Ken Wyatt, the former Coalition Indigenous Australians minister, has warned the Liberals that not backing the Indigenous voice to parliament could add to a “global perception” they are a “racist party”.
Ken Wyatt urged the opposition leader, Peter Dutton, to allow the Liberals a conscience vote on the referendum, saying he knew of many who would back it “if given the chance”.
Wyatt, a Yamatji man who is a member of the government’s referendum working group, said he had not spoken to Dutton about his views.
“No, and he hasn’t contacted me either. It’s a two-way process. But I engaged with Peter over time as a member of parliament. And that’s all I’ll say,” Wyatt said.
Wyatt believed it would be a mistake “globally” for the Liberals to not offer bipartisan support to a referendum, adding to a perception the party was “racist”, citing incidents he had experienced as a minister under the Morrison government.
“One of the questions I got asked frequently, and the first was the BBC when I was first elected, and I had this from other countries as well: ‘What’s it like belonging as a member of the Australian parliament in the most racist country?’ And I always defused that. And then the second question they hit me with is: ‘How do you cope working in a racist party like yours?’.” Wyatt told Guardian Australia.
“That’s a global perspective. It’s not my perspective; it’s a global perspective.
“So there is a perception about our party, which I am sad about, because the Liberal party is a good party, and there are a lot of good people within the Liberal party.”
Wyatt said Dutton’s continuing calls for answers to the so-called 15 questions about the voice process was a “smokescreen”.
“I think if Peter was given the answers to the 15 questions in tablet form from Moses, he still would not accept them,” Wyatt said, noting one question was about how governments would prove the Aboriginality of any members of the voice.
“In this day and age, if you ask what percentage is an Aboriginal person? What is the percentage of an Aboriginal person’s bloodline? Then it shows that we haven’t moved forward,” Wyatt said.
“I thought we’d got over those days. Having had those long fights over long periods of time to get rid of that type of legislation which use that wording. But we haven’t, not when you ask that question.”
Peter Dutton has been approached for comment.
Wyatt said he had remained involved in the referendum process under the Albanese government because he believed the voice was a practical change that would make a genuine difference to people’s lives, saying it was no different to the closing the gap strategy he negotiated as minister in the Coalition government.
“I negotiated with state and territory ministers, and with 51 peak Aboriginal organisations on what the closing the gap strategy would have within it. And we negotiated every word, every strategy, every target, and it came to an incredible result where there was unified agreement across this nation through federal cabinet, national cabinet, state and territory cabinet, and with the peak bodies involved. It was a partnership.
“That really is the front end of the voice,” he said.
Wyatt said racism “might be an issue” in the opposition to a voice.
“We only have to see it when government brings in a controversial bill. People will protest outside Parliament House, people will contact talkback radio, people will write letters by the score to the relevant federal members.
“Australians are saying, we want to be heard before you make these changes, and they exercise that right, and yet, we get overly legally technical in respect to Aboriginal people wanting to have a say.
“If we take it, on that crude term of racism, that might be an issue. But I would hope that it’s not, that people are just fearful.”
After granting Dutton private briefings and seven meetings with the government, the prime minister, Anthony Albanese, claims the opposition leader is asking for more detail as a delaying tactic.
After the announcement of the referendum question and constitutional alteration yesterday, the Liberals have been left as the only federal party yet to declare its position on the change.
Dutton has said he is still not satisfied with the level of detail released by the government. Albanese gave Dutton and the Nationals leader, David Littleproud, a private briefing on the referendum question before the public announcement, which included two pages of design principles of how the voice would operate.
But Dutton claimed there was “no evidence” of what practical benefits the voice would have, repeating his demand that “detail is required”.
Albanese said: “We know from the republic [referendum] playbook that occurred last century, that it is nothing more than a tactic, and it lacks genuineness to just continue to say ‘We don’t have the detail’. No matter how much detail is put out, Peter Dutton will say, ‘What about more detail?’ That’s the game that’s being played here.
“Peter Dutton needs to get real about this. This isn’t about him, and it’s not about me. This is about whether we are a better country.”
Linda Burney, the Indigenous Australians minister, was even blunter in her criticism, telling the ABC she thought the Liberal party was “looking for excuses” to oppose the referendum.
“Peter Dutton has, in my view, run out of excuses. There was more detail provided yesterday, an enormous amount of detail,” Burney told a subsequent press conference.
“I would invite both Mr Dutton and Mr Littleproud to look closely at those design principles, to understand this process has been the life’s work of so many people.”