Ken Wyatt made history when he became the first Indigenous member of the House of Representatives in 2010. In 2019, he became the first Indigenous federal cabinet minister when he was appointed minister for Indigenous Australians in the Morrison government.
On Thursday, he made history again, quitting the Liberal Party over its decision to oppose the Voice at the referendum.
Wyatt, who lost his West Australian seat at the election, had stood beside Prime Minister Anthony Albanese when last month he announced the wording for the referendum. In government, he had battled, against internal Coalition headwinds, to advance Indigenous recognition and a Voice.
Wyatt is a cautious, patient man. That he has left the Liberal Party is an indictment of his former colleagues. He told The: “I still believe in the Liberal Party values, but I don’t believe in what the Liberals have become.”
A day earlier, faced with a choice on the Voice between the mood in the parliamentary Liberal Party and the mood in middle Australia, especially among people under 40, Opposition Leader Peter Dutton opted for the party.
That was probably inevitable. After all, only days ago, after the Aston byelection loss, Dutton said his biggest preoccupation as leader had been holding the party together.
We can’t predict what the Liberals’ rejection of the Voice will do for the referendum, or, ultimately, for the opposition and Dutton’s leadership.
Certainly it will be unhelpful for the Yes case. Dutton might be out of sync with the community vibe on this issue, but his becoming a leading light of the No campaigners – a ragtag lot at present – will encourage a swag of voters to have doubts and vote No. The question is, how many?
The latest Newspoll shows the Yes vote with an overall majority and winning in a majority of states – which it has to do in order to pass.
But the national Yes vote was only 54 per cent, and that is before the majority has been stress-tested by a campaign. There is a very long way to go in this marathon.
When Indigenous people have invested so much in the Voice, the question becomes: is the downside of denying it to them more damaging than the possibility of it being risky or impotent?
First Nations people’s call for the Voice has been extraordinarily hard for the Liberals to handle, not just for those from the right, like Dutton. Who can forget Malcolm Turnbull, prime minister at the time of the Uluru Statement from The Heart, declaring that a Voice would be seen as a “third chamber” of the parliament? (Turnbull has sent a “big hug” to Wyatt after his resignation.)
Dutton is often a pragmatist. Thus he was a driver of finding a way through the marriage equality issue. He hadn’t been a supporter of gay marriage, but for him, settling the issue was more important than his personal view. Hence he promoted the idea of the postal plebiscite, admittedly a second-best route to just legislating first up, but a way of getting the job done.
If “Peter the pragmatist” had been uppermost, you’d think he would have sought a non-confrontational way through the Voice issue.
Senior Liberals could have been left to make up their own minds, as in the republic referendum. Dutton could have said he had reservations about central features of the government’s proposal, but for the greater good – for the unity of the country and the pursuit of reconciliation – he would be voting Yes, although not campaigning.
Critics may or may not be right about the risks in the current wording of the constitutional change, which provides for the Voice to make representations to executive government. Equally, they may or may not be correct in claiming the Voice would make little difference to closing the gap.
But when Indigenous people have invested so much in the Voice, the question becomes: is the downside of denying it to them more damaging than the possibility of it being risky or impotent?
Some Liberals may be worried about its dangers. Others, more likely, just don’t like the idea of it, or want to play politics, and would probably have rejected any wording. Too often, the Liberals simply like to say no, and dig in, as they did (and still do) over measures to address climate change.
A Liberal pragmatist who was also sceptical about the Voice might have calculated that if it were going to present as many difficulties as the critics foresee, it would be a (likely) second-term Labor government that would initially have to deal with them.
Mention of a second-term Albanese government reminds us that, if the Voice referendum is successful, the next term would probably see another referendum – for an Australian republic. That would divide the opposition and present a nightmare for whomever led it at that time.
Dutton has promised to campaign against the Voice, but what does this mean? Will the Liberal Party be spending its scarce funds on the No campaign – money that could be better kept for the next election?
A few Liberal MPs, like Tasmanian Bridget Archer, are signed up to the Yes campaign. Others will be active for No. A third group will prefer to keep their heads down, but could find themselves under pressure as the media compile lists of who is on which side and doing what.
The shadow minister for Indigenous Australians, Julian Leeser, has been left in an invidious, if not an impossible position.
When he delivered a critique of the Voice to the National Press Club on Monday, Leeser suggested that Wednesday’s party meeting mightn’t make a final decision. (After all, a parliamentary committee is examining the legislation, and it’s crazy to have a position ahead of that inquiry reporting.)
Lesser also indicated he favoured frontbenchers being given freedom to support either side in a referendum campaign. Instead, shadow ministers are bound to the party’s decision.
Leeser didn’t appear with Dutton at Wednesday’s news conference. It was explained he had to return to Sydney for Passover.
As the relevant shadow minister, Leeser would be in high demand during the referendum campaign. How would he cope when he has serious reservations about the Liberals’ position?
Jeremy Rockliff might not be a household name to many Australians, but the Tasmanian premier leads the sole Liberal government in the country. He is a declared Yes campaigner. West Australian Liberal leader Libby Mettam has also declared for the Yes case.
Fred Chaney, a former federal minister for Indigenous affairs, has denounced Wednesday’s decision as pandering to the most extreme elements in the party, and called on small “l” liberals – who he said had been “supine” in recent years – to follow Archer’s lead in standing up for the Yes case.
Dutton’s success in holding the Liberal show together has been strictly limited. And it has come at the cost of deepening the division in the country.
Michelle Grattan is professorial fellow at the University of Canberra. This article first appeared on The Conversation.
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