The leader of the Liberals for Yes organisation says party members have told her they are being threatened with losing preselection if they campaign in favour of voting ‘Yes’ at the referendum. By Karen Middleton.

Liberal ‘Yes’ supporters threatened with losing preselection

A woman with shorthair and wearing red lipstick.
Kate Carnell speaks during Senate Estimates at Parliament House in Canberra.
Credit: AAP Image / Lukas Coch

Liberal Party politicians who support an Indigenous Voice to Parliament are facing pressure to stay quiet or lose their preselection, according to the head of the group spearheading the “Yes” campaign among conservatives, Kate Carnell.

Since October 14 was confirmed as the date for a referendum on whether to enshrine an Indigenous advisory body in the Constitution, published opinion polls have shown support for a “No” vote growing but with a substantial proportion still undecided.

A leader of the Liberals for Yes organisation and former ACT chief minister, Carnell has told The Saturday Paper that internal Liberal Party hostility to the proposed Voice, combined with its decision to formally oppose it, is putting parliamentary supporters under huge pressure to remain silent.

“Some of the frustration of Liberals for Yes has been the number of Liberals who have said, ‘I’m going to vote “Yes” but look, Kate, I can’t put my head up on this,’ ” Carnell says. “[They say] ‘I can’t be seen to be campaigning for “Yes” because of the pushback from my branches. My preselection is under threat.’ I find that really, really distressing – that this has been politicised to the point that people aren’t comfortable to campaign for what they believe in because of the politics.”

Carnell argues the Voice proposal encapsulates the essence of Liberal values – taking personal responsibility for outcomes, getting value for taxpayer dollars, not repeating past failed approaches, and helping people be the best they can be.

“For me, that is solid Liberal philosophy,” she says.

She urges those still undecided to seek answers to their questions.

“I’m personally not afraid of going to speak to people who might be hostile because 

I am very confident that what we are trying to do is the right thing,” she says.

At least one formerly strong Liberal “Yes” supporter has eased back his advocacy for a different reason. This week, Victorian Liberal member of parliament Russell Broadbent told the house he was no longer actively backing a “Yes” vote after an Indigenous Elder in his regional electorate of Monash, Cheryl Drayton, advised him that his Indigenous constituents did not universally support it.

“She came and asked me not to support the Voice and to not be a voice for the Voice,” Broadbent said. As an advocate for listening to Indigenous people on a range of different issues, he said, “I don’t want to make another mistake by not listening to them on this issue”.

Broadbent said he did not know if there was another way to address entrenched Indigenous disadvantage. “I know that what we have been doing hasn’t worked and that it’s insanity to keep doing the same thing over and over again with no result.”

Kate Carnell echoes that point, and says proposed solutions “shouldn’t be about party politics”. But the issue has been, she confirms. “More than you’d think.”

Leading Indigenous “No” campaigner and former Liberal candidate Nyunggai Warren Mundine tells The Saturday Paper his side’s polling suggests concerns about the Voice cross party lines and that “it’s not about party politics, it’s about the Constitution”.

“I’d say a lot of people do want to vote ‘Yes’, but they just haven’t been sold on the Voice,” Mundine says.

Mundine dismisses newspaper reports this week that he is seeking to replace retiring former foreign minister Marise Payne as a Liberal senator for New South Wales. While he does not rule out seeking preselection again in future, he says it is “not a priority”.

“At this stage, I’m focused totally on the referendum and then having a break,” he says, adding that he would then need to “get back to work”. 

Asked for his view, Dutton told ABC Radio National that Mundine would have “a very serious claim to make” and was “a serious contributor to debate”. He also said there would be other candidates.

He argues Liberal Party branch members are entitled to expect their representatives to reflect their views. “That’s the normal thing in every political party,” Mundine says. “I don’t see any hassles with that.”

How that message is delivered is important, though, he says, and should not involve political threats.

Mundine suggests private polling reflects a tight contest. “I’d say it’s 50-50 … There are a couple of states on our side and a couple of states on their side but the battleground states [South Australia and Tasmania] could go either way.”

Nevertheless, “No” campaigners have stepped up their efforts in the most populous states of New South Wales and Victoria, sensing support shifting their way.

To pass, the referendum question must secure majority support nationally plus majorities in at least four states, with voters in the territories only counting towards the national result. For it to fail, “No” advocates need only defeat one of those two criteria.

The “Yes” campaign will begin sharpening its national messaging in the next fortnight, reassuring Australians the Voice is a safe choice and asking them to consider how its passage could lift the whole country, and what doing nothing might mean.

Last Sunday, Opposition Leader Peter Dutton committed to hold a second referendum if he won government, proposing to insert a statement of Indigenous recognition into the Constitution without an advisory body.

“I think it’s the right thing to do,” he told Sky News.

Dutton pointed out this had been Liberal policy for some time. “I think it’s right and respectful to recognise Indigenous Australians in the Constitution.”

He did not say when that might occur.

His second referendum proposal came as the “Yes” campaign unveiled a television advertisement featuring John Farnham’s signature song, “You’re the Voice”.

As news emerged Farnham was allowing the song to be used in support of the campaign, Dutton was ready with a one-liner. “Remember the key line in the lyrics there is: ‘You’re the voice, try and understand it,’ ” he said.

