I have supported the concept of constitutional recognition of indigenous Australians since it was advanced during the Howard Government. It would be appropriate for our founding document to acknowledge the culture and peoples who have lived on this great continent for tens of thousands of years. That this was not advanced by the then or subsequent governments prior to the Uluru Statement from the Heart was a missed opportunity at a nationally unifying act of recognition and reconciliation.
The Uluru Statement brought forward the proposal of recognition via a more substantive constitutional change, namely the establishment of an Indigenous Voice to Parliament. I have never given unqualified support to this concept and have expressed some reservations but have sought to engage constructively. I have been clear in my desire to not see a referendum question put and fail, because I believe that would be a bad outcome for reconciliation. However, that desire does not equate to a blank cheque for constitutional change. Both the merits of a Voice and the detail of the constitutional change need to withstand the test of scrutiny.
The Albanese Government has advanced and currently proposes a model of Voice that entails more constitutional change than some of the architects of the concept believe is prudent. This has only increased opposition and heightened concerns. Their doing so has been unnecessary, foolhardy and detrimental to the cause of recognition via Voice.
The Coalition has been home to different opinions on the merits of a Voice. People like Julian Leeser have been active advancers of the concept, while others like Jacinta Nampijimpa Price have been active opponents. Our supporters, and those we need to win back, are also divided. These differences are why I would have preferred a free vote on this proposal, consistent with our party position on the last two national votes (marriage equality and a republic). But the majority of the Liberal Partyroom disagreed, preferring a formal party position supporting the initial concept of constitutional recognition but opposing a constitutionally enshrined Voice at this time.
Because we are the Liberal Party and not the Labor Party, our backbenchers are not bound by partyroom decisions. We don’t expel those who disagree and Julian, as a long term advocate for a Voice, has taken the very principled decision to return to the backbench so that he is free to advocate and campaign as he pleases.
Will I similarly resign, as some ask? No. I have previously been on the prevailing side of some contentious partyroom decisions and also the losing side. In this case I was strongly in favour of a free vote, but have a more nuanced and less activist opinion on the subject of that vote. Accordingly, will I actively campaign in the referendum? Again, no. The partyroom decision does not bind anyone to campaign on this one issue and, as someone who has never been an overly active proponent or opponent of this proposal, it was never likely that I would campaign in a referendum in any circumstances.
My focus in parliament has primarily been, and will remain, on the many other challenges Australia faces. These include our economic strength as a nation, our national security preparedness, our relations with international partners, how we best address climate change or how we increase home ownership. These issues get raised with me by constituents far more frequently than the proposed Voice.
I would still prefer to not see a referendum on a matter of reconciliation put and fail. I encourage the Albanese Government and the advocates of Voice to consider change. They could return to a simple model of constitutional recognition, which would enjoy bipartisan support, while pursuing a legislated Voice as an alternative to a constitutionally enshrined Voice. Or, they can listen to the principled advocacy of Julian Leeser and narrow the scope of the proposed constitutional change, thereby reducing the risks and likely earn reconsideration of the matter by many.
Ultimately, all politicians will have no choice but to respect the votes of the millions of Australians who will decide this matter via referendum. Your votes will be worth no more, nor less than mine or any other politician. A majority of Australians in a majority of states will need to be convinced of both the merits of recognition via Voice and the appropriateness of the constitutional changes proposed. The vast majority will have spent even less time focussed on this issue than me, but I trust Australians as a whole to, in good faith, consider the nuance of the arguments before coming to their final decision.