Peta Credlin The Australian April 13, 2023
With Labor’s constitutionally entrenched Indigenous voice to everyone, on everything, going to be the dominant political issue for the year – and with the Coalition now officially and firmly saying No to this activist voice – Peter Dutton is in the fight of his life. This will make or break him as leader. If the voice gets up, the Opposition Leader will be dismissed as a failure on the wrong side of history. If the voice fails, Labor will damn him as the man who broke Australia’s heart and try to pin its loss on him. But if it fails, Dutton will have proved himself better than Anthony Albanese at picking the nation’s mood and will have prevailed against the overwhelming weight of money and virtue signalling from woke corporates and elites.
That’s why his pick as the next Indigenous Australians spokesperson is so important. Frankly, Julian Leeser, able and decent man though he is, was never the right person to be spokesman for both legal affairs and Indigenous Australians. I would never have advised putting the two portfolios together in one person because contestability was vital in any voice consideration by the shadow cabinet and in Leeser there was none. So, having previously made a mistake here, Dutton can’t afford a poor second choice.
He needs someone who’s all in, totally with him in opposing the voice. Not someone who’s going to get lost in fine distinctions about regional voices and national ones; between legislated voices and constitutionally entrenched ones. But someone who’s going to say loudly, clearly and constantly that this voice is wrong in principle and would be disastrous in practice.
Plainly, there’s no one better than senator Jacinta Price to take on this vital job. She’s no bureaucratic observer of Indigenous affairs – she has lived and breathed the reality of it her entire life. And if there’s one sure way to show we don’t need a separate Indigenous voice, it’s to have the strongest Indigenous voice in the Coalition as its main advocate on this issue.
Right now, Dutton is hesitating because Price, as the Coalition’s only Country Liberal MP, sits in the Nationals party room by convention, and not with the Liberals. And promoting an extra Nat would give the junior Coalition partner 26 per cent of the shadow ministry spots, as opposed to the 24 per cent they currently hold, which is their exact proportion in the joint party room under the Coalition agreement.
If Price were to join the Libs, which she originally wanted to do, that would disturb, perhaps even blow up, the Coalition relationship. If the Nationals leader were to replace one of his existing frontbenchers with Price, that could upset the numbers inside his own party.
So having been involved in plenty of internal debates about reshuffles, and who gets what and why, I can understand the pressures on Dutton – but sometimes you’ve just got to do what’s right.
Dutton is not going to turn Albanese into a one-term prime minister by being cautious. So he should just promote Price, even if that does give the Nats a slightly disproportionate say and puts a few Liberal noses out of joint. After all, the Liberals won’t go backwards in their allocation because Dutton would still have the legal affairs role to give to a Liberal.
To overlook Price as the new Indigenous Australians spokeswoman would be a big mistake because it’s not the Coalition’s Indigenous MPs who’ve gone weak on opposing a race-based body in the Constitution, it’s a handful of well-heeled Liberals, and one former Nat. And support for Dutton’s stand is only growing among Coalition supporters.
But back to Leeser. Last week he told us everything that was wrong with Labor’s voice.
In his National Press Club speech, the Coalition’s now former frontbencher said the voice, as proposed by the Prime Minister, would “create a new level of bureaucracy” with “inevitably … court challenges”. He said it would undermine the primacy of parliament. And by failing to deliver local and regional voices it would “ultimately mean no change on all the issues that matter”.
What’s more, he said, the referendum was on the verge of failing because of a prime minister “who has abandoned good process and a spirit of partnership”.
But this week, despite his deep misgivings about what’s proposed and the spirit in which it’s being put forward, Leeser said he intended “to campaign for a Yes vote”. Perhaps to justify himself, he said that in the meantime he would “be arguing for … changes to the referendum wording”. But hang on – just a week earlier he’d said of the Prime Minister: “This does not sound like … a person looking to reach consensus.”
Meaning Leeser’s position is as clear as mud. He knows this is a bad proposal because it will hopelessly gum up government, it will invite the unelected High Court to second-guess the decisions of the elected government, and it’s unlikely to make any difference to the dysfunction it’s supposed to cure. The question for people such as Leeser to answer is: Why vote Yes to a fundamentally flawed proposal just because they would otherwise be accused of disrespect to Aboriginal people, rather than simply rejecting a voice that would fundamentally disrupt our system of government and – most egregious to me – divide citizens by their race?
One of the reasons people such as Leeser are so torn over a voice proposal is they’ve persuaded themselves that the solution to Indigenous disadvantage is yet more consultation, and to institutionalise Aboriginal people as different from all other Australians.
What I find most troubling about the whole voice concept is that it perpetuates racial separatism in the name of unity. It smacks of that legal lie in the 1896 Plessy v Ferguson doctrine that allowed US governments to get away with state-sponsored segregation for decades, until Martin Luther King Jr implored us on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in 1963 to judge the content of our characters and not the colour of our skin.
Can you believe we are back here again? That in a place like Australia in 2023 we are actually debating a permanent change to our Constitution no less that would divide us into two classes of citizen: Aboriginal Australians, and everyone else?
Now that there is a contest, and just as ordinary Australians are starting to understand what’s at stake, the opposition has to do whatever it takes to prevail. And if that means treading on colleagues’ toes to put a warrior such as Price on the front line, then Dutton needs to put the country first before precious political egos.
1/ Senator Jacinta Price gave a passionate maiden speech in the Senate in 2022. Picture: NCA NewsWire / Gary Ramage