Liberal shadow ministers will thrash out the opposition’s Voice stance in a hastily convened early morning meeting on Wednesday as the party prepares to wave through the government’s bill allowing the referendum to take place.
The opposition’s snap party room meeting in Canberra created confusion among senior Liberals, many of whom were not aware on Tuesday night exactly what the party’s leadership wanted to decide on Wednesday morning.
Some conservative MPs are pushing for the party to end the months-long, divisive debate and formally oppose the Voice.
Queensland conservative Liberal MP Garth Hamilton said further details on the Voice clearly were not coming and that Opposition Leader Peter Dutton should stop asking Labor for more information.
“It’s not credible for us to be equivocating at this point. The government has failed to provide all the details we’ve asked for,” said Hamilton, who opposes the Voice on principle.
Another conservative, who agreed with Hamilton but declined to speak on the record before the meeting, said the party had to come to a decision on Wednesday.
Jason Wood, the Liberal MP for Melbourne’s outer east seat of La Trobe, said while he was open to being convinced on the Voice, he would need to have his concerns satisfied around the potential for High Court challenges.
“I’d still have to put it to my constituency,” Wood said. “I’m trying to be as reasonable and as pragmatic as I can.”
However, he said that if the party voted on a position tomorrow, the majority would oppose it. “The majority of my colleagues, it would be pretty much a firm no,” he said.
Liberal sources, speaking anonymously to discuss internal deliberations, said the shadow cabinet may oppose the government’s model for the Voice referendum and was likely to propose an alternative similar to the approach outlined by Indigenous affairs spokesman Julian Leeser on Monday.
Shadow ministers will meet early on Wednesday before a mid-morning party room meeting of all Liberal MPs. Adopting an alternative proposal – which would likely include local and regional voices, and constitutional recognition without a Voice – would allow the opposition to avoid being entirely negative on the issue of Indigenous recognition.
Some MPs believe the party should wait until May to decide its position, after a parliamentary inquiry has had time to examine the government’s proposed constitutional alteration.
“We have shadow cabinet members with no clue what’s on the agenda,” one Liberal said late on Tuesday, adding that the timing of the meeting just days after the Aston byelection loss raised suspicion that it was designed as a diversion.
Bridget Archer, an outspoken Tasmanian MP who favours the Voice and a conscience vote within the party, said it should not have taken this long for the opposition to formulate a position.
Asked if the party would stop asking for further information on the referendum, Archer responded: “I should hope so, there has never been a lack of detail.”
The new chair of a parliamentary inquiry into the Voice, Labor senator Nita Green, warned the MPs on the committee against using the debate on the draft wording of the constitutional alteration to score political points.
“Committee members can choose to use this process to tear down the proposal or they can use this process to learn more about it, and I hope it’s the latter,” Green said in an interview.
The committee’s deputy chair, Liberal MP and former barrister Keith Wolahan, has raised concerns about the prospect of High Court challenges to government decisions brought by people claiming the government had not properly consulted the Voice.
He said: “In the absence of a constitutional convention, a key role for this committee will be to assess the constitutional risk of each limb.”
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