Prime Minister Anthony Albanese has made an urgent personal bid to salvage support for the Indigenous Voice by asking Opposition Leader Peter Dutton to set out any changes he wants to the proposal, after weeks of dispute and fears of a rupture that could destroy the Voice.
In a personal letter to Dutton late on Wednesday, the prime minister held out the prospect of a constructive deal to recognise First Australians in the Constitution as long as those with concerns were willing to put forward their changes to the proposal.
Anthony Albanese has written to Peter Dutton on the eve of the Opposition Leader’s meeting with the Voice working group. Credit:Sydney Morning Herald
But the letter included a firm response to Dutton’s demands for detail by emphasising the power of parliament to decide the structure of the Voice if and when Australians approve the change at a referendum later this year.
“As I have said to you in our meetings, if you have any practical suggestions or amendments on the wording I would welcome your contribution,” Albanese wrote ahead of Dutton’s meeting with Indigenous leaders on Thursday to discuss the Voice.
The letter came three weeks after Dutton wrote to Albanese with a promise to be constructive but a warning that the government was making a “catastrophic mistake” in its handling of the Voice and listing 15 questions he wanted answered.
The questions asked about “who will be eligible to serve” on the Voice, the “definition of aboriginality” for those on the body, the election process for those members and the cost to taxpayers each year.
Albanese did not engage on the specific questions in his letter and instead pointed out the Coalition’s work on the proposal during the previous government including support from former Indigenous Australians minister Ken Wyatt, a vocal Liberal supporter of the plan.
“It is an extraordinary opportunity for every Australian to be counted and heard – to own this change and be proud of it,” Albanese wrote.
“A constitutionally enshrined Voice is a vehicle to improve outcomes for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.
“It will give the people with knowledge and on-the-ground experience an avenue to advise the government and the parliament on the federal laws, policies and programs that impact their lives.
“We know the most effective outcomes for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities occur when their voices are heard and they have ownership over the policies that affect them.”
Dutton plans to meet members of the referendum working group on Thursday. The group is co-chaired by Indigenous Australians Minister Linda Burney and Special Envoy for Reconciliation Pat Dodson,
Uluru Statement co-chairs Pat Anderson and Megan Davis are expected to join a presentation with the Cape York Institute’s Noel Pearson to explain to Dutton why they believe the Voice would make a difference to communities.
“I am hopeful it will help clarify for him how significant a constitutionally enshrined Voice is for our people and for the nation,” said Davis, a professor at the University of NSW.
Uluru Statement co-chair Professor Megan Davis is part of a group that will make a presentation to Dutton.Credit:Edwina Pickles
Parliament resumes next week with the Nationals vowing to oppose the Voice and many Liberals seeking to do the same, but some Liberals want to back the proposal or at least to secure an agreement on a conscience vote in the same way the conservatives divided on same-sex marriage five years ago.
One of the Liberal Party’s most respected campaigners, former federal director Tony Nutt, threw his support behind the Voice on Wednesday by joining the expanded board of the Australians for Indigenous Constitutional Recognition, which wants to raise millions of dollars for the Yes campaign.
Liberal senator Andrew Bragg said he backed the Voice but wanted the government to do a better job of explaining to Australians how it would work.
“I think it would be a disaster for race relations in the country if the referendum was defeated. It’s
the last thing we want to see in this country,” Bragg told radio station 2GB.
A key issue for Dutton and other Liberals is their stated concern that the power vested in the Voice could be extended over time by the High Court into areas outside policies that affect First Australians directly.
“I want to understand from the prime minister what the legal advice says,” Dutton said on January 24.
“Could the High Court determine that the Voice can have a say in defence matters, or it can have a say in budgetary priorities that the treasurer is going to deliver? What would it mean for a minister who has to make a quick decision if there’s a consultation with the Voice?”
Albanese used the letter to Dutton to emphasise that the Voice would offer practical outcomes on policy, a key issue for both sides during the debate about community safety in Alice Springs when alcohol bans were removed without any formal body to consult on the change.
Albanese restated, however, that the structure of the Voice would be decided by parliament in legislation after the referendum, saying this was “the ordinary way” to do this and was in line with the Constitution.
“Once the referendum is decided, and if the principle of the Voice is agreed by the Australian people, the Voice model will be legislated by parliament in the ordinary way. This is the way the Constitution works,” he wrote.
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