The first thing most of Peter Dutton’s colleagues knew about their “resounding no” to the Indigenous Voice was when they walked into their party room meeting in Parliament House on Wednesday and saw the paperwork with the agenda.
The opposition leader had taken most of the Liberal party room by surprise when he called the meeting on Monday morning after a discussion with a handful of senior colleagues, which meant leaping over some of the usual steps to a final decision.
This made the briefing papers for the meeting even more important than usual because there had not been the standard consultation on a draft bill with a Coalition backbench committee – just an urgent decision on Wednesday morning by shadow cabinet and the expectation the party room would endorse it immediately.
The damage from that haste will reverberate through to the referendum – and was highlighted on Thursday afternoon by the resignation from the Liberal Party of former cabinet minister Ken Wyatt.
“I still believe in the Liberal Party values, but I don’t believe in what the Liberals have become,” Wyatt told . How damning is that? Wyatt, the first Aboriginal person to hold the Indigenous Australians portfolio and who served the party for decades.
Only now, in the aftermath of the rushed meeting, is the full confusion becoming apparent. What, exactly, is the Liberal position? In a muddled echo of the Liberal turmoil over same-sex marriage last decade, Dutton emerged from the room to set out a position that was different from what some in the room thought they had just decided.
The papers set out three key pillars for the agreed position. The first is the recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders as the First Peoples of Australia in the Constitution. The second is the creation of local and regional Indigenous bodies on the grounds that these are the best way to make a real difference to Indigenous communities.
The second pillar was central to Dutton’s broadside against the government because he called for local and regional voices rather than the national body he dismissed as a “Canberra Voice” – an argument and a catchphrase loaded with falsehood.
The third pillar is the policy idea the leader does not name: a legislated national Voice. That’s right: the party room was presented with a policy to set up a Voice that would operate at a national level – and, you would have to guess, doing a lot of its work in Canberra. The idea was to support an alternative model to the government with a national Voice to be set up by law, with caveats on its power and clearly defined responsibilities. This would work with the local and regional bodies.
Dutton condemned the Voice so thoroughly that he sounded wildly at odds with the written proposal. “We shouldn’t be voting for a divisive Canberra voice. That’s the issue. We should be listening to what people are saying on the ground,” he said. It’s a false contrast, inflated with shrill rhetoric. The key point is that Labor also supports regional voices.
So, what is the policy?
The Indigenous Australians spokesman Julian Leeser was not available on Thursday. Liberals say the talking points issued on Thursday morning from the leader’s office only mention the local and regional voices, not the national one. Dutton’s office says he has announced the position. (There is no press release on the policy, only his transcripts).
The difference is ultimately about power – and this is why neither side is playing games. Prime Minister Anthony Albanese believes First Australians should have the power to be heard. That means real power written into the Constitution. Dutton does not want Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders to have the same power. That means curtailing their right to consultation, with all the overtones of the paternalism of the past.
The choice for Australians is now about two contrasting approaches to reconciliation and Indigenous welfare. In fact, two utterly different visions for the nation’s future.
But a gulf is opening among the Liberals, and Wyatt’s resignation proves it. Dutton has solid support from the conservative side of his party but is trying to enforce loyalty from all his colleagues – which means he could push them until they snap. NSW senator Andrew Bragg and Tasmanian MP Bridget Archer were the most vocal in supporting the Voice in the meeting on Wednesday. Former minister Richard Colbeck, Victorian MP Russell Broadbent and NSW MP Jenny Ware spoke in favour of a free vote.
Outside the party room, the supporters of the Voice include Tasmanian Liberal premier Jeremy Rockliff and his predecessor Peter Gutwein, as well as Western Australian Liberal leader Libby Mettam. Former NSW premier Dominic Perrottet has backed the Voice. This means Dutton does not speak for the wider Liberal Party and his No campaign will be a personal mission. His message will be countered by Liberals who vote yes.
The parliamentary inquiry into the Voice is only a week old. It is not due to report until next month and could, in theory, create a forum to canvass changes to the draft wording that might gain support from more Liberals. If he chose, Albanese could negotiate amendments to win at least some Liberals and widen the divide in Dutton’s ranks. The polls suggest the prime minister does not need to do this, so everything depends on whether he believes the majority support for the Voice is holding firm.
The smallest fracture in the most polished marble can easily turn into a gaping crack. All it takes is pressure. Some Liberals are frustrated at the rushed process and the confusion over the final position – just as other Liberals were in August 2015 when Tony Abbott tried to enforce his will over same-sex marriage. He was toppled the following month.
Dutton is in a stronger position than Abbott – there is no Malcolm Turnbull waiting in the wings – but he repeats Abbott’s mistake in holding a snap meeting and then refusing to allow a free vote. This suits him but not his party. The lesson of recent history, from Howard’s time in power through to the marriage equality debate, is that a conscience vote can release the pressure inside the party room. A binding vote only bottles it up.
Watch for the cracks.
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