The Politics    Monday, August 1, 2022

Voice recognition

By Rachel Withers

Image of Opposition Leader Peter Dutton during Question Time, August 1, 2022. Image © Lukas Coch / AAP Images

Opposition Leader Peter Dutton during Question Time, August 1, 2022. Image © Lukas Coch / AAP Images

Peter Dutton has a powerful role to play in the Indigenous voice “detail” debate, if only he will take it

The second week of the 47th parliament opened with several noteworthy motions. Labor MPs Alicia Payne and Luke Gosling introduced the Restoring Territory Rights Bill, reminding opponents that this was not a de facto euthanasia debate; rather, it was about granting Territorians the “same democratic freedoms” as other Australians. Independent MP Andrew Wilkie reintroduced his bill to end indefinite detention, seconded by North Sydney MP Kylea Tink. “There are alternatives,” Wilkie said. “We just have to open our eyes and our minds and stop this pig-headed response”. Shadow home affairs minister Karen Andrews moved a motion expressing displeasure with Labor’s changes to her old department, calling for disgruntled staffers to come to her with issues – quite the Coalition turnabout, Guardian Australia noted, when it came to whistleblowing. The biggest issue of the day, however, was Labor’s plan for a referendum on an Indigenous voice to parliament. With the conservative media having come out hard against its lack of detail, now is the time for the Opposition leader to get on board in principle (if he plans to at all) to ensure this debate doesn’t go off the rails. But will Peter Dutton accept the outstretched hand, and opportunity, before him?

The debate following Saturday’s announcement of draft referendum wording has been predictable. Prime Minister Anthony Albanese has kept the proposal broad, rather than offering a detailed model, in order to avoid the fate of the overly complex republic referendum. Speaking on News Breakfast this morning, Minister for Indigenous Australians Linda Burney said the discussion was currently about the why, not the what. “I don’t want to get ahead of ourselves,” she said. “I want to make sure that there is involvement and discussion not only with Indigenous leaders, not only across the parliament, but importantly with the Australian public, about what we should do going forward.” It makes sense that Labor is being cautious about the exact model here; bad faith actors would likely seize on any proposed details to argue against a voice. (#VoteNo is periodically trending on Twitter.) But this strategy has nevertheless created an opening for those same bad faith actors to complain about the lack of detail, running a scare campaign to mask their obvious opposition.

This is a critical juncture in the conversation; the moment at which the narrative is set. Albanese, for all his effort, is struggling to defend the lack of a model – even if this remains the best way to go about it. It is Dutton, however, who holds the power to control how his party responds to this, and whether it engages in good faith with what Labor is trying to do. Dutton, who says he regrets walking out on the apology to the Stolen Generations, has so far withheld his position on a voice to parliament, saying that he is waiting to see what is being proposed. (As well as that, he wants to make sure it’s accompanied by practical initiatives, though as Burney noted on News Breakfast, this is practical.) Now that Labor has put forward its (admittedly light-on) proposal, Dutton’s next move will be critical. Is he capable of listening to what Albanese and Burney are saying, of throwing his support behind this historic proposal, of seizing the moment, as the PM suggested last week?

Not going by his behaviour in today’s Question Time, which was about as infuriating as last week’s sessions. (Independent MP for Kooyong Monique Ryan telling Coalition MPs who were interjecting during her question about long COVID to put their masks on was one bright spot.) While government MPs used their Dixers to ask about plans for a voice referendum, the Opposition continued to ask inane, repetitive questions about election pledges that it doesn’t think Labor can deliver on, clearly more interested in proving the government wrong than doing anything to help with the pressures Australians are facing.

It’s early days, of course, but the Liberal leader may want to take a look at the first Newspoll of the term, in which he trails Albanese as preferred PM by a staggering 34 percentage points (59–25, the widest gap since 2008). Voters clearly aren’t liking the supposed new Dutton. And why would they, when he has made no effort to change his positions or behaviours? This is the nation’s moment to implement an important reset in its relationship with Indigenous peoples. But it is also Dutton’s moment to begin again, to prove that he truly regrets walking out on the apology, and to make this moment a bipartisan one by bringing his party on board. 

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Rachel Withers

Rachel Withers is the contributing editor of The Politics.

@rachelrwithers

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