Dutton walked out of the apology. Now he’ll walk out on the Voice

It’s a brave prime minister who tries to change the constitution without the support of the opposition. No constitutional referendum in Australia’s history has succeeded without agreement of both major parties.

Anthony Albanese is feeling brave. From the outset, he has presumed that Peter Dutton’s Coalition would oppose the move to add an Indigenous Voice to the constitution. “He’s the bloke who walked out on the apology,” Albanese is fond of saying privately. And although Dutton has since said he regrets his 2008 decision, it becomes more likely day by day that he’ll walk out on the Voice as well.

Peter Dutton retains his public stance of sceptical agnosticism.Credit:Alex Ellinghausen

The junior Coalition partner, the Nationals, didn’t even wait to see the final proposed wording of the amendment. In a spasm of reflexive right-wing populism they decided four months ago to fight against the Voice.

And while the Liberals haven’t yet declared a position, all the momentum within the party is towards saying no. The Liberals currently count the number of firm Voice supporters in their party room on the fingers of one hand.

Dutton retains his public stance of sceptical agnosticism; he says neither yes nor no, but instead poses endless questions designed to look reasonable while buying time. And foments doubt in the public mind.

This week saw a new groundswell of determined resistance against the Voice inside the Liberals. Dutton would be putting his leadership on the line to defy it. And he’s not about to do that. His first imperative is to try to hold his job until the next election.

Illustration by John ShakespeareCredit:

Albanese would much rather a bipartisan consensus and a unifying moment in Australia’s life. He’d much prefer a 1967-style referendum in which 91 per cent of the country voted to count Indigenous people in the census.

He’s not about to get it. With Australia’s history of only eight successful referenda out of 44 attempts, Albanese faces long odds. But he is not about to run from the causes of Indigenous recognition and practical improvement. So Albanese, underestimated his whole life, is about to set out to defy all precedent and make history.

“It is a risk having a referendum,” he said this week. “They usually don’t succeed. If you were just about positioning on politics as usual, you might not do this,” he elaborated, flanked by members of the Indigenous referendum working group. “But the people here can’t wait. They can’t. They’ve waited so long … they’ve waited a long time for justice.”

And while it is a risk for Albanese to try and to fail, it’s probably a bigger risk for Dutton. Why? If the referendum is lost despite Albanese’s best efforts, it won’t help the PM but Dutton will be blamed.

Consider the two possible outcomes for the opposition leader. If the referendum fails, Dutton will be a hero to most in his party but a villain to the millions of Australians who passionately want the Voice to succeed.

Those millions include most of the voters in the seats that the Liberals just lost to the teal independents – the traditional Liberal mainstays of Kooyong, Warringah, Curtin, Goldstein, Wentworth and North Sydney. They would likely slip yet further from the Liberals’ grasp.

And if the referendum succeeds against the Coalition’s wishes? The Coalition would be on the wrong side of history; Dutton’s job probably would be on the line.

But how could the referendum succeed when no others in over a century have survived the hostility of the alternative government? “It will be challenging, but we are in a slightly different world,” says constitutional scholar Anne Twomey of Sydney University.

“History is a strong marker in these matters but we live in a different political environment where support for the political parties isn’t as big and where the parties don’t have so much sway over opinion. And remember the same-sex marriage plebiscite – if it’s a social issue, it can rise over political issues.”

Which is exactly what Albanese hopes. The Voice is set to win the support of all the major faith groups, the big seven sporting codes – the AFL, NRL, Rugby Australia, Netball Australia, Football Australia, Cricket Australia and Tennis Australia – all the major business groups, the trade union movement, and the Greens as well as most of the parliamentary crossbench.

The campaigns, for and against, have not yet ramped up. The referendum itself is likely to be held in October, half a year away. Labor hopes the Coalition will be isolated socially and politically.

Albanese presents it as a transcendent moment in national identity and unity, a feelgood experience. He said as much this week: “This is about who we are as a nation and whether we have the confidence to recognise not just our full history, but the opportunity that’s there in walking forward together.

“I want this done for Indigenous Australians, but I want it done for all Australians. We will feel better about ourselves if we get this done. We’ll just feel better.”

“Just feel better.” It’s like an ad jingle. This emotionalism will be an increasing focus of Coalition criticism: That Albanese is doing a sales trick of selling the people a feeling where the actual product is about the constitution and the law.

It’s hard to not be moved by the quiet dignity of the Indigenous leaders who’ve advised the government on the referendum, several of whom shed silent tears with Albanese as they stood with him on Thursday to announce the proposed wording of the constitutional amendment.

For instance, Thomas Mayor, a Torres Strait Islander and co-author of the Uluru Statement from the Heart, said: “We must have hope. We must believe in ourselves. We must do better. It’s not good enough that here in this country, the life expectancy of Indigenous peoples is almost 10 years less than other Australians. It’s not good enough that proportionately, we are the most incarcerated people on the planet. It’s not good enough that our youth languish in detention in obscene numbers. They should be our hope for the future. It’s time for us to have a Voice.”

Thomas Mayor, a Torres Strait Islander, said: “We must have hope.”Credit:Getty

The proposed words for the constitutional amendment, Mayor said, were simple yet profound: “In its simplicity, it is giving Indigenous people who have been ignored and treated poorly for far too long a Voice so that we may improve our lives. It is profound because it includes over 60,000 years of continuous heritage and culture in our constitution, a recognition from that the moment we say yes, we are collectively as an Australian nation the longest continuing civilisation on the planet.”

“We want this to be above politics. We are tired of having our lives used as a political football. We want all Australians to hear us, not just in rare moments like this, but any time decisions are made about us. We want you to believe in yourselves, believe in us, walking together, believe we can do better.”

Yet, point for point, the Coalition differs. First, on living conditions. Dutton said in response that his discussions with Indigenous groups showed that they “are more worried about practical action than they are the Voice … How that would work and where would the practical outcomes be?”

Second, on simplicity, Dutton says that the proposed amendment is, in fact, fraught with hidden complexity. He raises the suspicion that the Voice mechanism for offering advice to the government and parliament will be “another layer of bureaucracy making it harder” for Indigenous communities to be heard. He raises the prospect that the Voice is so vague that it could be the subject of any number of High Court challenges.

And as for Mayor’s hope that the Voice could be above politics, well, there’s no hope at all. This is now all about politics. The Coalition will pursue any avenue to sow doubt and undermine the referendum.

The Coalition has cherry-picked one constitutional scholar, Greg Craven, as its legal authority, while ignoring others as eminent as the former chief justice of the High Court from 2008-2017, Robert French, who said this week: “The Voice proposal is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for Australia to fill a moral and historic shortcoming in the constitution – to recognise our first history and the First Peoples who bear it and the painful legacy of its collision with the second history of colonisation.”

Describing his resolve to deliver the Voice, Albanese said he wanted to change the country: “I’m not here,” he said, “to change who’s in the white car.”

Peter Dutton, on the other hand, finds that prospect quite appealing.

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