The Voice to parliament referendum should put off to another year, says the Coalition’s spokesman for Indigenous affairs, as the Liberal party calls a snap meeting this week to discuss their position on the proposed constitutional reform.
Julian Leeser told the National Press Club on Monday that the national vote, due to take place in the latter part of 2023, was programmed to an “artificial timetable” created by Prime Minister Anthony Albanese and the nation should revert to a slower, years-long approach to recognition of indigenous Australians in the constitution.
“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,” Leeser 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.
Leeser said he hadn’t dumped his previous support for a Voice, but said the government had commandeered the process and he was now asking questions the Australian public would expect him to ask.
He said if a referendum was put and failed, “I think I will be very sad.“
“I have been involved in this process a very long time and I just don’t think it should be where it is today,” he said.
After losing the Melbourne electorate of Aston to Labor on Saturday – the first time a federal opposition has lost a seat to government in more than 100 years – Liberal MPs were summoned to Canberra for a Wednesday meeting to consider the party’s position on the Voice.
Leeser said while the party was meeting to determine its position, he said people shouldn’t assume the Liberals would have a “completely concluded position” after the meeting.
Asked whether MPs would hold a vote, he replied: “I don’t want to preempt the way the party room discussions go, it is rare things come to a vote in the party room. Usually things are worked there, people have their say and a consensus is arrived at.”
The Liberal frontbencher said the referendum would have a greater chance of success if the second clause of the proposed Constitutional amendment, which provides the power for the Voice to advise the executive, as well as parliament, was removed.
“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, as parliament itself should “set the guard rails” of the Voice’s remit, rather than the High Court.
“I believe this clause will be at the centre of the ‘no’ case. It puts at risk the entirety of the cause at the ballot box,” he said.
He 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.
“I accept it will not be immediate. [The Calm-Langton report] said it would take three years to fully establish and bed down local and regional voices, so let’s start that work now,” he said.
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