House debates

Tuesday, 17 October 2023

Matters of Public Importance

Australian Constitution: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice

3:15 pm

Photo of Paul FletcherPaul Fletcher (Bradfield, Liberal Party, Shadow Minister for Government Services and the Digital Economy) Share this | Hansard source

The incompetent and divisive management of the Voice referendum by this Prime Minister has resulted in a tragically missed opportunity for this nation. Around Australia, many Indigenous people are deeply disappointed in the result. We saw Allira Davis, chair of the Uluru Youth Dialogue, say on Saturday night:

The Prime Minister is moving on tonight. He just wants to go to Washington and prepare for re-election. And we are just a blip.

We saw Uluru dialogues campaigner Sally Scales say:

This was a devastating result that keeps our people in the status quo. It is bleak. The PM was insulting & pathetic.

Of course, around Australia, as well as Indigenous Australians, many other Australians of goodwill are deeply frustrated because there is wide support for constitutional recognition of Indigenous Australians.

Many Australians were ready to stand with that bipartisan support for constitutional recognition. They were ready to be part of what could have been a national unifying moment, much as the 1967 referendum was a national unifying moment. But because of this Prime Minister's incompetent and divisive management of this referendum, this opportunity for our nation has been missed, which is a tragic missed opportunity, and it is down to the poor management, the incompetent management of this Prime Minister—a prime minister who failed to do the work that was required to secure an outcome.

He made his announcement on election night that his government was committed to implementing the Uluru Statement from the Heart in full—truth, treaty, voice—but he never did the detailed work to build genuine support across Australia and amongst Australians. It was all going to skate through on the vibe. He even tried to prevent the Australian Electoral Commission issuing a pamphlet to all Australian setting out the case for 'yes' and the case for 'no', even though this has been a standard requirement in referendums under the act for decades for very good reason. If you are going to ask Australians to vote on something, it is surely reasonable to explain to them what the issues are. But this government under this Prime Minister tried to prevent that normal practice from occurring. It only happened because this side of the House, the Liberal and National parties, insisted on Australians being fully informed before they came to make their decision.

Of course we know there was a failure to provide funding for the two campaigns, as has normally been the practice in referendums, so the contrast between the result achieved under a coalition government in 1967, when a 90 per cent 'yes' vote was achieved, was because the coalition government of that time did the necessary work to get the result. But this Prime Minister was overconfident. He thought this was a lay-down mesire. He thought there was no work that needed to be done. We know he is hazy on the detail. We know he doesn't know the price of petrol. We know that all kinds of basics elude him—the unemployment rate and all the other details that most people would think a Prime Minister, or at that time a Leader of the Opposition, would be across.

Similarly, he showed his laziness, his lack of focus on the detail, his lack of rigour in the approach that he took to this failed and divisive referendum. He failed to make the necessary decisions on how the Voice was actually going to operate. He failed to explain to Australians how it was going to work, even when it became clear that Australians were crying out for this detail. They wanted to know. Australians approached this in good faith. They approached this with an open mind, but they had questions that they wanted to know the answers to. How many people would be on the body? Would they be elected or appointed? What would be the powers of this body? Across what scope of issues could it make representations? What would be the consequences if the Voice was not consulted in relation to a decision made by a minister or made by a public servant? These were the questions that it was increasingly clear the Australian people wanted to know the answers to. On this side of the House we did everything we could to get answers to those questions in this place, but the Prime Minister stubbornly refused to do the work.

He stubbornly refused to get across the detail and to share the detail with Australian people, and these characteristics of his personal operating style, which have been increasingly dismaying to Australians, are at the very basis of why this referendum was a failure and why this referendum has divided Australians. Of course, as the results on Saturday night make crystal clear, he failed to speak to Australians across the great sweep of suburban Australia. He failed to speak to Australians in regional and remote Australia. Who did he speak to? Don't ask me. Ask the Labor member for Macarthur. He was speaking to the inner-city elites. That is a failure of competence.

If you are a politician seeking to put a proposition to the Australian people, seeking to make the case to them, seeking to persuade them, the first thing you've got to realise is that there are 17.6 million people who get a vote and they don't all live in Marrickville. But this is a failure of competence by this government and a failure of competence by a Prime Minister, a man who has been a professional politician since the 1990s and yet he failed to run a competent campaign. He failed to realise the basic political truth that you win campaigns not by speaking to the people who are already supporting you; you win campaigns by speaking to those who are unpersuaded, and that is what he manifestly failed to do.

But the biggest failure of competence by this Prime Minister was because he was resolutely determined to make this issue a partisan issue when, for more than 10 years, it had been taken forward on a bipartisan basis. It is an accepted wisdom of Australian politics that you cannot get a referendum passed unless there is bipartisan support. And don't ask me for proof of that; ask the Prime Minister himself. On Saturday night, when he was asked why he thinks Australians voted no, he said: 'The truth is that no referendum has succeeded in this country without bipartisan support. None.' Well, he's right, but why did he do nothing to get bipartisan support? Why did he make absolutely no effort to engage with this side of the House, to engage with the Leader of the Opposition?

This had been a process which was bipartisan going back to 2007. In 2012, both the Liberal and Labor parties in this place voted for the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples Recognition Act. It had bipartisan support. Under the previous coalition government there was a bipartisan committee, chaired by the Liberal member for Berowra and Labor Senator Pat Dodson. They were co-chairs. There was bipartisan support. The two parties of government worked together on this important issue. Why? Because there was recognition across the political system that, if you are to win the confidence of the Australian people on this issue, if you are to achieve a national unifying moment of the same scale and magnitude as was achieved in 1967, it absolutely has to be bipartisan. That has been recognised by everybody for more than a decade.

Yet it was this Prime Minister who turned his back on bipartisanship, who refused to engage with this side of the House, who treated the parliamentary committee, frankly, with contempt. Liberal members on that committee, such as the member for Menzies, put forward several reasonable suggestions, all of which were ignored. On any test of basic political competence you would have to say from day one the critical success factor in getting this referendum up was to make it bipartisan. This would not have been too hard for this Prime Minister to do, but he failed that test of basic political competence. Of course there was a deal to be done here, but the Prime Minister never made any effort to do a deal. He failed to consult with the opposition on the wording. This turned into the Prime Minister's own vanity project. He failed to manage this in a way which would bring the Australian people with him. He lifted up then cruelly dashed the hopes of Indigenous people around Australia. This has been an unedifying and disappointing outcome, and the responsibility for it sits at the feet of one man, the Prime Minister of Australia.


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