Incoming Liberal senator Maria Kovacic says she would support the Indigenous Voice to parliament if the Albanese government changed the wording of the constitutional amendment, and believes a tweak to negative gearing rules should be considered.
Kovacic, who won a hotly contested NSW Liberal preselection last Saturday, said the referendum was an important opportunity to close the gap with Indigenous Australians but the Albanese government had botched the process by refusing to change the wording.
Australians will vote on the referendum for a constitutionally enshrined Voice to parliament between October and December this year. The proposed body would be able to make representations to the parliament and the executive government on issues that impact Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.
Kovacic said she would absolutely vote for the Voice if the Albanese government accepted Liberal MP Julian Leeser’s suggestion to delete “executive government” from the wording so that the body would only have the power to advise the parliament.
She declined to say whether she would support the Voice if the Albanese government does not budge on the wording.
“I am so deeply, deeply disappointed in the way that the federal government has managed this,” she said.
“I want to see the federal government step up and put something forward that is clearer, that more Australians understand, that doesn’t divide people and doesn’t have the ambiguity that is making people confused.
“I’m not going to put a position in terms of where I’m going to be because I want to respect the parliamentary process and the Senate debate.”
Kovacic’s comments mean that there is another potential supporter of the Voice inside the Liberal party room, alongside Leeser, Andrew Bragg, Bridget Archer and Aaron Violi. Frontbenchers Simon Birmingham, Paul Fletcher and Marise Payne are also sympathetic to the proposal.
It also suggests that the Albanese government is losing support among Liberal MPs because of its refusal to amend the wording in the bill before parliament which will be debated in the Senate over the coming weeks.
The Liberal party room in April decided to oppose the Voice, binding frontbenchers to the No side but leaving backbenchers free to campaign for the proposal.
Leeser, who quit as spokesman for Indigenous Australians so he could support the Yes case, was unsuccessful in his attempt to remove executive government from the wording of the bill that passed the House of Representatives last week.
Kovacic, who will enter the Senate on June 13 to replace the late Jim Molan, said the upcoming referendum should have been an opportunity for Australians to support a unified proposal.
“I wish the federal government hadn’t botched it in the way that they have,” she said.
“They’ve played rampant politics with the issue of Indigenous recognition, which in my view is absolutely unacceptable because the way they are handling this is dividing and not uniting Australians.
“This is a pivotal point in our history. This is something really important – an opportunity to close the gap for Indigenous Australians. And it’s become a political lever and it, deeply, deeply upsets me.”
Asked whether there would be any change to the wording, Indigenous Australians Minister Linda Burney said the Voice should be able to make representations to both the “because the whole point of the Voice is to improve outcomes for Indigenous Australians – to help close the gap”.
“It is the government that makes policies about Indigenous Australians,” she said. “When the parliament passes laws about Indigenous Australians, it is government that implements them.”
Kovacic, 53, said the cost of housing would be one of her key focuses over the coming years.
She said some young Australians are spending all of their pay on rent and many of them feel that “no matter how hard they work, they may never be able to own their own home – and that for me is a real issue”.
Asked whether the rules around negative gearing needed to change, Kovacic said: “I think we need to look at what we can do there to tighten that policy.”
Neither the Coalition nor Labor have plans to change negative gearing, which allows Australians to lower their tax by offsetting the losses of investment properties against other income.
The former NSW Liberal president said she didn’t support limiting negative gearing to one investment property, as proposed by a Queensland delegate at Labor’s national conference, but it shouldn’t be “open-ended, hundreds of properties”.
“Most people who negatively gear [are] mom and dad sole investors … and you don’t want to take that out of the rental market,” she said.
“I think we need to look at what we can do there to tighten that policy. But I don’t think [we should take] a broad brush approach.”
She said there also needed to be policies to crack down on vacant properties, especially ones owned by foreign investors, and to encourage local and state governments to open up more land for housing and to provide long-term rentals.
Kovacic, the daughter of Croatian migrants who fled communism in Europe, said she didn’t speak English until she started going to school.
After having three children before the age of 25, Kovacic’s first marriage ended and she needed to find a way to provide for her children.
“I had to very quickly make some decisions about what I was going to do, and I didn’t have any opportunity but to fight to support my kids, and that’s what I did,” she said.
“I worked really hard in my business, I worked really long hours, I did what I could.”
Kovacic started her own business, a franchise of the ANZ bank, and also co-founded Western Sydney Women and Western Sydney Executive Women. She said her experiences as a young mother gave her a passion for helping women achieve financial security, which she will take into federal parliament.
Asked how the Liberal Party can win back women and migrants, Kovacic said it should not be transactional by targeting specific voters.
“That’s not a long-term solution for any organisation,” she said. “I think all political parties need to do a better job of representing Australians and doing it authentically and genuinely – and not just doing it six or eight weeks out from election time.”
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