Prime Minister Anthony Albanese has ramped up pressure on Peter Dutton to declare his party’s position on the Voice to parliament, saying the opposition leader is not genuine in seeking further detail on the way the indigenous body would work with parliament.
“No matter how much detail is put out, Peter Dutton will say, ‘Oh, what about more detail?’ That’s the game that’s being played here,” the prime minister said at a press conference in the Melbourne seat of Aston, which goes to a byelection on April 1.
Dutton on Thursday said the detail released on the final wording of the proposed constitutional amendment did not answer any of his 15 questions about how the body would operate, while doubling down on concerns that the new wording would open up government decisions to High Court challenges if someone argues the Voice to parliament was not properly consulted.
Albanese rejected Dutton’s calls to release the Solicitor-General’s advice on the wording, saying the opposition leader “sat in a cabinet for nine years and didn’t release any advice to the cabinet. It’s not the way it works, and he knows that he knows that”.
Members of the federal cabinet also came out Thursday morning to levy criticism directly at Dutton, with Indigenous Affairs Minister Linda Burney and Attorney-General Mark Dreyfus both arguing the opposition leader’s questions about how the Voice would work were a tactic to avoid having to state a formal position.
Burney told Radio National breakfast that “I think that the Liberals are looking for excuses. And I think they’ve almost run out of excuses. The opposition leader Peter Dutton will have to make a call on this. My real hope is that he provides bipartisan support in the way that happened during the week on the [referendum] machinery bill”.
“The press conference that Mr Lesser and Mr Dutton did yesterday, despite the fact that we put out an incredible amount of detail information by way of the design, the expanded design principles yesterday, they’re still saying the same thing, they will they want more detail.”
“This is not a political football. The referendum is about…deciding on whether there should be recognition in the Constitution and deciding whether there should be better outcomes for Aboriginal Torres Strait Islander people.“
Burney said releasing the Solicitor-General’s advice, as Dutton has asked, was a matter for the prime minister but it was “not consistent with longstanding practice” and that the request was “an excuse and a bit of mischievousness from opposition”.
Attorney-General Mark Dreyfus argued Australia had been on the path towards constitutional recognition for more than a decade and that Dutton was asking questions he already knew the answers to.
“So you do have to think well, why are all these questions still being asked? I’d invite Mr Dutton to have a long, hard think and a long hard look at the simple words that we’ve unveiled yesterday and the simple question that will be put to the Australian people,” he said.
“There have been Parliamentary inquiries. There have been conventions, there have been dialogues, and after the Uluru Statement from the Heart, that generous offer to the whole of our country, after that we had in the last two parliaments further parliamentary inquiries. The time is here, the time is now,” he told ABC radio.
Dutton’s office has been contacted for comment.
The Constitutional Alteration bill will be introduced to parliament next week, subject to a parliamentary inquiry and the debated in the house of representatives and the senate by the end of June.
‘I think that the Liberals are looking for excuses. And I think they’ve almost run out of excuses.’
Indigenous Australians Minister Linda Burney on the opposition’s attitude to the Voice
Some of the new detail released on Thursday about how the Voice would work included that 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. Much of this detail is in line with the recommendations of a 2021 report to government by indigenous leaders Tom Calma and Marcia Langton.
On Thursday, Dutton said the Coalition would consider its position on the Voice and adopt a formal stance “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.
But Burney said Dutton had met with the referendum working group to discuss the Voice twice, with the prime minister six times “and as I say, I think he is looking for excuses. I don’t think he’s looking for answers”.
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?”
Senior sources in the government, who asked not to be named, have told this masthead the preferred referendum date is October 14, after the grand finals of the AFL and NRL, with November 18 as the most likely second option.
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