Two Liberal MPs have spoken out to demand the party’s MPs be free to support or oppose the proposed Voice to parliament, ahead of a formal decision on the party’s stance on constitutional recognition early in 2023.
Tasmanian MP Bridget Archer, who supports the proposed Voice, and South Australian MP James Stevens, who opposes it, both said MPs should be able to decide for themselves – rather than the party adopt a binding position – to accommodate the divergent views within the party room.
Liberal MP Bridget Archer said allowing MPs to make up their own minds would be “the path of least resistance”.Credit:Rhett Wyman
Their call comes after NSW senator Andrew Bragg demanded Liberal MPs be guaranteed a conscience vote, and after Nationals MP Andrew Gee quit his party on Friday.
Gee moved to the crossbench after the Nationals announced in November that it would formally oppose a constitutionally enshrined Indigenous Voice to parliament, which Gee personally supports.
Stevens said that “whilst I personally don’t support the constitutional Voice, it is important that we accommodate different views as we come to our decision”.
Prime Minister Anthony Albanese announced in July that a referendum will be held over enshrining the body in the constitution and the referendum is due to be held in the second half of 2023.
Opposition Leader Peter Dutton in December said the Liberals would make clear their position on the Voice in early 2023, after a party room meeting.
The Liberals need to decide whether they will campaign for or against the Voice, or allow MPs to campaign according to their views, and also whether they will back the legislation that will enable the referendum to take place.
Archer said allowing MPs to make up their own minds would be “the path of least resistance” and she hoped the party would learn lessons from the debate over same-sex marriage, which ended up being “harder than it really needed to be”.
Liberal MPs typically have a free vote on every piece of legislation and unlike Labor, are not kicked out of the party if they cross the floor. In practice, however, they rarely go against the party line and in the recent past were bound by a party room position opposing same-sex marriage until the national postal survey was held.
Archer – who has crossed the floor twice in the last year, in support of an integrity commission and censuring Scott Morrison – noted the referendum was not going to be ultimately decided by politicians.
“I’m supportive of the Voice. At the end of the day Australians are going to decide, so should we stand in the way of that?”
“For something like the Voice … it shouldn’t be a matter of there’s more people in the party room that think this way, so we should do that. There has to be a degree of compromise and consensus.
Archer pointed out Liberal Indigenous Australians spokesman Julian Leeser had “made public statements in support of an Indigenous Voice” and would be left in an invidious position if the party room decided to formally oppose it.
“Knowing that and making him the shadow minister for Indigenous Affairs, what on earth would you be thinking of doing to him if you went ‘actually nah, we’re not gonna swing in behind this’, or at the very least [let MPs] express their own views? I think that would be a pretty unfair position to put Julian in.”
Several Liberal MPs who support the Voice, who asked not to be named, have said in recent weeks they think the best-case scenario for the party’s position on the Voice would be freedom of choice and for Dutton to personally support the proposal.
Liberal MPs Tony Pasin, Phillip Thompson and Claire Chandler have all spoken out to oppose the proposed Voice to parliament, citing a lack of detail.
Leeser has to date been tactically quiet about what the party’s position on the Voice is likely to be, but has outlined seven questions the Labor government needs to answer on the issue.
Those questions include who will be a member of the Voice, will members be elected or chosen, what powers the body would have, how will it make a difference to people’s lives, how will it represent diverse communities and whether regional and local bodies will also exist.
The Voice to parliament was proposed in the 2017 Uluru Statement from the Heart and would provide advice on laws and policies that affect Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders.
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