Peter Dutton has built a career on being a political strong man, an ex-cop with a spine of steel.
So it’s perhaps surprising that, when it came to delivering his “resounding No” to a constitutionally-enshrined Voice to Parliament — arguably the biggest no of his two-decade political career — it came camouflaged in yeses.
A conviction politician, he’s found himself leading a party wanting to have it both ways.
The Liberal Party’s leaders know it is electorally unpalatable to be against recognition.
However, the Liberals are not willing to get on board with the form of recognition for which Aboriginal and Torres Straight Islander elders have spent years campaigning.
The opposition leader has found himself in a long-running game of whack-a-mole with Labor, offering more questions every time an earlier one was answered.
It has allowed him to soften the ground for a No campaign, making this week’s decision largely unsurprising.
A look at the party room he leads offers some insight into how he landed where he did.
Dutton’s Liberal party room is more conservative than the one Scott Morrison led, a product of the moderate wipe-out the Liberals suffered in a teal tsunami.
In the past year, it’s been hard to find positive signs for the modern Liberals.
They’ve lost government, both federally and in NSW, and faced a drubbing in Victoria.
A by-election in the Victorian seat of Aston, too, saw Labor overturn a century of precedence in becoming the first federal government to win a seat from an opposition at a by-election.
Dutton is convinced he has read the mood of the nation and can turn his party’s electoral fortunes around with opposition to the Voice.
To do so, he’ll have to defy what the published polls continue to say: that a majority of Australians back the Voice to Parliament.
Numbers tell a different story
A Newspoll published in The Australian this week showed the Yes campaign remains on track for constitutional change.
To do that, it will require a majority of both the national popular vote and a majority of the states.
Newspoll showed support for the Voice leading 54 per cent to 38, with five of six states also supporting the Voice.
Queensland was the only state with yes falling below 50 per cent. However, support for the referendum (49 per cent in favour) was still above the No vote (43 per cent).
More troubling news for the future of the Liberals lies in the demographic trends.
Two-thirds of young people backed the Voice in the poll, as did the majority of people in their middle-ages, people from culturally diverse backgrounds, high earners and tertiary-educated Australians.
This aligns with internal polling high-ranking Labor politicians have seen.
They see a common thread between Green, Labor and teal voters — they’re pro-climate, pro-LGBT and pro-Voice — all issues the Coalition is perceived as being against.
Former Liberal strategist Tony Barry has warned that the Aston by-election — and perceptions that the Coalition is too interested in culture wars — could doom his party’s electoral fortunes.
“If the Victorian Liberal party continues to play on the fringes, they will start getting fringe party results and three seats out of 29 in metropolitan Melbourne, federally, is a fringe result,” he told the ABC this week.
National shame owned by Coalition and Labor
All of this politicking can often leave people distracted from the heart of the issue.
Indigenous Australians, from birth, face shorter lives, poorer health outcomes and a greater likelihood of incarceration.
It is a national shame that lies at the feet of former Labor and Coalition governments.
And now we face a situation where history is being re-written at a breakneck pace.
After a decade in power, it’s only now on the opposition benches that the Liberal Party appears to have found a sudden willingness to embrace constitutional recognition.
It’s a Yes to acknowledging Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people as the First Australians in the constitution but a No to the Voice.
This, according to the Uluru Statement From The Heart, would do little to help close the gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians.
When you hear Liberals talking about the lack of action from Labor to address crime in Indigenous communities, you would think that it is something that has only emerged since last May’s federal election.
It erases the reality that these are decades-old issues that require complex solutions. Solutions it could have tackled when in power.
It has been 15 years since Kevin Rudd’s historic apology to Stolen Generations and, after all these years, the nation has little to show for the pledge to right wrongs.
As of July last year, just four of 17 targets under the national Closing the Gap agreement were on track to be met.
The data showed the gap worsening across adult imprisonment rates, deaths by suicide, out-of-home care rates, and children being developmentally ready once they reach school age.
Leadership on the line
The Prime Minister has conceded the lack of Coalition support makes the challenge for the Voice referendum to succeed harder, but he does have some Liberals on his side.
Liberal Tasmanian Premier Jeremy Rockliff and at least two other state Liberal leaders are committed to campaigning for the Voice.
Former Liberal cabinet minister Ken Wyatt — the first Aboriginal man to hold the Indigenous Affairs portfolio — has quit the party over its stance.
Federal Tasmanian Liberal MP Bridget Archer will continue to campaign for the Voice, while Simon Birmingham, Paul Fletcher and Marise Payne — according to The Guardian — raised their concerns about the policy in a shadow cabinet meeting.
Outside politics, high-profile athletes, actors, musicians, academics and corporations will play a greater role in advocating for change as the vote nears.
Politicians the ABC has spoken to suspect young people will be looking to athletes such as basketballer Patty Mills, rather than politicians, for how to vote.
Voice campaigners Noel Pearson and Marcia Langton have argued it is the people, not politicians, who will decide the outcome.
So, ultimately, the Liberals’ stance might not doom the Voice, but it could well prove the end for Dutton’s leadership.