Indigenous Australians will be clearly recognised as Australia’s first people in the Constitution in an introductory sentence to be added to the proposed Voice to parliament amendment, as the government’s constitutional experts advisory group affirmed the referendum would not affect any group’s sovereignty.
The updated advice from the group of hand-picked constitutional experts comes as the Liberals left a meeting with the government’s Indigenous referendum advisory group unsatisfied with the consultation process and repeating demands for more detail about how the Voice will operate.
The working group briefing paves the way for Opposition Leader Peter Dutton, who spent the first weeks of the year attacking the Voice proposal for lacking detail, to update his party room on the discussions when it meets ahead of the parliament resuming next week.
Dutton is yet to confirm whether the party room will have a free vote on the bill to authorise the referendum, but many Liberals are inclined to vote No.
Shadow attorney-general Julian Leeser, who attended the briefing of the 21-member working group in Canberra, said the party’s concerns around detail were not discussed, but rather he and Dutton were given a presentation about the history of the Uluru dialogues that led to the referendum process.
He said the discussion had been good but said the pair had raised further concerns about the government’s “unorthodox” process leading up to the referendum, which to date has not included a parliamentary inquiry or formal public consultation.
“We accepted the government’s invitation to meet with a referendum working group. We now ask the government to accept our invitation and engage with the questions Peter Dutton put forward in January about the scope and the content of the Voice itself,” Leeser said.
UNSW professor Megan Davis, a leading architect of the Voice proposal and member of the working group, welcomed Dutton’s commitments to further talks but said the outcome would be determined by the Australian people, not politicians.
“The constitution is the people’s document. Politicians can’t change it. Parliament can’t change it. Only you the Australian people can change it,” she said.
She said final recommendations on the draft amendment and referendum question would be given to the government in the next month. This will form the basis of the Constitutional alteration bill, which the government intends to introduce to the parliament in March, paving the way for a Senate inquiry in April.
A spokesman for Dutton, who attended the meeting online from Sydney, said the Liberal leader still lacked answers.
“The Prime Minister’s refusal to answer straightforward questions on how his Voice proposal will work is untenable. Australians deserve to be informed before voting at a referendum,” the spokesman said.
In opening remarks to the working group, Albanese said: “No one yet in this parliament, across the spectrum, has come up with an alternative word or sentence. But I’m up for it.”
Some of those in the meeting said the talks with Dutton went well and the opposition leader put forward questions including where the idea for the Voice to parliament had come from.
Dutton offered to meet again without needing to be asked to further talks. The next meeting of the working group is February 17 in Canberra, but there is no agreement yet on whether he can attend on that date.
Dutton engaged in particular with members of the group from Indigenous communities in his home state of Queensland, defusing tensions when some members of the working group had low expectations for the meeting.
Albanese had written to Dutton on Wednesday inviting him to set out any suggested changes he had to the proposal, including on the draft constitutional amendment. The letter did not directly respond to Dutton’s list of 15 questions, noting instead that the detail of the Voice would be decided by the parliament if the referendum was successful.
Sean Gordon, chair of Uphold and Recognise, a conservative-leaning group that supports the Voice and member of the working group, said there was a need to answer genuine questions and set out architecture to land “somewhere around the middle” and ensure bipartisan support.
“I don’t think we need to get bogged down in the detail, and go right into the detail, but I do believe there is some high-level architecture that we need to provide,” Gordon told the ABC.
The government’s constitutional expert body, which includes former High Court justice Kenneth Hayne and University of Sydney professor Anne Twomey, endorsed adding a line explicitly recognising Indigenous people to the draft amendment.
The line: “In recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples as the First Peoples of Australia” would preface the three draft sentences Albanese has proposed be added to the constitution to establish the Voice.
“All members of the expert group agreed that introductory language of this kind would be appropriate in providing a succinct explanation for the enactment of the provision and clearly link the provision to constitutional recognition,” the advice said.
The prime minister, in a speech at the Garma festival in July last year in which he unveiled the draft provisions, made a reference to recognition, but it has been unclear until now that this would form part of the amendment proposal.
In his letter to Dutton, Albanese confirmed the recognition line was part of the draft amendment.
In advice aimed at assuaging the concerns of the Greens, in particular First Nations spokeswoman Lidia Thorpe, the group said all members “agreed that the draft provision would not affect the sovereignty of any group or body”.
Thorpe said last week she was prepared to break ranks with the Greens party room and not support legislation for a Voice to parliament “unless I am satisfied that First Nations sovereignty is not ceded.”
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