Former Indigenous minister Ken Wyatt quits Liberals in Voice protest

Opposition Leader Peter Dutton and former Coalition Indigenous affairs minister Ken Wyatt.

Alex Ellinghausen

Former Coalition Indigenous affairs minister Ken Wyatt has quit the Liberal Party to protest its opposition to the Voice to parliament, a contentious call that has sparked a slew of criticism from Liberals, non-Coalition politicians and the Indigenous community.

Opposition Leader Peter Dutton and his senior colleagues held firm in the face of intense criticism a day after he revealed he would campaign against the Voice to parliament, diminishing the chances of enshrining the advisory body in the constitution.

Prime Minister Anthony Albanese, prominent Indigenous figures Noel Pearson and Thomas Mayor, and Liberals such as MP Bridget Archer, former Tasmanian premier Peter Gutwein, and former MP Fiona Reid condemned the Coalition stance.

“I still believe in the Liberal Party values but I don’t believe in what the Liberals have become,” Wyatt told newspaper. “Aboriginal people are reaching out to be heard but the Liberals have rejected their invitation.”

Former Liberal Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull said Wyatt was one of the wisest people he had worked alongside.

“He’s made history his whole life,” Turnbull told this masthead. “People will sit up and notice this.”

“Political parties don’t prosper when people leave, political parties’ goal should be to get people to join, and I think people are leaving at the moment.”

Wyatt was the first Indigenous Australian to be elected to the House of Representatives and the first to serve in the federal cabinet. He lost his seat to Labor at the 2022 election. He has also played a key role in the development of the Voice.

As minister in 2019, he commissioned Indigenous academics Marcia Langton and Tom Calma to write a detailed report detailing options for how the Voice could be structured. This report has been used as the basis for contemporary thinking about the Voice’s scope and operation.

Wyatt sits on the powerful referendum working group, appointed by the Albanese government, that is helping the government shape the referendum. He has been contacted for comment.

On March 24, Wyatt warned that opposing the Voice could reinforce perceptions that the Liberals were “racists”, concerns that were similar to those raised by three current party members in Wednesday’s meeting before the plan to oppose the referendum in its current form and offer an alternative model was carried on the voices.

Dutton said on Thursday morning that he felt a duty to protect Australians from the Voice because the proposed model would fundamentally change Australia’s system of government. The opposition instead proposes to recognise Indigenous Australians in the constitution without creating a national advisory body.

Wyatt has been described as a wise man by former Liberal prime minister Malcolm Turnbull.

Alex Ellinghausen

The opposition leader was savaged by Pearson, who told Radio National Breakfast: “I couldn’t sleep last night. I was troubled by dreams and the spectre of the Dutton Liberal Party’s Judas betrayal of our country.”

Opposition defence spokesman Andrew Hastie labelled Pearson’s comments an “outburst” of “nasty language”, but Albanese repeated Pearson’s remarks that Dutton was a “acting like the undertaker preparing the grave to bury Uluru”.

“This is consistent with the undermining of constitutional recognition that he has undertaken since the day that he became leader of the Liberal Party,” Albanese said.

“If you’re under the age of 40 in this country you have never voted in a referendum. Because once an opportunity moves past, you don’t know when it’s coming around again. We have waited 122 years to recognise in our Constitution the privilege that we have of sharing this continent with the oldest continuous culture on earth. I say to Australians, do not miss this opportunity.”

Late on Thursday, Dutton released a social media ad spruiking his opposition to the “Canberra Voice Bureaucracy” showing Dutton listening to citizens and Albanese repeatedly saying Dutton’s name.

Tasmanian Liberal MP Bridget Archer, who supports the Voice, said the party is at a crossroads.

Alex Ellinghausen

One of the Liberals’ most prominent commentators on the Voice, Keith Wolahan, said his party cared deeply about Indigenous advancement but it was obligated to scrutinise the potentially grave unintended consequences of enshrining the Voice in the nation’s founding document.

“We can cherish our indigenous heritage and want to see conditions improved, yet carefully analyse and question the particular wording. If there is constitutional risk or unintendeds consequences, we have a duty to scrutinise and highlight that,” said Wolahan, a former barrister who is deputy chair of a new parliamentary committee examining the Voice.

Earlier on Thursday morning, outspoken Tasmanian Liberal MP and referendum supporter Bridget Archer told Radio National the party was “at a crossroads”. “I stay [in the Liberal Party] because I know I’m not the only person who thinks that way. I stay because I think the Liberal Party is at a crossroads,” she said.

“And for people like me, that means there’s a decision between either walking away and leaving them to it or fighting for what I believe the Liberal Party used to be and should be in the future, a credible, alternative government.”

On Wednesday, Archer said of Wyatt: “We lauded him as our first Indigenous minister and now we’re not listening to him.”

Labor senator and prominent Aboriginal leader Pat Dodson said Wyatt “wouldn’t have taken this decision lightly.”

“I’m sure he would be very disappointed that his party has shown absolutely no regard for the Aboriginal people, their leadership and their efforts to find an accommodation with the Australian people through a Voice to Parliament,” Dodson told ABC television.

Shortly after his television appearance, the Prime Minister’s office issued a statement saying Dodson, a special envoy for the Voice, would be away from parliament for months “while he undertakes a course of medical treatment”.

“Senator Dodson is mindful that during this time he had a big workload planned in his role as Special Envoy for Reconciliation and Implementation of the Uluru Statement from the Heart.

He regrets that his work commitments, especially travel, will now be limited.“

Liberal MP Warren Entsch, who represents the Far North Queensland division of Leichhardt said Wyatt’s decision would not damage the party’s position. “We have not said no to a Voice,” Entsch said, adding Wyatt’s reasons for quitting the party were “his prerogative”.

“I love Ken, he’s a lovely guy and he’ll always be a dear friend … he’s entitled to his view and I wish him well,” he said.

Voice campaigner Thomas Mayor said the Coalition was using scare and confusion tactics to topple the referendum.

“Dutton has aligned himself with those bigots by saying no and by using the same tactics and rhetoric, the relegated the Liberals to a relic of the past,” he said.

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