Peter Dutton hopes to start an avalanche that will smother the Indigenous Voice with a combination of dubious claims and genuine doubts about amending the Constitution for the first time in decades.
The opposition leader starts from a position of serious weakness, with a poor personal standing in the community and the Liberals in retreat across the country, but his move is the biggest threat to the Voice since the Uluru Statement called for the reform six years ago.
This fateful decision pits Dutton against Prime Minister Anthony Albanese in a contest that will test their powers of persuasion and decide their political fortunes.
If the Voice succeeds, Dutton will be diminished in history as a leader at odds with the will of the people and a great wrecker for First Australians who sought a constitutional right to consultation.
If it fails, Albanese will be a martyr to the Indigenous cause but also a prime minister who led his Labor colleagues to a tragic defeat, leaving them to question his judgment.
But the decision is about much more than the fate of two leaders or even the fortunes of their parties because the Voice is ultimately a vote on reconciliation and the nation’s willingness to recognise and empower First Australians.
Nobody is “playing” politics here because this is at heart about power.
Dutton is now in a position to mount a formidable campaign against the Voice with a largely unified party position that can become a magnet for opponents. He is doing this by imposing the will of the party on his shadow cabinet: while some of his frontbenchers argued on Wednesday for a free vote, they were outnumbered.
Only 22 per cent of voters see Dutton as their preferred prime minister and the Coalition’s primary vote is only 30 per cent in the latest Resolve Political Monitor, so there is good reason to question whether his message will resonate with Australians.
Even so, Dutton has a national platform and becomes the de facto leader of the No campaign with a daily presence in the media. The Voice currently has the support of a majority of voters in a majority of states but it is lower than it was last year and could be eroded by the time of the referendum.
History is on Dutton’s side because most referendums are lost, but a century of history was on his side in the Aston byelection last Saturday and that did not help him.
In theory, the Liberal Party’s formal decision has three elements: support for recognition in the Constitution; support for local and regional Voices to consult First Australians; and support for a national Voice that is set up in legislation but not given power in the Constitution. This was in the formal proposal to the meeting in Canberra before MPs debated the ideas.
In practice, Dutton is mobilising his side of politics with a strident “no” to the government. While MPs were given a piece of paper that supported a national Voice in law, Dutton rubbished the idea of a “Canberra Voice” in his public remarks.
The Liberal campaign is fuelled by genuine concerns about the reach of the Voice proposal because the Indigenous group may make representations to the executive government, not just the parliament. But the campaign is also whipping up dubious claims.
First, Dutton argues the Voice is a bigger change than the failed referendum on a republic in 1999, giving him a reason to break with precedent and insist that all frontbenchers are duty-bound to support a shadow cabinet stance against the change. This assertion is questionable but magnifies the sense of panic about this year’s referendum.
Second, he insists that Attorney-General Mark Dreyfus and Solicitor-General Stephen Donaghue oppose the Voice in its current form even though Dreyfus denies this and this masthead has countered the claim. Expect to hear Dutton repeat his claim, despite the denials, to amplify the sense of doubt within the government.
Third, he paints the Indigenous body as the “Canberra Voice” when the actual proposal is for a group of First Australians who come from across the country – much like Dutton goes to Canberra to represent Queenslanders. His label could be incredibly effective because it borrows from American politics in fuelling fears of elite power in the capital.
Finally, he presents the Voice as the creation of Albanese in the hope of making it about personalities when the proposal began as a call from Indigenous leaders. Albanese unveiled his draft wording on a podium with a dozen First Australians; Dutton set out his position by quoting an anonymous Indigenous woman. He exaggerates his support among the people with the most at stake in this change.
Can there be any compromise before the referendum? Some Liberals say they would soften their view if Albanese removed the reference to executive government, but that looks impossible because the prime minister would have to break with the Indigenous leaders who want this change.
That means there will be no surrender on either side. Albanese and Dutton now put themselves, and history, to the test.
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