Ken Wyatt has quit the Liberal Party over its decision to formally oppose the government’s plan to enshrine an Indigenous Voice to Parliament in the Constitution.
- Mr Wyatt was part of the Labor government’s Referendum Working Group
- He previously called for the Liberal Party leadership to allow MPs to have a conscience vote on the Voice
- He lost his seat in West Australia at the 2022 federal election
Mr Wyatt served as the minister for Indigenous Australians between 2019 and 2022 in the Morrison government, but lost his WA seat of Hasluck at the 2022 federal election.
His decision to leave the party is a clear sign of his level of discontent with the Liberals stance on the Voice, but is largely symbolic and will not impact the Liberals numbers in the House of Representatives.
On Wednesday, federal Liberal leader Peter Dutton announced the party’s formal opposition to the government’s model after a party room meeting in Canberra.
Australians will vote later this year on whether an independent advisory body for First Nations people should be enshrined in the constitution.
As well as criticism from the government over the decision, the Liberals have faced harsh criticism from Indigenous leaders like Noel Pearson, who had urged the party to support the Voice.
He previously pushed for the referendum to be held after 2023 and has also backed the need for local voice models that would feed into a national voice to give Aboriginal people a say.
“We’ve had committees come and go at a rate of knots — it’s like the seaweed that floats in on a wave, hits the beach, and floats away again,” Mr Wyatt said earlier this year.
Liberal frontbencher Paul Fletcher said he respected Mr Wyatt’s decision and would leave him to comment on it.
“I have enormous respect for Ken Wyatt. I think that’s a respect that is felt right across the Liberal party room,” he said.
“What I would say is it is very important that we have a respectful process across Australia as we go through this referendum in relation to the Voice.”
Liberal senator Linda Reynolds said she was “sad that Ken felt the need to leave the Liberal Party”.
“I’m very sad that he felt the need to do that. But I’m also very proud that, while he was minister, he did advocate for the current model that the Liberal Party has adopted — that is, having voice, but from local communities and regional communities through to Canberra, unlike the current model which is the other way around.”
Mr Wyatt was part of the Albanese Labor government’s Referendum Working Group and stood alongside in support of the prime minister as he announced the wording of the proposed question and constitutional amendment last week.
Labor senator and Special Envoy for Reconciliation Pat Dodson said he did not believe Mr Wyatt would have “made the decision lightly”.
“He would have angst over it,” he said.
“I think Ken will be very disappointed that a party which he thought would be able to achieve these things has turned its back on this and made a definite ‘no’ that they will not support recognition and a capacity for Aboriginal people to have a say to the parliament and the executive on matters that affect them.”
Wyatt urged conscience vote
In June last year, the WA branch of the Liberal Party passed a motion at its state conference urging Peter Dutton to oppose the Voice.
Mr Wyatt voiced his upset at the time, telling the ABC he did not believe the party were representing what the WA community wanted.
“I just find it very disappointing that a party that I have been heavily involved with, believe in, and see as having a set of values that match mine, make such a decision,” he said at the time.
Mr Wyatt said that motion was “out of touch”.
Mr Wyatt had also previously called on the party leadership to allow all MPs a conscience vote.