Abbott attacks Voice as Indigenous leader pushes for compromise

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Former prime minister Tony Abbott has told a parliamentary inquiry the Voice referendum will leave Australia embittered and divided and should be abandoned, while a key Indigenous leader has urged the government to consider changes to the amendment to shore up support among hesitant voters.

In a backdown by the parliamentary committee, Abbott received a last-minute invitation on Monday morning to give evidence at the final day of public hearings on the referendum inquiry after initially being blocked from appearing by Labor MPs.

Former prime minister Tony Abbott during a hearing on the Voice referendum.Credit: Alex Ellinghausen

A staunch opponent of the Voice, Abbott criticised the degree of public scrutiny given to the proposed Constitutional change as “altogether too abbreviated”, and argued the Voice would divide the country on the basis of ancestry and tie up government decision-making in High Court litigation.

“I think it’s a mistake to give about 4 per cent of the population more of a say over how our government and our parliament works than everyone else. I think that giving this Voice a right to make representations effectively to everyone on everything is going to make government much more difficult than it already is,” Abbott said.

He urged the committee to recommend that the government pull the referendum and start the consultation process again, saying that even if the Yes case was successful, it “will also likely leave us embittered and divided”.

But Indigenous academic Noel Pearson, one of the original architects of the Voice, urged the committee to reject Abbott’s views and leave the proposed constitutional amendment unchanged, describing the provision as “beautiful words” that would “adorn the Constitution”.

“I haven’t found a really compelling reason to change the words the government has introduced into the House … children of the future will look back on these words and really be proud of the Constitution,” Pearson said.

“The provision is not going to create a separate democracy. You are the democracy – our Senate and House of Representatives is our democracy. What the Voice does is improve it by giving a voice to the most marginal community in the country.”

A key flashpoint in the inquiry has been clause two of the proposed amendment to enshrine the Voice in the Constitution, which empowers the body to “make representations” to both the parliament and executive government. Some conservative legal thinkers and politicians believe the reference to “executive government” should be deleted to remove any risk of litigation on the basis the Voice had not been properly consulted about a government decision or policy.

In a significant departure from other Indigenous Voice advocates, Sean Gordon, a member of the Labor’s 21-member referendum advisory group alongside Pearson, said it would be Indigenous Australians who would suffer the consequences of a failed referendum, and tweaking the amendment must be an option to win over soft Yes voters.

Sean Gordon who is leading a conservative push for constitutional recognition of first nations people and an Indigenous Voice to parliament.Credit: Peter Stoop

“The parliament has a responsibility to ensure that what we put forward is worth winning from an Indigenous perspective and from an Australian community perspective, but that it is also winnable,” Gordon, the Indigenous chair of conservative think tank Uphold and Recognise, said.

“Because we need to then understand what are the consequences of not winning for Indigenous peoples specifically. Yes, there’ll be an impact on the nation, but our people will be severely impacted by a failed referendum.”

Uphold and Recognise, whose membership includes former Liberal Indigenous Australians minister Ken Wyatt as a director, has proposed deleting “executive government” and substituting “ministers of the state of the Commonwealth”.

Gordon said this option would still give effect to the key ambition for the Voice by Indigenous leaders that it must have the ability to influence policymaking and government action before a bill reaches the parliament.

“If we’re getting stuck on the term executive government, and if that’s what is going to determine whether we have a successful referendum or not then I really think we need to be thinking about that term.”

Indigenous No campaigner Warren Mundine, who is leading the anti-Voice group Recognise a Better Way, told the inquiry the referendum was dividing the country and claimed critics were scared to publicly oppose the Voice for fear of backlash.

“I get phone calls every day of the week from football players, people involved in AFL and rugby league and soccer … and they are saying they are scared, they don’t support the Voice but they are scared to come out about it. The only club that has approached me to have a conversation about the Voice … is the Collingwood football club,” he said.

But he added that if the referendum succeeded he would swing his support behind the Voice.

“If people vote Yes, if the Yes campaign gets up, I will fight for it to be successful. Why? Because even though I’m a No person, this is a democracy, people have the freedom and right to vote whatever way they want,” Mundine said.

Indigenous independent Victorian senator Lidia Thorpe, a Voice critic who has argued for treaty to take priority over constitutional recognition, claimed in a statement she had been actively excluded from the inquiry process.

“This whole Voice business goes against the culture of this land, the way we First Nations people listen to each other. When we talk with people we yarn, we don’t go into a meeting with blinkers on and ignore those that disagree with us to fast track our agenda,” she said.

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