Liberal MP Julian Leeser has appealed to Australians to vote for the Voice to parliament, saying it will help transform remote Indigenous communities by tackling entrenched problems, as former prime minister Scott Morrison made a rare public intervention to urge a No vote.
In a heartfelt speech that addressed Coalition voters specifically, Leeser – the Liberal Party’s leading Voice advocate, who quit Peter Dutton’s frontbench so he could campaign for a Yes vote – said the body would eliminate the economic and social differences between Indigenous and other Australians, rather than creating two classes of Australian, as Dutton and other No advocates claim.
“The Voice will work on making our remote communities safer. It will work to rid communities of addictions from nicotine and alcohol to ice. It will work to get children in school and keep them there. It will work to address the terrible rates of infant mortality and renal failure in many Indigenous communities,” Leeser told parliament during the lengthy debate on legislation to enable the referendum.
“And it will work to create local jobs and industries so that we can break a culture of welfare dependency.
“Some say the Voice will give Indigenous Australians a place of privilege. Does anyone really believe that Indigenous Australians occupy a place of privilege?”
He said most referendum debates make the “if it aint broke don’t fix it” argument.
“Normally, that is a valid and compelling argument. But the system is broken,” he said.
Leeser mocked suggestions the proposed body would have a say on Australia’s future submarine fleet or purchases by the Department of Finance, pointing out it would not run programs or hand out grants.
“The parliament will still be supreme in matters of policy and law. The Voice will advise. Just like the security services, the chief medical officer, chief scientist, DFAT [Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade] and so many agencies advise,” he said.
But Morrison, making a rare intervention in public debate over the constitutional change, warned the Voice would permanently create “different rights for one group of Australians over others, based solely on race”.
Morrison, who until Wednesday had spoken just twice in parliament since losing the prime ministership a year ago, said the “ill-defined” constitutional change would have the opposite effect of previous initiatives, including the landmark 1967 referendum in which the Constitution was changed to give Indigenous Australians the same rights as all other Australians.
“This referendum is not a vote about whether Australians wish to support and do everything they can to recognise and improve the lives of Indigenous Australians. We all agree on this, and we can all say yes to this. But that is not the question the government is proposing for this referendum,” he said.
The well-known Cronulla Sharks fan also took a swipe at sporting codes, including the NRL, which have recently declared their support for the Voice proposal. But his tone was markedly different to Opposition Leader Peter Dutton’s denunciation on Tuesday of the proposal as a regressive and a radical threat to Australian democracy.
“While keenly interested in the NRL’s opinion on hip-drop tackles and the six-again rule, I respectfully won’t be deferring to the NRL for constitutional advice to guide my decision,” Morrison said.
“Permanently changing the Constitution in the way the government proposes will sadly not change the desperate circumstances being experienced in so many Indigenous communities across Australia,” he said, adding that he remained committed to a legislated Voice to parliament.
“I remain committed to the constitutional recognition of Indigenous Australians and all Australians being treated equally under our Constitution.”
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