Prime Minister Anthony Albanese is poised to fight for a historic referendum victory without bipartisan support after he unveiled details of the Voice to parliament’s scope and powers, releasing a final revision of the wording that would limit the Indigenous body’s authority over parliament.
But Opposition Leader Peter Dutton immediately demanded the government release the solicitor-general’s advice on the Voice, repeating his call for additional detail and showing no hints of supporting the referendum, paving the way for a partisan split that imperils the vote’s success.
Fighting back tears at his morning press conference, Albanese acknowledged the risk of failure but vowed there was now no calling off the vote because “to not put this to a vote is to concede defeat. You only win when you run on the field and engage”.
“We’re all in,” he said, flanked by a group of senior Indigenous leaders including academic Marcia Langton, who tearfully warned of scare campaigns against the Voice and positioned the referendum as a “line in the sand” moment to heal the wounds of dispossession.
Since Federation, there have been 44 proposals for constitutional change put to Australian voters. Only eight of these have been approved. The last successful referendum was in 1977, an omnibus bill on the retirement age of judges and the filling of Senate vacancies.
After he stepped in earlier this week to resolve an intense weeks-long negotiation with Indigenous leaders on the proposed change to the constitution, Albanese said: “This is a modest request. I say to Australia, don’t miss it. Don’t miss it. This is a real opportunity to take up the generous invitation of the Uluru Statement from the Heart. This is about the heart, but it’s also about the head.”
“That is an opportunity that doesn’t belong to the politicians, it belongs to every Australian equally – one person, one vote. People from all faiths, backgrounds and traditions. All of us will have an equal say, all of us can own an equal share of what I believe will be an inspiring and unifying Australian moment,” he said. “If not now, when?”
The prime minister emphasised the proposed constitutional alteration would ensure the primacy of the federal parliament, which constitutional experts Anne Twomey and George Williams said would allow the government to determine the legal effect of the Voice’s representations and guard against High Court challenges.
The question that will be put to Australians later this year, probably in October, is: “A proposed law: to alter the Constitution to recognise the First Peoples of Australia by establishing an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice. Do you approve this proposed alteration?”
If the referendum succeeds, three clauses would be inserted into the Constitution that would say: “1. There shall be a body, to be called the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice; 2. The Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice may make representations to the parliament and the executive government of the Commonwealth on matters relating to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples; 3. The parliament shall, subject to this Constitution, have power to make laws with respect to matters relating to the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice, including its composition, functions, powers and procedures.”
The third clause has been tweaked from the wording initially proposed by the prime minister at the Garma Festival last year to give power to the parliament to make laws relating to the Voice, potentially limiting the scope of the new body to influence decision-making.
The government also confirmed a new sentence before the three Voice-related clauses. The new line states: “In recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples as the First Peoples of Australia.”
Dutton’s critical comments and demands for more detail were interpreted by senior figures in the government as a clear signal the Coalition would eventually formally oppose the Voice, though some individual Liberal MPs may back it.
Senior government sources unable to speak on the record said Albanese did not believe bipartisan support was necessary to win. The prime minister’s private belief was that, as displayed in the marriage equality vote, the modern electorate was less attached to the positions of major parties and more able to be swayed to support a progressive change.
The sources said the prime minister’s preferred referendum date was October 14, after the grand finals of the AFL and NRL, which are both expected to campaign for the Voice.
Dutton said the Coalition would consider its position on the Voice and adopt a formal position “in due course”, while arguing some Indigenous communities doubted the practical benefit of the Voice.
“I’ve written to the prime minister. I’ve proposed 15 basic questions, pretty common-sense questions Australians are asking. The prime minister hasn’t responded,” Dutton said in a press conference.
“I think it is incumbent on the prime minister … to explain how [the Voice] will deliver practical outcomes for Indigenous Australians.”
But former Liberal minister for Indigenous Australians Ken Wyatt, a member of the government’s working group, said, “all governments obtain advice on legislation in respect to section 51 of the constitution, but they never release it”.
He expressed disappointment the Coalition had apparently hardened its opposition to the Voice and continued to pursue answers to 15 questions raised by Dutton in January, including one about the percentage of a person’s Aboriginality “which I have always found offensive”.
“If we asked Tony Abbott what percentage Australian he is, he would find that offensive as he is a naturalised Australian.”
New details have also been released about how the Voice will work: members of the body will be elected or selected by Indigenous Australians, not appointed by the government, and they will be encouraged to advise the government early in the policymaking process.
Members of the Voice will be drawn from each state and territory and the Torres Strait, with additional regional representation and gender balance. They will have fixed terms.
The government will introduce the constitutional alteration bill next week and hopes to pass the legislation through parliament by the end of June ahead of the expected October referendum.
Professor Megan Davis – a key leader of the Uluru Statement from the Heart consultation process, which proposed the Voice – said “this prime minister, this government, has listened respectfully, genuinely, authentically. This process bodes well for the future of the Voice”.
Labor senator Pat Dodson, known as the “father of reconciliation”, asked all Australians to lend their support to healing the wounds created by Indigenous dispossession.
Dodson said a successful referendum, entrenching an Indigenous Voice in the Constitution, would create a new relationship between black and white Australia.
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