaign against the referendum.

“We had a very impactful visit to Alice Springs and we spoke to people within the community, in the town camps. We went to their homes, we went to the local school, we spoke to the teachers, we spoke to Elders in Leonora,” he said.

“We had a very significant town hall meeting in Leonora. We spoke with Indigenous Elders in Laverton. We were up in East Arnhem Land, as I say, and speaking with leaders up there. We’ve had a number of private conversations with Indigenous Elders and I feel very confident, I’ve got to say, in the position that we’ve adopted.”

Laverton and Leonora are the key communities Dutton has identified as opposing the Voice. Laverton’s Marty Seelander, chief executive at Pakaanu Aboriginal Corporation, was one of the leaders Dutton spoke to – at a meeting in Canberra. He says discussion was almost entirely about the cashless welfare card.

“There was not much time spent on gaining our perspective on the Voice,” he told the ABC.

In an earlier visit to Laverton, Dutton was told the community wanted to know how a Voice would represent them, but not that the community opposed the Voice.

“It’s taken out of context because in the initial conversation we had on his visit, the opposition leader’s visit to Laverton, it was around that we want constitutional change,” Seelander said.

“But we as a community, we did mention that we would like to know from the referendum, if it was voted yes, how we would be represented from our community on that council.”

The Uluru Statement from the Heart was endorsed in May 2017 by an overwhelming consensus of more than 250 First Nations delegates, themselves meeting on the back of 12 regional dialogues where representative samples of about 100 Indigenous Elders, leaders and community figures assembled for each. In all, more than a thousand people took part in the formal dialogues.

Dutton’s promenade through Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities has been somewhat more ad hoc. 

Palm Island mayor Mislam Sam tells The Saturday Paper he was not told about Dutton’s visit to the island “until about half an hour out”. This is a clear breach of cultural protocols, set out by the island’s council: “Council requests that government agencies respect the Mayor and Councillors by providing appropriate notice when requesting meeting or visits to Palm Island. This allows Council to ensure it is able to provide adequate engagement on issues of importance to the community.”

Sam says he was unable to meet with Dutton because he was “off island” attending other meetings when he found out about the trip Dutton was taking with the federal member for Herbert, Phillip Thompson.

“It was an off-the-cuff, short visit to my community, without actually notifying the proper leadership,” he said. “That level of ignorance didn’t feel good on my side of things. It ran foul of me, I can tell you that much.”

Thompson said he and Dutton visited Palm Island to talk about the cost of living and “just walked the streets”.

“We spoke to locals at the shopping centre, we spoke to people out the front of the council building and we sat down and we had a chat and the message was very clear: that the cost of living hurts everyone and people are doing it tough, not just on the mainland here but also on Palm Island,” he said in October last year.

Dutton has since used that visit, his first to the island since the “early 1990s”, to bolster his credentials on the Voice. It did come up in conversations, he said at the time.

For Mayor Sam, the way Dutton characterises this is almost laughable. “I found out that they were just in the mall pulling up anyone bypassing in the mall and just asking the question,” he said. “It was very early stages unless you were in the know, in regards to the Voice and all that stuff. As we’re moving closer to the referendum, more people are doing the research and finding out the benefits of it. And I definitely support the Voice and going ahead.”

When Peter Dutton reshuffled his shadow ministry this week, he elevated two First Nations women to portfolios. Warlpiri–Celtic senator Jacinta Nampijinpa Price has replaced Julian Leeser, who resigned from the frontbench on principle after the Liberal Party adopted a policy to campaign against the Voice and restrict conscience votes to backbenchers only.

Dutton also installed first-term South Australian senator Kerrynne Liddle, an Arrernte woman, as the shadow minister for Child Protection and Prevention of Family Violence.

Price says the Voice is an elite fix to a grassroots problem, while Liddle says the referendum is “not a priority”. Dutton, meanwhile, has stood shoulder to shoulder with Price and white bakery owner Darren Clark in Alice Springs to declare law and order in Aboriginal communities is an issue that proves the Voice won’t work. 

Graeme Smith finds this particularly galling. Despite being a traditional owner and native title-holder and operating an Indigenous corporation central to Alice Springs business, Dutton made no attempt to contact him or his organisation.

“Darren Clark is one business owner that owns one bakery,” he says. “We’re also a business that owns three supermarkets. Shares in the shopping centre. And we bought a store in the mall. We contribute over $20 million to the local economy annually. We employ 200 staff in this economy annually. But he does not come and speak to us when he refers to the business sector.

“I used to play cricket with Darren Clark. We understand Darren gets broken into, constantly. So are we.”

Smith says Dutton is “picking and choosing” who he wants to listen to.

“We’re still trying to figure out here in Alice Springs: what was the purpose of his visit? To say Alice Springs is in chaos again? Well, it’s not,” he says.

“What I would say to Peter Dutton, as an individual and a man and a father born in Australia, I’m sure in his heart he’d like to see recognition and get this through.

“He’s just having to take the party politics. But in his heart, I think he’d like to see something achieved. And I think that’s a challenge we’ve got to put to him. He’s not going to do a U-turn now, but maybe they could all have a conscience vote. Because each one of those people have a heart and a heart is different to the fucking brain, you know?”

He says Dutton should be meeting with leaders chosen by their communities, not asking random questions in the street. “It’s a huge no-no,” he says. “Leaders rise by the mob and the mob will vote for you or put their strength behind you. That’s culture. You don’t put yourself up.”

Palm Island Bwgcolman Elder Elizabeth Clay said Dutton should support the Voice but “we don’t expect him to”. His stance, she says, makes her feel “like I’ve felt all my life, like we are nothing”.

“What I could say now, there’s a heavy push from all Indigenous leaders to get that regional or grassroots voice in play,” Mayor Sam says.

“All I knew about the visit of Peter Dutton and Phil Thompson was a half an hour before they were about to board a bloody plane. And yeah, at the end of the day, I was attending other meetings, and I didn’t have the opportunity to have my say on the matter because I would have told them directly that I fully support the Voice because I can see right across the board the level of inadequacies in regards to policies and programs as delivered in communities.” 

The Saturday Paper asked Peter Dutton if he could account for why some Indigenous Elders disagreed with his characterisation of their comments and, further, how he chooses who he listens to and who he doesn’t.

The opposition leader did not respond to these and other detailed questions.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on April 22, 2023 as "Dutton refuses to identify ‘Elders’ he met over the Voice".

For almost a decade, The Saturday Paper has published Australia’s leading writers and thinkers. We have pursued stories that are ignored elsewhere, covering them with sensitivity and depth. We have done this on refugee policy, on government integrity, on robo-debt, on aged care, on climate change, on the pandemic.

All our journalism is fiercely independent. It relies on the support of readers. By subscribing to The Saturday Paper, you are ensuring that we can continue to produce essential, issue-defining coverage, to dig out stories that take time, to doggedly hold to account politicians and the political class.

There are very few titles that have the freedom and the space to produce journalism like this. In a country with a concentration of media ownership unlike anything else in the world, it is vitally important. Your subscription helps make it possible.

Select your digital subscription

Month selector

Use your Google account to create your subscription