Bitter divisions over the Voice to parliament have descended into a feud over whether the proposal will unite or “re-racialise” Australia, with Opposition Leader Peter Dutton denouncing it as a regressive and radical threat to Australia’s democracy.
But Voice architect Noel Pearson says a successful referendum will lead to “plurality, not apartheid” in Australia and that constitutional recognition will finally bring Indigenous Australians in from the margins of society.
In a speech at Sydney University on Monday evening, Pearson argued that if the Yes vote in the referendum succeeded, the “Voice will be a decisive step towards moving Australia from the old settler-native society to one, perhaps, where we are all natives of Australia”.
As federal parliament began debating the landmark piece of legislation that will authorise the Voice referendum, Dutton used his speech in the chamber to signal the attack lines that will form the basis of his campaign against the constitutional change, declaring it a “divisive, disrupting and democracy-altering Canberra-based Voice”.
“It will have an Orwellian effect where all Australians are equal, but some Australians are more equal than others,” he said.
“If the Voice is embedded in our Constitution, there will be little to rejoice for when we sing the second line of our national anthem – ‘For we are one and free’.
“For instead of being ‘one’, we will be divided – in spirit, and in law.”
But Pearson on Monday struck a more moderate tone after a scorching attack on Indigenous leader Mick Gooda last week and last month accusing Dutton’s Liberals of a “Judas betrayal of our country” for opposing the Voice, arguing it was about integration, not separatism.
“We advocate plurality, not apartheid. We want differences of all kinds to be respected whilst always avoiding separatism,” Pearson said.
Indigenous Australians Minister Linda Burney repudiated Dutton’s claims, telling the chamber his speech was the embodiment of scare campaigns that were seeking to derail the Yes campaign.
“We have just heard, in one speech, every bit of disinformation and misinformation and scare campaigns that exist in this debate,” Burney said.
Drawing on the precedent of the 1967 referendum, in which Australians voted overwhelmingly for constitutional change to allow the Commonwealth to make laws for Aboriginal people and include them in the census, Burney said the Voice referendum also was about fairness and hope for a better future.
“In 2023, it is time for recognition. It’s time for an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice to the parliament because Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have not enjoyed the same opportunities as so many other Australians,” Burney said.
She said the Voice would deliver structural change “that empowers Indigenous communities” and would ensure governments get “better advice so that we get better policies and better outcomes”.
She cited the legal advice of Solicitor-General Stephen Donaghue, KC, who concluded the proposed constitutional amendment to enshrine the Voice would enhance Australia’s system of government, but she acknowledged this was “not enough for those hell-bent on dashing the hopes of a people”.
“It’s not enough for those trying to play politics with an issue that should be above partisan politics,” Burney said.
Thomas Mayo, a board director of the Yes 23 campaign and member of the government’s Indigenous referendum advisory group, condemned Dutton’s comments as the “lowest of the low”.
“It’s race-baiting and disinformation but at the end of the day, Australians are sick of this kind of politics and will judge him accordingly,” Mayo said.
Dutton accused Prime Minister Anthony Albanese of trying to leverage the overwhelming public support for constitutional recognition and conflating it with the Voice, which he called the “most radical and consequential change to the way our democracy operates in our nation’s history”.
“If Australians have buyer’s remorse, the Voice comes with a no-return policy. It’s here to stay in it. This institution hasn’t even been road-tested,” Dutton said.
He also tapped into the long-running debate over the Voice’s capacity to advise executive government, which includes ministers and the public service, claiming the Voice could “grind our system to a halt from the resulting years of litigation”.
This assertion was also raised by a number of constitutional conservatives and legal experts during the six-week parliamentary inquiry into the Voice referendum, but was rejected by a larger cohort of eminent jurists, lawyers and academics who endorsed the proposed constitutional amendment to enshrine the Voice as legally sound.
Dutton said while the Coalition opposed the Voice, it would not stand in the way of the bill’s passage, therefore allowing the referendum to proceed and the Australian people to have their say.
Tasmanian Liberal MP Bridget Archer, one of a small group of Coalition MPs who supports the Voice, rejected the argument made by Dutton and others that the referendum would divide the country by race, saying the Constitution continued to have a race power that had been used to make laws about First Nations people.
“So if these laws exist, it’s reasonable in my mind that Indigenous people have their voices heard over those laws,” Archer said.
Victorian Liberal MP Russell Broadbent, who is yet to speak on the bill but intends to support it, told this masthead the Voice debate had been divisive and though he was a long-time supporter of the proposal, he was being told by local Indigenous elders in his electorate of Monash to vote No in the referendum.
“They are asking me to vote No – and not only that, but they’re advocating in the community to vote No. So there’s a bit more to this than we can perceive,” he said.
Meanwhile also on Monday, the late Gumatj clan leader Yunupingu won a historic Native Title fight in the Federal Court over the Commonwealth’s decision to allow mining on Gumatj country in north-east Arnhem Land in 1968 without the consent of traditional owners.
His brother, clan leader Djawa Yunupingu, said the case was a “continuance of his life’s work, which began with the Bark Petition and the Gove Land Rights case to have Native Title properly recognised as the heart of the identity of all First Nations People”.
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