Opposition leader Peter Dutton has pledged to campaign against the Voice to Parliament, as the Liberal party overwhelmingly endorsed a “no” position for the forthcoming constitutional referendum.
After a special party meeting to decide the Liberals’ position, Dutton accused Prime Minister Anthony Albanese of “dividing the country”.
“We shouldn’t be voting for a divisive Canberra voice. That’s the issue. We should be listening to what people are saying on the ground,” Dutton told a news conference after a two hour party meeting.
The Liberals have been working up to a “no” position for months but the stand is high risk for Dutton. A Newspoll published on Wednesday found a majority of people in a majority of states back putting the Voice into the constitution.
The national total in favour is 54% with 68% support among those 18-34 . Queensland was the only state where there was not a majority in favour of yes – and there the yes side received 49% The poll was a quarterly analysis of 4756 voter interviews between February 1 and April 3.
Dutton faces some dissent in his own ranks with Tasmanian backbencher Bridget Archer saying she was disappointed although not surprised by the decision and declaring she would “absolutely” campaign for the yes case.
Archer has also questioned the extent to which the Liberal Party is living up to the values it professed. “We have to actually live the values we claim to have, and I don’t know that we do that.”
The Liberals’ decision also puts them at odds with their former minister for Indigenous Australians Ken Wyatt who was on the platform when the prime minister announced the referendum wording.
Victorian moderate Russell Broadbent said he supported the Voice “but I won’t be campaigning or telling anybody what to do”.
Wednesday’s decision binds Liberal frontbenchers in the referendum campaign, but not backbenchers. Dutton said he expected only a handful of them to campaign for a yes vote.
“There might be three or four people on the backbench who will want to advocate a ‘yes’ position or campaign, and within our party, that’s within the limits. But the vast majority, I mean, if you’re talking about the mood that was in the shadow cabinet or in the shadow ministry or indeed in the party room, overwhelming majority [are supportive] of the position that we’ve adopted – no question.”
The Liberals will not oppose the bill to enable the referendum, which is now before a committee of parliament, although some backbenchers associated with the “no” campaign might cross the floor on that.
The party meeting backed constitutional recognition of Indigenous Australians and a local and regional voice. Dutton said the Liberal proposals would unite rather than divide the country.
He said many Indigenous elders were not in favour of the Voice and quoted one Auntie as telling him “we don’t want 24 academics – they’re not going to be our voice”.
Dutton sent out a warning to some on his side of politics. “Tone is incredibly important in this debate. I will not tolerate – from any of my members or any of the public debate – any comments that are derogatory towards Indigenous Australians or anybody who is advocating a ‘yes’ position. This needs to be a respectful debate.”
Albanese said the Liberal decision was “all about the internals and playing old politics. It’s not about the needs of Australia, or advancing Australia’s national interest.” The PM said he was “very hopeful” the referendum would pass.
Asked about the Queensland vote in Newspoll Queensland Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk said the federal government needed to be “a lot more proactive” in explaining the proposal.
“I think people are after the detail,” she said, adding “I’ll be talking to the prime minister about how they can put [out] clear information”.