Prime Minister Anthony Albanese’s hopes of a bipartisan approach to the parliamentary vote referendum have been dashed.
Late last year, the National Party declared it would oppose the proposed model, while the Liberal Party did the same earlier this month.
Senator Jacinta Nampijinpa Price said the current Voice model “lacks details”, “divides us along the lines of race”, and that it is “a way of making people feel guilty about our nation’s history” .
And opposition leader Peter Dutton said “it’s divisive and doesn’t deliver the results to the people on the ground”.
If these words sound familiar to you, it is because the coalition used the same arguments in the late 1980s to oppose the creation of another First Nations advisory body, the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission (ATSIC).
Indeed, the Coalition has long been opposed to a competent Indigenous advisory body, and Dutton is repeating a well-rehearsed Coalition songbook.
The coalition’s fight against ATSIC
Over the past 40 years, major party cooperation on indigenous issues has been a complex affair.
Even the ostensibly bipartisan approach to the 1967 referendum – which succeeded in amending the constitution to allow the Commonwealth to legislate for indigenous peoples – masked partisan disagreements.
Read more: The 1967 referendum was the most successful in Australian history. But what it can tell us about 2023 is complicated
Gough Whitlam’s self-determination policy became self-managed under the coalition in the late 1970s. The dichotomy worsened further in the late 1980s after the Minister of Aboriginal Affairs in the Hawke Labor government, Gerry Hand, announced the need to recognize and legislate Aboriginal self-determination.
Hand’s Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission (ATSIC) Bill would establish a national commission and regional councils across the country to monitor programs, develop policies and advise the minister. This was styled as a revolution in Aboriginal affairs.
In the 40 hours of parliamentary debates on the bill, clear ideological lines were drawn.
Hand said it was about giving the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people access to all levels of government to ensure that the right decisions were made about their lives. It was about a new partnership and an attempt to right the wrongs of history.
The Coalition opposed it and argued that it would happen divide the nation instead of unifying it, that it formed a “black parliament”, that it was a racial law, and that it would not overcome the backwardness of the indigenous people.
The liberals and nationals rejected what they called the “symbolism, separatism and eternal guilt” of the appeal to history.
But it was the preamble proposed by Hand that most concerned the coalition. It recognized the separate status of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people as previous inhabitants and original owners of the land. The aim was to provide them with:
full recognition and status within the Australian nation to which history, their previous ownership and occupation of the land, and their rich and diverse culture give them full right to aspire.
The parliamentary debates reveal the Coalition’s visceral rejection of the Preamble called a “gross irresponsibility”.
In 1989, then MP John Howard declared the creation of ATSIC an act of “sheer national idiocy”. Shadow Minister for Aboriginal Affairs Christopher Miles declared the party his party intention to abolish ATSIC if it went as Hand had foreseen.
When the ATSIC bill was finally passed, it was stripped of its preamble and self-determination was removed from its wording.
What has happened since ATSIC?
As it turns out, the abolition of ATSIC became a two-pronged affair. In 2004, Prime Minister Howard promulgated the ATSIC Act would be revoked, after Labor leader Mark Latham announced his decision to do the same if elected. Latham suggested a reconstituted body, but Howard stated no intention of replacing it.
While there has been some collaboration on Indigenous policy since then, bipartisanship around an advisory body has been a slippery proposition.
Disagreements arose in 2017 when Labor backed the referendum council’s recommendation for a constitutionally enshrined vote to parliament. The then Liberal leader, Malcolm Turnbull, rejected it.
Bipartisanship resurfaced then Liberal and Labor leaders voted in 2018 to resume the referendum through a parliamentary committee to agree on the recognition of indigenous peoples.
Given this history, it is not surprising that two of the main sticking points for the Coalition’s proposal around the Voice are that it will be permanent and that it will have a vote for parliament and the executive (the cabinet and government departments).
The last time an Indigenous body advised the executive was when the Keating government attempted to legislate Indigenous title following the Mabo decision. ATSIC mobilized a large group of Indigenous organizations to present their case to Keating’s Mabo Ministerial Committee.
Then, in a series of intense negotiations with Keating following his draft Native Title Act in 1993, they salvaged some rights in the face of their near-extinction.
The resulting Native Title Act was promulgated by then-Liberal leader, John Hewson, like a “millstone for the prosperity of our country” and a recipe for division.
Read more: Grattan on Friday: The high cost of the Liberals’ vote rejection – for both Peter Dutton and the party
This week, Howard resurfaced defend Dutton’s position on the Voice referendum, stating that Dutton had not betrayed the Liberal Party.
Howard spoke the truth – the Coalition’s position on the vote is fully consistent with their partisanship on this area of Aboriginal policy since the 1980s.
Everything they claim now to support their “no” vote against the Voice, they have long maintained.