One of Australia’s most prominent Indigenous leaders, Noel Pearson, has accused Liberal leader Peter Dutton of rejecting the Voice to Parliament for his own political gain, after the federal party determined to go against its state colleagues and campaign against the Voice in a referendum.
- Noel Pearson says on the eve of Passover, Peter Dutton has committed a “Judas betrayal” of the Voice
- The Indigenous leader says the Voice can succeed without the support of the Liberals
- The only remaining Liberal in government has confirmed he will not follow Mr Dutton to oppose the Voice
Mr Pearson, who sits on the government’s referendum working group and was an architect of the Uluru Statement from the Heart, said he had a sleepless night after the Liberal Party’s decision.
“I was troubled by dreams, and the spectre of the Dutton Liberal Party’s Judas betrayal of our country,” Mr Pearson said.
“They have had 11 years of power to work on a proper proposal for recognition, and the decision they have taken yesterday is a very poor outcome of 11 years of power.”
Mr Pearson likened Mr Dutton to “an undertaker, preparing the grave to bury Uluru”, referring to the statement made by a conference of Indigenous representatives in 2017 that first proposed a constitutional change to introduce a Voice to Parliament.
He said Mr Dutton’s decision was more about “Liberal vs Labor” than what was good for Indigenous Australians.
But Mr Pearson remained firm that Australian people would rise to the occasion to support constitutional recognition and enshrine the First Nations advisory body into the constitution.
“It lies in their hands now,” Mr Pearson said.
“There’s something less than 70 Liberal votes in the federal parliament in the referendum … and we’re talking about 18 million votes of Australians, ordinary Australians, it’s those votes that are going to determine the outcome of this referendum, not 70 miserable votes on the opposition benches.”
Liberal Senator Hollie Hughes said Mr Pearson’s words would only divide Australians.
“The problem that we’re seeing in this Voice debate is that if you have questions, if you ask for any detail, if you ask, ‘How this is going to actually create a better environment for Indigenous Australians, not just be some sort of woke virtue signal,’ … that somehow either you are a racist or you are a bigot, or in Noel Pearson’s words, an ‘undertaker’,” Senator Hughes said.
Mr Dutton told Channel Nine the “Canberra-based Voice” would not deliver real benefits for Indigenous communities.
“As people in Indigenous communities have said to us, they just don’t want city-based academics who are pretending to represent their views,” he said.
The prime minister said he met with Mr Dutton seven times on the issue, and that the Liberal leader also met twice with the referendum working group, but never proposed any changes to the Voice.
Mr Dutton said those meetings could not be described as genuine engagement, because the prime minister “asked me to come around to his office to let me know [what was happening] minutes before he was about to make a press announcement”, and repeatedly refused to provide the Opposition with details on the Voice.
Labor says Voice should not be about politicians
Senator Malarndirri McCarthy, the assistant minister for Indigenous Australians, said the government had work to do to bring more awareness on the Voice, but that its success did not depend on politicians.
“It certainly doesn’t happen when the emphasis is always on Canberra and the politicians in Canberra … this is not just about a Voice of the Prime Minister, as Peter Dutton has wanted to play here, this is about the First Nations people who gathered at Uluru after much dialogue across the country,” Senator McCarthy said.
Mr Albanese said the Voice was not about him, and it was not about Mr Dutton.
“It’s about whether we recognise Indigenous Australians in our Constitution and about whether we listen to them. That is what this is about,” Mr Albanese said.
“This is about whether we as a country can be optimistic, can be enlarged, can come to terms with the fullness and richness of our history, can express our pride in sharing this continent with the oldest continuous culture on earth, or whether we shrink in on ourselves.”
The request to enshrine a First Nations Voice in the constitution was the first request of Indigenous leaders in their 2017 petition to change the constitution, known as the Uluru Statement from the Heart.
The Uluru Statement was the culmination of Referendum Council meetings with more than 1,200 Indigenous people, and a four-day First Nations convention made up of 250 delegates held at Uluru.
The form of wording Mr Albanese has proposed was recommended by the government’s First Nations referendum working group, which is comprised of senior representatives from across the country including Mr Pearson, as well as the former minister for Indigenous affairs Ken Wyatt.
Mr Albanese said on Wednesday that the opposition leader’s comments diminished the “extraordinary” amount of work done by Indigenous people through the process to develop the Voice.
But he has admitted it is a blow to the campaign for the Voice that it will not enjoy bipartisan support.
The federal Liberal Party on Wednesday went against its state branches, who are in support of the Voice, to side with the Nationals in opposing it.
Tasmanian Premier Jeremy Rockliff, who leads the only remaining Liberal government in the country, said he would not follow his Liberal colleagues in rejecting the Voice.
“I recognise and respect there are differing opinions [but] I will campaign vigorously for a Yes vote as I passionately believe it is an important opportunity for all Australians to move forward in unity and understanding,” Mr Rockliff said.
Only eight of the 44 referendums held in Australia’s history were carried, and no referendum has succeeded without bipartisan support.