‘The Canberra Voice’: Why on earth is Dutton arguing against his party’s own policy?

In his press conference this week announcing the Liberal Party would campaign against the constitutional Voice to parliament, Peter Dutton found himself arguing stridently against his own policy. Again and again, Dutton railed against what he called the “Canberra Voice” on the basis that only local and regional consultation is effective.

Lest there be any doubt, Dutton and his Deputy Leader Sussan Ley gave various examples where top-down prescriptions had failed – especially in Alice Springs – and where locals gave good advice, such as in Arnhem Land. “The point here,” stressed Ley, “is that local voices matter, and progress on these issues requires building consensus from the ground up on a region-by-region basis.” And not from the top down. That point wasn’t subtle: in Ley’s phrase, “those at the top” don’t see “the situation on the ground”.

Opposition Leader Peter Dutton and deputy Sussan Ley announce the Liberal Party’s opposition to the Voice.

Alex Ellinghausen

And yet, official Liberal Party policy is to support a national Voice to parliament – and not just local ones – as long as it is set up by legislation rather than the Constitution. In this respect, the Liberals’ position captures an important aspect of the Calma-Langton Report given to the Morrison government on how a Voice to parliament would work: that it should be “a cohesive and integrated system comprised of Local & Regional Voices and a National Voice”.

Dutton specifically criticised the prime minister for excluding the local aspect of this, and thereby failing to pay heed to that report. And in truth, it’s a perfectly fair criticism as far as it goes. The trouble is that by attacking the “Canberra Voice” so relentlessly, Dutton is now open to an equal and opposite charge. When a journalist asked Dutton directly if he would support a national, legislative Voice, he wouldn’t answer, saying only that the prime minister wasn’t about to entertain it anyway.

It is perfectly reasonable to seek to emphasise the importance of local knowledge and local advice. This preference for the local – and a suspicion of theoretical solutions derived at a distance – is one of conservatism’s best insights, and is exactly the kind of objection the Liberal Party should be registering.

It also helps explain why so much Indigenous affairs policy, imposed from Canberra with insufficient Aboriginal self-determination – including by the Liberal Party – has failed. But that repeated failure is perhaps the major reason the Voice is now being sought. It emerges from the Uluru Statement from the Heart precisely as a response to top-down bureaucracy disconnected from communities.

It’s therefore quite something for the Liberals to portray the Voice as top-down bureaucracy itself. Here, Dutton follows his Nationals colleagues in branding the Voice as distant and elitist. He rejects it in the name of the grassroots, who he says he has been consulting, citing trips to Alice Springs, Leonora, Laverton and Arnhem Land. He also cites “a number of private conversations with elders”. The trouble is that the Voice proposal comes from a far more exhaustive consultation process, set in motion by a Liberal prime minister.

Polling since those consultations shows Indigenous support for a national, constitutionally enshrined Voice to parliament sitting at around 80 per cent. It isn’t soft support either because most respondents said they were “very sure” of their position. Perhaps Dutton thinks that polling is junk. Perhaps he thinks the consultation process that produced the Voice idea is junk, too. It would be good to know why because as it stands, he appears to be arguing for what is, in Indigenous Australia, the outlying position. He’s welcome to do so, of course. But probably not on grounds of top-down elitism.

The same applies to the Liberals’ preference for a legislative, rather than constitutional Voice. Here, again, Dutton’s argument has some good conservative reasons to commend it. Constitutional change is almost impossible to undo. Legislative changes – and legislative mistakes – are easily reversed.

But this is also the precise reason the Uluru Statement wants the Voice to be constitutional. It wants something that cannot simply be abolished so that it can transcend the political cycle. It wants the voice of Indigenous Australia to be a structural feature of our political life, not something that exists by the indulgence or political convenience of the government of the day.

That’s a perfectly understandable aspiration if you believe the Voice could easily become mired in party politics. And that’s a perfectly reasonable belief as you watch an opposition make an argument against its own policy in the course of opposing the Voice. Accordingly, to reduce the Voice to a legislative body is to defeat one of the Voice’s reasons for existing.

The Liberal Party had a serious contribution to make here. But that required its opposition to be more targeted. It could, for instance, have supported a constitutional Voice in principle, but demanded it have local and national levels, just as the Calma-Langton report suggests. This might have forced the Albanese government into a proper conversation and even a compromise because the possibility of agreement would have been real. But there is limited incentive to do so when the Liberals oppose the main thrust of the Voice being a constitutional body.

The same might be true of the opposition’s fear that the Voice proposal, as currently drafted, could lead to endless High Court litigation that makes government impossible. That fear arises because while it’s clear the Voice would have the power to “make representations” to government, it’s not clear whether or not the government would have an obligation to consult it, and could be taken to the High Court if it didn’t.

It’s a technical but serious point, and it would be worth hearing the government address it head on. But again, Dutton would have been in a better position to insist on an answer had the possibility of winning bipartisan support seriously been on the table.

Alas, now the Voice is set to become a partisan contest. Perhaps that works for Dutton, who can use a failed Voice referendum as a platform to revive his opposition. But it’s a great shame for the Voice debate itself because partisan contests tend to generate more heat than light. And on a matter this significant, with material this intricate, and in a moment this delicate, we’ll need all the light we can get.

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