Two moderate Liberal MPs have flagged they will not campaign on the Voice referendum after Opposition Leader Peter Dutton announced the party would stand against an Indigenous advisory body to parliament.
Warren Entsch, representing the Far North Queensland seat of Leichhardt, said it was not up to him to tell Australians which way to vote in the referendum, while frontbencher Simon Birmingham said he would largely let people with the “strongest views” campaign.
“I’m not going to go out there campaigning Yes or No,” Entsch told said.
“Yes, I’ll explain it, but it’s not my role to go out there, and I would encourage all Australians just to make sure you get all that information so you can make a decision.”
Dutton announced on Wednesday the party would back constitutional recognition for Indigenous Australians and a system of local and regional Voices, but would oppose the government’s model of an advisory group making representations to parliament and the executive.
He also said the opposition would continue to work with the government on the wording of the proposed constitutional amendment, but he didn’t expect Prime Minister Anthony Albanese to change his mind.
Former Coalition Indigenous affairs minister Ken Wyatt on Thursday revealed he would quit the Liberal Party in protest to its rejection of the Voice to parliament, as Dutton faced condemnation from First Nations elders and disaffected Liberals over his stance.
Entsch said his decision to refrain from campaigning did not mean he would not strongly advocate for changes to the wording of the amendment.
“If we can get amendments to make sure it’s as fair as we can make it, it may well be I vote yes … particularly in relation to recognition,” he said.
“We are not throwing the baby out with the bathwater, we are still in the game.”
Recent polling shows support for the Voice is softer in Queensland than in other states. Entsch said he believed it was because more people were living in regional and remote parts of the state and had a higher level of awareness of issues facing remote communities.
Birmingham, who as recently as February said he supported the Voice in principle, is now bound by the opposition’s position as a member of its shadow cabinet.
Asked on ABC radio on Thursday whether he intended to campaign against the Voice, Birmingham responded: “My perspective that I bring to this, I think, will be one of largely letting those who have the strongest views and the passionate opinions bring those forward.”
“I can certainly see some of the competing debates that occur on this issue. I respect those debates. Ultimately, I get … a single vote in a referendum, the same as every other Australian, and that’s the way I’ll respect that process,” he said.
Outspoken moderate Bridget Archer has said she intends to campaign for the Voice. The Tasmanian MP is the only sitting federal Liberal parliamentarian so far to publicly oppose the party’s position.
She was among a group of MPs, including Russell Broadbent, Andrew Bragg and Richard Colbeck, to speak against elements of the stance in Wednesday’s snap Liberal party room meeting, according to sources who asked not to be named so they could discuss the issue.
Another opposition frontbencher and Liberal moderate, Paul Fletcher, told ABC television on Thursday that, as a member of the shadow cabinet, he would be “making the case for Liberal Party policy”. But when asked how he would vote at the ballot box, he said: “I’ll be making my judgment based upon all of the considerations and information that becomes available.”
On Friday, Education Minister Jason Clare said Liberal opposition to the Voice made it more difficult for the referendum to succeed, “but the Australian people are bigger and better than this mean and negative Liberal Party and I have faith that they will meet this moment later this year.”
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