Dutton’s second referendum commitment blindsided some of his colleagues. Aimed at voters who favour constitutional recognition but have concerns about enshrining the proposed Voice in Australia’s founding document, his proposal is designed to persuade them that if they vote “No” now, they will have a chance to enshrine a more basic form of recognition in future. But some who strongly oppose this referendum look very dimly on the idea of another.

Dutton’s sudden advocacy for another referendum appears to be linked to new “No” camp polling indicating 90 per cent of Australians support Indigenous constitutional recognition.

However, social researcher Rebecca Huntley says even those voters in general support have little appetite for a repeat referendum. As director of research at consulting firm 89 Degrees East, Huntley has conducted detailed surveys of so-called “soft” voters. She says a second vote dissatisfies waverers in both “Yes” and “No” directions.

“There is a substantial bloc of people who are leaning ‘Yes’ that are yet to be convinced,” Huntley says. “And what are they looking for? That this is an idea that came from Aboriginal people, is supported by a majority of them and, if it gets up, will be a success.”

Huntley says they seek “a practical impact”.

“If you tell that story, you can actually convince people [to shift] from being a bit undecided to ‘oh, okay’.”

Some Coalition MPs describe Dutton’s proposal as “very clever” politically, but some are also unhappy that it was floated without consultation, detail or any guarantee.

It appears to have little support among Indigenous leaders.

Yes23 campaign member Thomas Mayo agrees that constitutional recognition “can’t be symbolic, because it needs to be practical”. Mayo says Dutton is “playing politics” with his proposal.

“We’re not settling for more of the same,” he says. “This is urgent and should never have been subjected to the politics game that the ‘No’ campaign are playing with it. Relying on government in the absence of a Voice has been proven to fail in closing the gap.”

Mayo reiterates that the Voice is an advisory committee whose importance would lie in its ability to provide direct recommendations on how better to address entrenched disadvantage. It would not be able to “make laws to decide how funding is spent or decide anything other than what advice it would give to the parliament”. He emphasises that parliament “remains in complete control” of the Voice’s composition, powers, functions and procedures.

Speaking at the National Press Club, Melbourne University professor and Indigenous advocate Marcia Langton said Dutton’s proposal ignored Indigenous people.

“There’s no point in a second referendum because it’s not what we want,” she said.

Langton pointed to the republic referendum of 1999, in which republicans who disliked the proposed model were assured they would have another chance to vote for a preferable version. In 24 years, that had not materialised.

On Indigenous recognition, she said, this was “our one chance”.

“I urge Australians who are as yet to make up their minds: don’t imagine that there’s another opportunity around the corner, don’t think your ‘No’ vote goes in a different pile marked ‘next time’. In this referendum, there are only two options: a ‘Yes’ vote that delivers recognition through a voice and all the hope and healing it represents … or a ‘No’ vote which binds us all closely – all of us – to a broken status quo.”

Langton sought to address fears and concerns about the Voice proposal. She said the proposed model would need to be confirmed by parliament but that details were laid out in the report she and University of Canberra chancellor Tom Calma prepared after consulting thousands of Indigenous people across Australia. It would ensure issues of local communities’ greatest concern were represented via local Voice bodies to a national body and on to government.

Langton said Indigenous consultation had become a “tick-box” exercise with local advice “rarely making its way through the bureaucratic haze”.

At the press club, The Saturday Paper asked Langton to respond to concerns that a proposed Voice might outlast the problems it is designed to rectify, and be unable to be removed.

Langton emphasised parliament’s ongoing supremacy. “Let’s say that we reach parity in life expectancy,” she said. “Then the Voice would no longer be required to give advice on life expectancy.” She added that this achievement was unlikely within the next 50 years.

“And if all the closing-the-gap problems were to result in parity or near parity, there would be no closing-the-gap issues for it to advise on. But that’s not going to happen in your lifetime or my lifetime.”

Langton became emotional as she described the regular vitriol she and others had faced, which had worsened during the current debate.

“The levels of abuse against the ‘Yes’ campaigners, including death threats, and daily published insults and abuse, takes a toll,” Langton said. “And I think our generation of leaders will hand over to younger leaders and they too then will become targets – like Adam Goodes, like Stan Grant – and the cycle will continue. And in this regard, I think the media has a responsibility to lift their game in reporting on these issues and not participate in pile-ons on persons who are good and decent people.”

Some on the “No” side are also expressing alarm that the debate has emboldened racists.

Speaking on SBS TV’s The Point program this week, Nationals frontbencher and former deputy prime minister Barnaby Joyce said people were “getting away with saying things that are just completely out of order”.

“I think it’s incumbent upon all of us when you hear that, to say: ‘Mate, what you just said then was outrageous. It’s got nothing to do with the debate,’ ” Joyce said. “This debate has given people almost a [permission] – they think they can get away with it now.”

In parliament, Peter Dutton blamed the government. “How can the prime minister in good conscience go into the referendum question being put to the Australian public on 14 October knowing that he is going to divide our country clean down the middle?”

Prime Minister Anthony Albanese noted the Voice proposal emerged from an Indigenous consultation process that began under the Coalition government and produced the Uluru Statement from the Heart.

“They’re not voting for a party or a person,” Albanese said of the referendum. “They’re voting for an idea – an idea to promote reconciliation, an idea to bring this country together, an idea in recognition that what we’ve done with the best of intentions over 122 years is not working, and that if you do the same thing in the same way, you should expect the same outcomes.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on September 9, 2023 as "Liberal ‘Yes’ supporters threatened with losing preselection".

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