Ken Wyatt made history when he became the first indigenous member of the House of Representatives in 2010. In 2019, he became the first Indigenous Federal Cabinet Minister when he was appointed Minister for Indigenous Australians in the Morrison Government.
On Thursday, he made history again by leaving the Liberal Party over its decision to oppose the referendum for the vote.
Wyatt, who lost his Western Australian seat in the election, stood next to Prime Minister Anthony Albanese when he announced the wording of the referendum last month. In government he had fought against internal opposition from the coalition to promote indigenous recognition and a voice.
Wyatt is a careful, patient man. His leaving the Liberal Party is an indictment of his former colleagues. He told the Western Australian:
“I still believe in the values of the Liberal Party, but I don’t believe in what the Liberals have become”.
A day earlier, faced with a choice on the Voice between the parliamentary Liberal Party vote and the Central Australian vote, especially among those under 40, opposition leader Peter Dutton sided with the party.
That was probably inevitable. After all, just days ago, after Aston’s by-election loss, Dutton said his main concern as leader had been keeping the party together.
We cannot predict what the Liberals’ rejection of The Voice will do for the referendum, or ultimately for the opposition and Dutton’s leadership.
It certainly won’t be helpful for the “yes” case. Dutton may be out of sync with the community vibe on this issue, but if he becomes a guiding light of the “no” campaigners – a rag tag at this point – a swag of voters will be encouraged to waver and no to vote. The question is, how much?
The latest Newspoll shows the yes vote by an overall majority winning in a majority of states – what it needs to do to succeed.
But the national yes vote was only 54%, and that’s before the majority has been stress tested by a campaign. There is still a long way to go in this marathon.
The call from First Nations people for the vote is extremely difficult to handle for the liberals, not just those on the right like Dutton. Who can forget Malcolm Turnbull, prime minister at the time of the Uluru Statement from The Heart, who declared that a vote would be seen as a “third chamber” of parliament? (Turnbull sent Wyatt a “big hug” after his firing.)
Dutton is often a pragmatist. Thus, he was a driving force in finding a way through the issue of marriage equality. He was not in favor of same-sex marriage, but solving the issue was more important to him than his personal opinion. So he promoted the idea of the plebiscite by mail, a second-best way to simply legislate first, but a way to get the job done.
If “Peter the Pragmatist” had predominated, you’d think he would have taken a non-confrontational path through the Voice issue.
Senior liberals could have been left to fend for themselves, as in the republic referendum. Dutton could have said he had reservations about the central features of the government proposal, but for the public good – for the unity of the country and the pursuit of reconciliation – he would vote yes, although he did not campaign.
Critics may or may not be right about the risks in the current wording of the constitutional amendment, which provides for The Voice to lodge protests with the executive government. Likewise, they may or may not be right in claiming that the vote would make little difference in closing the gap.
But when Indigenous people have invested so much in the vote, the question becomes: Is the downside of denying it more damaging than the possibility that it’s risky or impotent?
Some liberals may worry about its dangers. Others, more likely, just don’t like the idea of it, or want to play politics, and would probably have rejected any wording. Too often the liberals are just happy to say no and dig in, as they did (and still do) about measures to tackle climate change.
A liberal pragmatist who was also skeptical of the Voice could have calculated that if it presented as many difficulties as the critics foresee, it would be a (probably) second-term Labor government that would face it first .
The mention of a second-term Albanian government reminds us that, if the Voice referendum is successful, there will likely be another referendum in the next term – for an Australian republic. That would divide the opposition and create a nightmare for whoever led it at the time.
Dutton has promised to campaign against the Voice, but what does this mean? Will the Liberal Party spend its scarce money on the No campaign – money better saved for the next election?
Some Liberal MPs, such as Tasmanian Bridget Archer, are joining the yes campaign. Others will be active for no. A third group prefers to keep their heads down, but may come under pressure as the media compiles lists of who is on what side and doing what.
The Shadow Minister for Indigenous Australians, Julian Leeser, is in an awkward, if not impossible, position.
Criticizing The Voice to the National Press Club on Monday, Leeser suggested that Wednesday’s party meeting might not make a final decision (after all, a parliamentary committee is examining the legislation, and it’s crazy to have a position in favour). that research report); he also indicated that he preferred frontbenchers to be free to support either side in a referendum campaign.
Leeser did not appear with Dutton at the press conference on Wednesday. It was explained that he had to return to Sydney for Passover.
As the relevant shadow minister Leeser would have been in demand during the referendum campaign. How would he handle it if he has serious reservations about the position of the liberals?
Jeremy Rockliff may not be a household name to many Australians, but the Tasmanian Prime Minister heads the only Liberal government in the country. He is a declared yes campaigner. Western Australian Liberal leader Libby Mettam has also declared herself in favor of the yes cause.
Fred Chaney, a former federal minister of Indigenous Affairs, has denounced Wednesday’s decision as pandering to the most extreme elements in the party, calling for little “l” liberals – who he says have been “recumbent” in recent years been – to lead Archer’s in championing the yes cause.
Dutton’s success in keeping the liberal show together has been strictly limited. And it came at the cost of deepening divisions in the country.