Anthony Albanese says he remains “very optimistic” the referendum on the Indigenous Voice to parliament can succeed, despite the Liberal Party’s decision to reject the proposal.
The Prime Minister seemed undeterred and attempted to downplay the weight of the Liberals’ confirmation they will oppose the government’s plan to enshrine the Indigenous advisory body in the Constitution as he spoke to 2GB Radio on Friday.
Mr Albanese made the comments two days after Peter Dutton announced he would actively campaign against the Voice, after the federal Liberals agreed to reject it at a special meeting in Canberra.
“I think that Peter Dutton has underestimated how many Liberal National Party voters will vote ‘Yes’,” Mr Albanese said.
While polling suggests a majority of Australians support the Voice as it stands at this stage of the debate, no referendum has ever succeeded without bipartisan political support.
Mr Albanese said many Coalition MPs at a state level, including Australia’s only remaining Liberal premier, Tasmanian Jeremy Rockliff, all supported the Voice, along with major sporting organisations and big business.
“I’m still very optimistic that Australians will … shake the hand that’s been extended to them (by Indigenous people),” he said.
“I have faith in the Australian people to get this right.”
Earlier on Friday, Labor frontbencher Jason Clare accused the Liberals of drifting too far to the right as he conceded their rejection of the Voice would make a successful referendum more difficult.
The Education Minister said he thought the party might have reached a different position had Josh Frydenberg become its leader rather than Mr Dutton.
Mr Frydenberg was widely considered Scott Morrison’s natural successor as Liberal leader but Mr Dutton took up the position after the former treasurer lost his seat to a teal independent candidate at last year’s federal election.
Speaking to Sunrise on Friday, Mr Clare claimed the Liberals under Mr Dutton’s leadership looked more like Pauline Hanson’s right-wing One Nation than the party its founder Robert Menzies had championed.
“I do think that they may have reached a different conclusion if Josh Frydenberg was still there; we’ll never know,” Mr Clare said.
“But the bottom line here is that it’s not the Liberal Party that will get to decide this. It’s the Australian people.”
Australians will vote sometime in the final three months of the year in a referendum which will add a chapter to the Constitution to enshrine the Voice if a majority of voters in a majority of states back the proposal.
Asked if he thought the Liberals’ decision to oppose the Voice had torpedoed the referendum, Mr Clare said: “I don’t think it’s done that.”
“It’s made it more difficult; it’s made it harder,” he said.
Deputy Liberal leader Sussan Ley, speaking in the same Sunrise interview, said her party believed the government’s proposal for the Voice wouldn’t really improve the lives of Indigenous people.
The Liberals have agreed to back local and regional Voices which would be legislated but not embedded in the Constitution, as well as symbolic constitutional recognition for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.
“We are absolutely in favour of constitutional recognition of our First Australians and the local and regional Voice,” Ms Ley said.
“You’re not a bad person for thinking that you might vote ‘no’. You’re simply someone who’s taking this very seriously because it’s a change to our Constitution. So let’s keep the debate respectful and informed by facts.”
The Liberals’ position on the Voice has triggered ructions within the party, with shadow ministers bound to oppose the proposal but backbenchers allowed a conscience vote.
Former cabinet minister Ken Wyatt, the first Aboriginal person ever to hold the Indigenous Australians portfolio, quit the Liberal Party on Thursday over its decision.
Responding to Mr Wyatt’s resignation, Ms Ley described the former Hasluck MP as “a great friend”.
“You won’t hear me say a bad word about him,” she said.
“It’s sad that he’s come to this decision, but I respect the decision that every Australian will come to as they look into the referendum details. And we are simply asking questions.”
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