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Opposition Leader Peter Dutton has sparked rebukes from fellow Liberals and a backlash from Indigenous leaders after he pledged to hold a second referendum to change the Constitution if the Voice is rejected at the ballot box next month.
Dutton’s promise of a second vote to recognise Indigenous Australians but exclude a constitutionally protected Indigenous Voice to parliament is an option dismissed by Yes campaigners on the grounds it would not deliver practical change.
Prime Minister Anthony Albanese said the argument for another referendum “could only possibly make sense if you’re Peter Dutton”, and the best approach was to set up the Voice with constitutional recognition in the referendum on October 14.
“He’s already planning the sequel while doing everything he can to sabotage the original,” Albanese said of Dutton’s promise.
“For Peter Dutton, it’s always about the politics, never the substance.
“I’m a big believer in getting it right the first time.”
Albanese told this masthead the opposition leader’s criticism of the Voice was “rendered absurd” by his statements about legislating one, after Dutton indicated his support for “local and regional” voices.
Liberal MPs in favour of the Voice distanced themselves from the idea of another referendum and instead urged Australians to vote Yes on October 14, highlighting the dissent within Coalition ranks over their policy to close the gap in Indigenous disadvantage.
Days after the formal launch of the referendum, Dutton said on Sunday the Coalition would go to the next election with a policy to hold a second national ballot if the No side gained victory on October 14, saying he wanted to recognise Indigenous people in the Constitution without the Voice being specified in the nation’s founding document.
Asked if he would hold another referendum, he said: “Yes, I believe very strongly that it is the right thing to do, but enshrining a Voice in the Constitution is divisive. It will divide the country down the middle, it will not provide the practical outcomes.”
Indigenous Australians Minister Linda Burney said the Coalition had failed to deliver on the key question during nine years of power, and constitutional recognition with an Indigenous Voice was the most practical way to achieve reconciliation.
Uluru Dialogue co-chair Professor Megan Davis said Australians wanted constitutional change that was not merely symbolic.
“There’s no use going to referendum if it’s not going to change the daily lives of First Nations peoples,” she said. “There’s zero evidence anywhere in the world that a statement of recognition changes anything.”
Liberal backbencher Bridget Archer said another referendum was not necessary or desirable, because recognition would be “tokenistic” if it did not come with the practical measure of the Voice.
Archer said she feared the No campaign would harm any future referendum because of the “fear and division” in the campaign against the Voice, adding this would erode trust and goodwill if the referendum failed.
“Many No campaigners have also complained about the cost of this referendum as well, yet are advocating that they want to repeat the process,” she said.
Dutton has criticised the cost of the referendum, which is being funded with $364.6 million set aside for the Australian Electoral Commission in the May budget. This includes public money for the Yes and No pamphlets but not private spending on the competing campaigns.
South Australian traditional owner Kirstie Parker said Dutton’s comments showed the opposition leader wasn’t listening to Indigenous communities.
“Some people have said the referendum is an expensive exercise,” she said. “And here we have the opposition leader proposing to spend the same amount of money on something that would not change lives. That’s the poorest investment of Australian taxpayers’ dollars.”
Dutton aired his support for a second referendum in an interview on Sky News on Sunday in which he avoided offering any detail on what he would do to close the gap for Indigenous Australians if the Voice was rejected at the referendum on October 14.
He said he would work closely with state and territory governments on closing the gap.
Asked if he supported a Voice at all, he said “listening to people is not a bad concept”, but he emphasised the idea of local and regional Voices rather than a national body.
While the Coalition has publicly endorsed the idea of constitutional recognition, it has hedged on whether it would take it to a ballot. Asked in May whether the Coalition policy was to hold another referendum, shadow attorney-general Michaelia Cash said: “I can’t talk about what we may or may not do next time we are in government.”
The debate on a second referendum comes after months of dispute within the Coalition over whether the Liberals and Nationals support a national Voice at all, separate from whether it should be enshrined in the Constitution.
Liberal MP Julian Leeser, who quit as shadow attorney-general in April because he could not support the Coalition stance on the Voice, said he wanted a Yes outcome on October 14 because the country faced many pressures including security and the cost of living.
“I know from my visits and conversations that Indigenous Australians want it to pass,” he said. “Given it’s on the table, we should get this done now.”
Dutton dismissed the Voice on Sunday as “another layer of bureaucracy”, but the Coalition party room canvassed a policy in April that favoured a legislated Voice – an idea some Liberal MPs still support.
Liberal MP Jenny Ware said in April the Coalition approach was to seek a legislated (rather than constitutionally enshrined) national body in advance of the referendum, although she opposes the proposition being put to next month’s national ballot.
NSW Liberal senator Andrew Bragg is calling for a Yes vote on October 14 rather than holding a second ballot.
“I have reservations about the product and the process, but I’ll be voting Yes,” he said. “On balance, a Yes vote is in the interests of the country because the status quo is not OK.”
Liberal Party leaders who support the Voice include former prime minister Malcolm Turnbull, former foreign minister Julie Bishop, former NSW premiers Barry O’Farrell and Dominic Perrottet, former NSW treasurer Matt Kean, Tasmanian Premier Jeremy Rockliffe and NSW Opposition Leader Mark Speakman.
Leading No campaigner Jacinta Nampijinpa Price has criticised the idea of a national Voice for many years. Price, who is also the Coalition spokesperson on Indigenous Australians, said in 2019, before she entered parliament, that an “umbrella Voice” would never reach consensus because Indigenous Australians were so diverse.
Nationals leader David Littleproud said earlier this month that he was “not even convinced that regional Voices work”, and it would be better to have local groups led by Indigenous elders.
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