Albanese says voice referendum will go ahead even if political dissent presents risk of failure
Anthony Albanese has revealed he will proceed with the referendum to enshrine an Indigenous voice to parliament even if he suspects the proposal will fail because of a lack of political consensus.
Given history shows referendums fail when they lack bipartisan support, the prime minister acknowledged that advancing, come what may, was a “risk … particularly where, at the moment, it is only the Labor party saying that they are committed to a yes vote”.
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But asked during an interview with Guardian Australia’s politics podcast whether there was any universe where he would step back rather than proceed to the referendum and see a no vote, the prime minister said: “No is the answer.”
Related: Voice bill to come before parliament next month with campaigning to kick into gear quickly
Albanese said delaying or abandoning the referendum would be like “worrying about winning a grand final, so therefore you don’t run on the field and forfeit. That is essentially what it is. It would be forfeiting the opportunity for recognition in the form in which Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island people are asking for.”
While Albanese’s intentions are clear, the prime minister noted parliament could deny Australians the opportunity to have their say later this year if non-government parties torpedoed the precursor legislation necessary for the referendum. Two bills will be required – one updating Australia’s referendum machinery and another articulating the proposed wording that will be put to voters later this year.
Albanese’s declaration came as the Liberal leader, Peter Dutton, and the shadow Indigenous Australians minister, Julian Leeser, joined a meeting of the government’s referendum working group on Thursday.
The Nationals have already resolved to oppose the legislation, and Dutton has demanded more detail before determining the Liberal party’s stance. Liberals believe Dutton’s campaign of soft opposition is gaining some traction in the community.
What has happened already?
The Albanese government has put forward the question: "Do you support an alteration to the constitution that establishes an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander voice?" The PM also suggested three sentences be added to the constitution:
There shall be a body, to be called the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander voice.
It may make representations to parliament and the executive government on matters relating to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.
The parliament shall, subject to this constitution, have power to make laws with respect to the composition, functions, powers and procedures of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander voice.
How would it work?
The voice would advise the Australian parliament and government on matters relating to the social, spiritual and economic wellbeing of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.
The voice would be able to table formal advice in parliament and a parliamentary committee would consider that advice. But all elements would be non-justiciable, meaning that there could not be a court challenge and no law could be invalidated based on this consultation.
How would it be structured?
The Indigenous voice co-design report recommended the national voice have 24 members, encompassing two from each state, the Northern Territory, ACT and Torres Strait. A further five members would represent remote areas and an additional member would represent Torres Strait Islanders living on the mainland.
Members would serve four-year terms, with half the membership determined every two years.
For more detail, read our explainer here.
Dutton agreed to attend another session of the working group in February. Leeser later told journalists the opposition leader had told Thursday’s meeting the government hadn’t adopted “the usual orthodox processes in to this particular referendum of having a constitutional convention or a public committee”.
In a statement issued after the meeting, Dutton said he was approaching the process “with goodwill” but Albanese’s “refusal to answer straightforward questions on how this voice proposal will work is untenable”.
“Australians deserve to be informed before voting at a referendum,” Dutton said.
Albanese suggested some of the current queries weren’t about clarifying detail, they were about killing the voice. The prime minister told the podcast “one of the tactics of defeating the referendum is asking so-called questions which have nothing to do with what this referendum is about”.
He said the questions Australians would consider later this year were simple. “This referendum is about two things – [constitutional] recognition and consultation. That is what it’s about.”
The prime minister said there would be a substantial parliamentary process before the voice was put to the Australian people some time between September and December.
Albanese said legislation changing the Referendum Act would be followed by legislation setting out draft wording to be debated. “Before the end of March, there will be legislation introduced to the parliament that will have in it the draft wording … and there will be a parliamentary inquiry in which people can make submissions … which will go for at least six weeks.”
Related: We have always had a voice, but we have never been listened to | Vanessa Turnbull-Roberts
He said the objective was to get that legislation passed in the budget session of parliament which runs between May and June. “It needs to pass … in order to have a vote [at a referendum]. So the parliament will have a say and every parliamentarian will have a say.”
“One of the furphies that is out there is there’s somehow not enough information,” Albanese said. “There is this whole [parliamentary and working group] process, and the danger of this as well is people get overloaded with information and there’s going to be an opportunity for that to occur.”
The Greens are yet to land on a final position on the voice. The Greens senator Lidia Thorpe has asked the Albanese government to make guarantees about Indigenous sovereignty before she will support the referendum.
Asked whether he had legal advice going to the point Thorpe had raised, Albanese said the government had advice “about a whole range of questions”.
Albanese said the voice and sovereignty were separate questions. Pressed to clarify what advice the government had, Albanese said: “You can go down rabbit holes, I’m not going to assist you.”
On Thursday afternoon, the constitutional expert group working on technical elements of the referendum, including the wording for the proposed change, said in a statement the voice did not impact sovereignty. “All members of the expert group agreed that the draft provision would not affect the sovereignty of any group or body,” the statement said.
The prime minister said: “I don’t think that Lidia Thorpe’s views are representative of a majority of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and I don’t think they are representative of Greens voters either.”
“There are some people who want everything post 1788 to be erased – that is not my position, that is not the government’s position, that is not something either which in my view is a constructive way to move the nation forward.
“We share this continent. Everyone has a place in this continent and some of the debates that take place put forward views I don’t share.”
The full interview on the Australian Politics podcast will be available on Saturday.