The fate of the Voice to parliament now turns on whether a small change in wording can deliver a big shift in confidence for Australians who remain unsure about an amendment to the constitution that carries immense symbolic power but is also meant to ensure practical reform.
The new wording is designed to serve as a thick wall of concrete and steel to any future challenge in the High Court that might otherwise extend the power of the Indigenous leaders who one day form the Voice and take on the duty of advising parliament and government.
Prime Minister Anthony Albanese becomes emotional as he reveals the wording for the constitutional referendum on the Voice.Credit:Alex Ellinghausen
That wall constrains the Voice, not the parliament. The message from the government is that the wording agreed on Thursday will go further than the previous draft to make clear to the courts that parliament has unfettered sway over all matters relating to the Voice, including who is on it and how much power they have.
Anthony Albanese was emotional for good reason when he unveiled the wording he wants to put to voters at the end of this year, after federal cabinet signed off on the draft that morning and Indigenous leaders agreed on the plan on Wednesday night.
A sense of history seemed to weigh on the prime minister when he stood beside cabinet ministers and the Voice working group to announce the next step. Albanese stopped at several points and choked up when he spoke about the need to recognise First Australians in the constitution – a reminder that this entire effort is loaded with the pain of the past and a moral purpose in attempting a better future.
Marcia Langton shed tears on the podium beside Albanese and again in the walk back to the prime minister’s office at the end of the press conference, when ministerial advisers lined the corridor to applaud. Langton, the University of Melbourne professor and co-chair of the Voice design group alongside Tom Calma of the Australian National University, has spent years getting the reform to this point.
Staffers applaud the Minister for Indigenous Australians Linda Burney, Prime Minister Anthony Albanese and Attorney-General Mark Dreyfus after the emotional press conference in Canberra.Credit:Alex Ellinghausen
Who wouldn’t be emotional? Indigenous Australians Minister Linda Burney and the members of the working group all spoke in the knowledge that this was a decisive point in whether they would win or lose their attempt to set a different course in the national story.
The campaign for the Voice is fuelled by this emotion, much more than it is guided by legal argument over the constitution, and the referendum may well be carried by the gut reaction of Australians to treat First Australians with respect. As regular surveys by the Resolve Political Monitor have shown, voters want to believe the Voice offers a better way forward for the country by recognising Indigenous Australians in the constitution and giving them a bigger say in the decisions that affect them.
Some of this support is soft. The majority in favour of the Voice has slipped in recent months. Yet the inclination to back the idea is there in the community.
Now there is no turning back: the referendum will be held, win or lose. Albanese did not need a question from the press on this because he made sure to ask it himself.
Opposition Leader Peter Dutton has yet to indicate if he will back the Voice.Credit:Alex Ellinghausen
“Are there any circumstances in which this will not be put to a vote? The answer to that is no,” he said. “Because to not put this to a vote is to concede defeat. You only win when you run on the field and engage. And let me tell you, my government is engaged. We’re all in.”
That is a statement to remember for years, which is probably why Albanese paused for about ten seconds to steady his voice in the middle of the sentence about conceding defeat. Everyone engaged can hear the warning from Noel Pearson, one of the leading advocates for the Voice, when he says reconciliation will be set back for a generation if this vote is lost.
Will the new wording work? The third section of the original proposal, put forward by Albanese last July, was this: “The parliament shall, subject to this constitution, have power to make laws with respect to the composition, functions, powers and procedures of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice.” That set limits around federal law.
The new wording removes the guardrails by saying this: “The parliament shall, subject to this constitution, have power to make laws with respect to matters relating to the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice, including its composition, functions, powers and procedures.” There is no limit on the matters the parliament can decide – provided, of course, the Voice exists as stated in the amended constitution.
“This makes it broader and the intent behind it is it would mean parliament can legislate with regards to the legal effect,” University of Sydney professor Anne Twomey told this masthead on Thursday.
This does not convince Opposition Leader Peter Dutton, who continues to chip away at the proposal without declaring his hand as an outright opponent. He is taking a long time to make up his mind or have the courage of his convictions. The truth is that history weighs heavily on Dutton, just as it does on Albanese. If Dutton opposes the Voice and the referendum succeeds, he will be seen as a Liberal leader at odds with the Australian people. His party room would have to consider a spill.
While there was a powerful sense of unity at the announcement, the event was all about an agreement among the believers. Nothing happened to widen the group of supporters – to extend the belief and change minds among those who are being swayed by those who worry about the wording of the law or those who are reluctant to give Indigenous Australians a greater say.
The real test of this decision is whether the new wording can give these hesitant Australians a greater confidence in this change. For all the emotion in the room, that test is yet to come.
Finally, I want to end this column with an apology. Soon after last week’s column appeared, when it was too late to change a printed word, I realised I had gone too far in my commentary on Paul Keating. Toward the end of the column I was needlessly personal in my remarks on his age and judgment. For all his contested claims about AUKUS and – let’s face it – the buckets of vitriol he pours on others, including colleagues I respect, he deserves better from me. And so do you.
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