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Michael Bradley

Dutton’s letter demanding Voice detail fuels lies and division. Is anyone surprised?

Let’s suppose that Liberal Leader Peter Dutton has any credibility regarding matters concerning Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, or on matters of race at all. Pretend that his walk-out on the parliamentary apology to the Stolen Generations didn’t happen, or that as home affairs minister he didn’t race-bait African-Australians, refugees and Muslims.

Say we take him at face value on his commitment “to being constructive on the issue of reconciliation” with Indigenous peoples. That is what he wrote in his letter to Prime Minister Anthony Albanese, the letter he dropped with the media before actually sending it.

Dutton, unlike his Coalition partner, the National Party, professes no fixed position on the proposed referendum to amend the Australian constitution by establishing an Indigenous Voice to Parliament. The Nationals have rejected it outright, both complaining about the absence of detail and concluding that they wouldn’t like the detail anyway.

The ostensible purpose of Dutton’s letter is to warn Albanese he is “making a catastrophic mistake” by not supplying sufficient detail on the Voice proposal ahead of the planned first-stage referendum later this year. Australians, he says, “have a right to make a fully informed decision”. Sounds fair.

Dutton goes on: “Your government’s position that detail isn’t needed before a vote and will be contained in subsequent legislation is unreasonable … and undermines the integrity of the process … you are treating the Australian people like mugs.”

Pure of motivation, Dutton is focused on “tangible improvements to the lives of Indigenous Australians”, notwithstanding that on every measure the decade-long government, of which he was a senior member, failed to deliver any improvement whatsoever.

Helpfully, Dutton has provided a list of the details the Australian people need before they can consider the Voice proposal. It is at that point he reveals himself fully, and we can safely predict what happens from here.

Dutton makes Tony Abbott look subtle, so it isn’t difficult to pick up what he’s doing, or whose idea he’s copying. The play is an attempted repeat of John Howard’s successful three-card trick that brought down the 1999 republic referendum: 1) demand the detail; 2) when it’s provided, demand more detail; 3) claim there’s now too much detail and advocate a “No” vote on the basis that, if you don’t understand it, you’re being conned.

The details Dutton says we must have are, in truth, a collection of dogwhistles dressed up as reasonable requests. Who gets to be on the Voice body? What is the “definition of Aboriginality”? How much will it cost? Will it have “decision-making capabilities”? Will it be used to negotiate a “national treaty”?

I get it — Dutton will defend his perfectly reasonable queries all the way to referendum day, and point to any reticence about answering them as an indicator of something sneaky or even malign. How can we decide whether to build an Olympic swimming pool until we know who will be allowed to swim in it?

There are two answers to this ploy, apart from the really obvious one, which I’ll leave for my punchline. First, the government’s design is explicit. What we will be asked, in a first-stage referendum, is the question of principle: do we support the creation of a Voice, as asked for and articulated in the Uluru Statement from the Heart? If yes, then the detail will be legislated.

Secondly, apparently Dutton has forgotten, as have all of his colleagues, that the minister for Indigenous Australians in their own government, Ken Wyatt, prepared and attempted to table in cabinet on two occasions a highly detailed plan for implementation of the Voice. It was ignored; it seems none of them ever read it.

He has also apparently forgotten the exhaustive work carried out by academics including Megan Davis, Tom Calma and Marcia Langton, producing volumes of detailed analysis and explanation of what the Voice would be — and would not be — which are available to anyone who cares to, and can, read.

Detail? That’s not the issue. The issue is whether we choose to listen to Indigenous peoples and respect their carefully considered judgment that the Voice — as Langton and Calma said two years ago — “is an urgent matter for redress on our journey to equity for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people”. Listening, of course, requires shutting up.

Shutting up is not Dutton’s way, nor is it that of any of those who have already declared their opposition: Abbott, Howard, Bolt, Jones, Credlin, Price, Mundine, Joyce, Littleproud — all the names you’d expect to be shouting a loud and reflexive “no”.

The proof of Dutton’s disingenuousness is in the detail of his supposedly open-handed approach. One of the details he demands will suffice: will the Voice body be empowered to make decisions? No, one million times, no. Nobody has ever said, suggested or implied that it will or should be anything more than advisory in construct and effect. It is a big lie, fully known to those who peddle it, to keep pretending otherwise.

Dutton is propagating the lie. He has no intention of engaging sincerely with the Voice. He will, sooner or later, drop the mask and tell us to vote no. And we will know why.

Do you think more detail is needed about the Voice referendum, or is Peter Dutton just stirring division? Let us know your thoughts by writing to Please include your full name to be considered for publication. We reserve the right to edit for length and clarity.

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