The federal Nationals have said they will not support an Indigenous voice to parliament enshrined in the constitution, dashing hope for bipartisan support for the upcoming referendum.
The ensuing debate has been heated and official campaigning on the vote has not even begun.
So, what are the Nationals’ reasons for opposing the voice? What have they had to say? And what has been the response?
The federal Nationals leader, David Littleproud, says the voice will be “another layer of bureaucracy here in Canberra”.
But Uluru campaigners argue the voice was designed to cut through the layers of bureaucracy.
From the Heart’s campaign director, Dean Parkin, says governments currently run “multiple, repeated consultation processes”.
“Aboriginal people are the most over-consulted people going around,” he said.
“What is being said at the local level gets filtered, amended and changed before it actually gets to where decisions are made. We’ve got to cut through those different layers. We need a new way of doing business.”
Campaigners say they’ve done 15 years of work on the voice – and it will be practical.
“It must be substantive, it must change people’s lives on the ground, otherwise why go to a referendum?” Pat Anderson told the National Press Club earlier this month.
Nationals claim there are better ways to close the gap
On closing the gap, Littleproud said this week: “We went back to the core tenant: will this close the gap and continue to close the gap? And will this make sure, particularly for those in regional, rural and remote Australia, that it closes the gap for them quicker?”
The director of the Uluru dialogues, Wiradjuri man Geoff Scott, was blunt in reply. The Nationals have had a “record of failure” in government on closing the gap.
“We will not be lectured by the Nationals on the best ways to improve outcomes for First Nations people,” Scott said on Monday. “Australians know that politicians can’t close the gap. And that’s why the voice is so important. It will make practical improvements to the lives of First Nations Australians across the country, including in Nationals electorates.”
The co-chair of the joint council on Closing the Gap, Pat Turner, said every government in Australia had committed to a process that is “just as important as the voice”.
“Considerable effort has gone into the refreshed Closing the Gap agreement. We are all working together,” she said. “Progress is sometimes frustratingly slow but we have a national agreement, and the commitment to that by all jurisdictions – state, territory and federal – is ongoing.”
‘Locking’ in future generations
Littleproud also said: “We felt that locking [the voice] into the constitution also locks in future generations if it’s not successful.”
Enshrining a voice in the constitution means it cannot be removed by the government of the day. But every other aspect of its operation would be for the parliament to decide, according to the final report of the Indigenous voice co-design process and the joint select committee on constitutional recognition’s final report.
Nationals senator says ‘risks’ in separate body
Nationals senator Matt Canavan said there were a “lot of risks” in creating a “separate race-based representative body” in the constitution.
Parkin responded by saying the movement of Indigenous constitutional recognition started with conservatives under John Howard.
“Howard said very clearly that recognition is important to acknowledge the unique status of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples as the first peoples of this country,” Parkin said. “It’s not about race. It’s about Indigeneity. It’s about that long-standing connection to country.
“And the country should make a proper recognition of that in the Australian constitution.”
What do people in remote areas say?
CLP senator and Warlpiri-Celtic woman Jacinta Price said she had consulted widely with people in remote areas and they didn’t know about the voice or didn’t want it.
But Parkin said: “If you go to any Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community and ask them ‘Do they think they need to have more of a say on the issues that affect them and their families?’, I reckon you’ll get an almost unanimous yes.”
Parkin said a voice would be more “accountable and transparent” than politicians who said they had engaged in consultation.
“That’s what a voice will actually provide. It won’t provide an opportunity to run around the side and pretend that these conversations have been had,” he said.
But Price went further. She was very critical of consultations by the minister for Indigenous Australians, Linda Burney, in remote communities so far.
“Minister Burney might be able to take a jet out to a remote community dripping with Gucci and tell people in the dirt what’s good for them, but they’re in the dark and they have been in the dark,” Price said.
Littleproud later said the comments were “unhelpful” but “let’s not bring vitriol into this”.
“Let’s keep this sensible and respectful,” he said.
Too late perhaps?
Noel Pearson, one of the key architects of the Uluru statement, unloaded on Price on Tuesday morning, accusing the Senator of being trapped in a “celebrity vortex” in which she is “punching down” on other Aboriginal people.
“She’s caught in a vortex that reminds me of Pauline Hanson 26 years ago… And it’s a celebrity vortex. It’s very compelling that gets them out in front of people and it gets a lot of cheers but … ultimately it’s a tragic redneck celebrity vortex that she’s caught up in and it involves rightwing people, particularly the Sydney- and Melbourne-based rightwing think tanks, the Institute of Public Affairs and the Centre for Independent Studies.
“They’re the string pullers – they’re the ones who have lined up behind Jacinta … and their strategy was to find a Blackfella to punch down on other Blackfellas.”
He said the Nationals were a “squalid little party” controlled by “a kindergarten child”.
Can the debate be respectful?
The Institute of Public Affairs responded by saying it was important for debate to be carried out in a respectful and constructive manner, and that all sides deserved to be heard.
“It is not racist to disagree with a proposal,” the IPA’s director of legal affairs, Morgan Begg, said. “The Institute of Public Affairs believes that all Australians should be equal, and the legal status of Australians should never be determined by skin colour or ethnic heritage.”
Parkin also called for calm, saying: “Let’s just take a deep breath.
“Come back after the [parliamentary] break. Let the proposal actually be put to the politicians and let them do their jobs in the parliament. Let them consider the proposal on its merits, rather than going off in a half-cocked fashion, making some sort of announcement in Canberra on a proposal that hasn’t even been put to them yet.”
Is the Nationals’ hardline unanimous?
Maybe not. By mid-afternoon on Tuesday, other Nationals had begun to speak up contradicting the party line.
The federal MP for Calare, Andrew Gee, said he was a long-time supporter of the voice and his view hadn’t changed. He said he wasn’t present at the party room meeting, because he was visiting the flooded town of Eugowra in central-west NSW.
“My position on it hasn’t changed. While I respect the opinions of my colleagues, I’m still a supporter,” Gee told his Facebook followers. “Yes, there is still a heck of a lot of hard work to do. To achieve a voice we’ll need that as well as goodwill, open minds and generosity of spirit.”
And the WA Nationals’ leader, Mia Davies, said she hadn’t been consulted either – and would have appreciated a prior discussion.
“I agree with a lot of the things that he said in terms of the pragmatic and the practical things that we need to do to close the gap and empower Aboriginal Australians,” she told the ABC.
“Where we part ways here in Western Australia is I don’t think it’s one or the other. I think we can do both.”