Liberal MPs will seek a free vote on the Indigenous Voice at a crucial party meeting on Wednesday to ensure they can back the constitutional change at a referendum later this year and avoid a clash with colleagues if Opposition Leader Peter Dutton and shadow cabinet members decide to oppose the reform.
The push for a conscience vote is gaining ground within the Liberal party room as Dutton prepares for a meeting in Canberra that will canvass new plans to amend the government proposals on the recognition of First Australians and the powers of the Voice.
But the opposition leader’s sudden call for the meeting, which surprised MPs when it was announced on Monday morning, is being seen by some as a way to distract the party from a debate on the Aston byelection and turn attention to the argument over the constitution.
The meeting is not expected to decide a final position because a parliamentary inquiry began work this week on the referendum proposal and is not due to report until May 15, setting a time frame for decisions on the wording of the amendment.
The call for a free vote gained support from shadow attorney-general Julian Leeser on Monday when he said he favoured the approach taken on the republic in 1999 when then-prime minister John Howard opposed change while then-treasurer Peter Costello backed a republic.
“I think the proposal during the republic referendum was a good one,” said Leeser, who is also the Coalition spokesman on Indigenous Australians.
“We’re going to have some discussions this week and I don’t want to pre-empt where those discussions will go… and I want to respect the party room enough to announce my position in relation to those [matters] in that place.
“I don’t think people should assume we’ll have a completely concluded position on things on Wednesday.”
While the Coalition traditionally allows its backbenchers to vote on their conscience, it expects frontbenchers to support decisions by cabinet or shadow cabinet, which means someone of ministerial rank should in theory step down if he or she cannot follow the official policy.
NSW Liberal senator Andrew Bragg said the party should repeat the free vote seen at the republic referendum and in the postal vote on same-sex marriage in 2017.
“The precedents are clear – there were yes and no campaigns within the party in both those cases,” he said.
Former Indigenous Australians minister Ken Wyatt backed a free vote on Sky News on Monday, as did Melbourne backbencher Jason Wood, while Liberal MPs James Stevens and Bridget Archer have done so in the past.
The Wednesday meeting is seen by some Liberals as unnecessary when a final decision will not be needed until the resumption of parliament for the May 9 budget, but this week’s discussion could be used to establish the principle of a free vote before a final position is decided.
Leeser called for substantial changes to the proposal for the Voice put forward by Prime Minister Anthony Albanese last week, telling the National Press Club on Monday that majority support for the reform in the opinion polls could easily be eroded and the referendum lost.
He said the idea of a referendum later this year was an “artificial timetable” and the nation should revert to a slower, years-long approach to the recognition of First Australians in the constitution.
The Liberal frontbencher said the referendum would have a greater chance of success if the second clause of the proposed amendment was deleted.
This clause currently says the Voice “may make representations to the parliament and the executive government of the commonwealth on matters relating to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples” but Leeser said this was too broad and open to activist judges to expand its meaning.
“I think the second clause is ultimately the lead in the saddlebag of a successful referendum,” he said.
Leeser said the constitutional alteration could work without the second clause, because parliament should “set the guard rails” of the new body, and he said the “no” campaign would target the issue in a way that put the referendum at risk of defeat.
The Coalition is also discussing the idea of scaling back the way the amendment recognises First Australians. The government proposal begins by saying “in recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples as the First Peoples of Australia” but the Coalition suggests ending the sentence after the first use of the word “peoples” to avoid spelling out the special status in the constitution.
Leeser also recommended reverting to the Coalition’s former position of establishing local and regional Voices first, a policy the Morrison government took to the federal election in 2022.
“Why would you want to risk the social and racial harmony of the country, a reconciliation process, by putting a referendum whose success is not guaranteed? I think that is a reflection that the prime minister needs to seriously think about,” he said.
“I think the first thing to say is that we shouldn’t put a referendum if it is in any danger of failure, that’s the first thing. The government should not put the country through this.”
Holding a press conference in Adelaide soon after the Liberal frontbencher’s speech, Albanese said Leeser had long backed a Voice to parliament, as a co-author of a draft proposal presented to the Abbott government nearly a decade before.
“I say if not now, when? If not now, when? Indigenous people expect this to be advanced,” Albanese said.
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