Peter Dutton is stuck in no-man’s land on the voice – and he risks cementing his reputation as a wrecker
Before prime minister Anthony Albanese revealed the proposed constitutional change to enshrine an Indigenous voice this week, something remarkable happened in the Coalition.
After first signalling that they would oppose the referendum machinery bill, the road rules for this and future referendums, the Coalition surprised many – including some in its own ranks – by overturning that call after a healthy internal debate.
The Coalition won a small concession in restoring yes and no case pamphlets but had tried to push Labor harder for official yes and no campaigns, and for them to be publicly funded.
The government said no and began negotiating with the crossbench, risking the possibility of amendments on enrolment, donation disclosure and factchecking of pamphlets.
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On Monday shadow cabinet decided to bank its small wins (including a guarantee the civics campaign will be neutral) and side with the government to avoid the perception it was standing in the way of the referendum. The Liberal leader, Peter Dutton, and the shadow special minister of state, Jane Hume, sought approval from the party room on Tuesday.
Despite the leadership leaning in favour of helping Labor write the rules, the discussion was finely balanced with just as many, if not more, speaking against, mostly Nationals (Keith Pitt, Ross Cadell) and conservative Liberals including Alex Antic, Henry Pike, Slade Brockman and Terry Young.
No vote was taken, so Dutton and Hume took the views into account but the Coalition proceeded to pass the bill.
That there was pushback anyway gives insight into the difficulties Dutton would face even if he were inclined to try to help Labor on the yes case for the referendum.
Labor is convinced he won’t. On Friday the minister for Indigenous Australians, Linda Burney, said bluntly that the Coalition is “running out of excuses” to oppose the voice.
Albanese opined that “no matter how much detail is put out, Peter Dutton will say, ‘oh, what about more detail?’ That’s the game that’s being played here.”
Clearly, despite the dire record of referendums failing when the constitutional change lacks bipartisan support, nobody is holding their breath for Dutton’s support.
Ironically the debate about the machinery bill amounts to more internal deliberation than the Liberals have had about the voice itself.
The leader of the opposition has been engaged in a three-month shadow campaign on the surface demanding details about the voice but in substance raising doubts that drive down support for it.
Helping Labor and the yes campaign could considerably soften Dutton’s image
That campaign is now likely to be extended because Albanese opted against proposals to limit the voice’s powers by giving it input into decisions of parliament but not the executive government.
He also rejected an amendment for parliament to have the power to determine the legal effect of the voice’s representations.
Some constitutional conservatives are unhappy about that. The opposition claims, without evidence, that the solicitor general had concerns about the wording that was eventually adopted.
There’s nothing to stop the Coalition proposing amendments through the parliamentary inquiry and before a vote in June on the bill to set up the referendum.
The proposed constitutional change specifies parliament can make laws “relating to the voice … including composition, functions, powers and procedures”, so even if the yes side wins the referendum a future government could always seek to curb the voice’s power by limiting the ability to go to court if its advice isn’t followed.
This, incidentally, is why the “details” debate is so pointless: if the Coalition agreed in principle but wants to fix “details”, it can try after the referendum or when next in government.
What’s interesting on the Coalition side is that the top-down call about when to play ball with Labor and when to force them into the arms of the Senate crossbench is a dynamic playing out in many areas of policy, including on the safeguards mechanism to reduce greenhouse gas emissions being negotiated this fortnight.
In February moderate Liberals in shadow cabinet Simon Birmingham and Paul Fletcher unsuccessfully pushed back against a decision to oppose the safeguards mechanism. Liberal MP Bridget Archer also expressed concerns at the time, and Dutton publicly warned all of them to get in line.
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Now Labor is negotiating with the Greens, proposing to give existing non-fossil fuel industries an easier emissions reduction pathway and clamping down on emissions from new coal and gas but not banning them as the Greens had asked.
The danger for the Liberals is that without proper deliberation they will be locked into opposition for its own sake on big calls that could damage their leader and their brand.
Labor has framed the voice as a chance for national leadership from both sides, and urged Dutton not to repeat the mistake of boycotting the apology to the Stolen Generations (for which he apologised).
If the end point is that everyone can vote according to their own conscience and campaign for whichever side, why not make that clearer now to avoid friendly fire like Ken Wyatt’s broadside on Friday?
To weigh the opportunity: helping Labor and the yes campaign could considerably soften Dutton’s image.
Opposing the voice has risks whatever the outcome of the referendum: if yes wins, Dutton will get no credit and Labor will have pulled off a historic first; if no wins, it could be a pyrrhic victory that cements Dutton’s reputation as a wrecker.
It’s odd to see the Coalition get a small call on the referendum rules right while seemingly oblivious to the risks of getting the big voice call wrong or delaying the inevitable.