The Cape York leader Noel Pearson has called the National party leader, David Littleproud, a “kindergarten kid” whose party is in danger of being “left behind in history” after it decided to oppose an Indigenous voice to parliament.
In a blistering interview with ABC radio on Tuesday, Pearson also accused the Northern Territory Country Liberal party senator Jacinta Nampijinpa Price of being drawn into a “a tragic redneck celebrity vortex”.
Earlier the attorney general, Mark Dreyfus, declared that the Nationals’ decision to oppose a constitutionally enshrined voice to parliament “does not deal anything like a death blow to this referendum”.
Littleproud announced on Monday that the Nationals did not believe the voice would “genuinely close the gap” and would therefore not support it.
He was joined at the media conference by Price, a Warlpiri woman and former deputy mayor of Alice Springs, who argued that the voice proposal would “divide us along lines of race”.
“What we need now is practical measures, not an idea that lacks complete and utter detail, that’s based on emotional blackmail,” Price said.
Pearson, the founder of the Cape York institute and a member of the government’s referendum working group, said the National party’s stance was “a complete turnaround”. He said he had spoken with many people in the party room just before the election and “got a very positive reading from all of the meetings I had with them”.
“Obviously, something has changed here in the National party,” Pearson told Radio National.
“Well, it’s obviously Jacinta Price’s entry into the parliament that has turned everything around. But it is also this leader – this supposed leader Littleproud – little pride, man of little pride. And he’s like a kindergarten kid, not a leader.
Sign up for Guardian Australia’s free morning and afternoon email newsletters for your daily news roundup
“The Nationals have foisted the mantle of leadership on a boy who’s incapable of the leadership that’s necessary for the country and for his party. I really think that the National party is writing itself off for the future.”
Pearson said Littleproud had engaged in a “quick ring around” or a “tick and flick” exercise to give the appearance of consultation on the party’s position. But Pearson – who is delivering this year’s Boyer Lectures – said Littleproud had “completely capitulated to Jacinta’s leadership on this”.
“Jacinta is a very compelling figure but she’s caught in a vortex,” Pearson said.
“She’s caught in a vortex that reminds me of Pauline Hanson 26 years ago… And it’s a celebrity vortex. It’s very compelling that gets them out in front of people and it gets a lot of cheers but … ultimately it’s a tragic redneck celebrity vortex that she’s caught up in and it involves rightwing people, particularly the Sydney- and Melbourne-based rightwing think tanks, the Institute of Public Affairs and the Centre for Independent Studies.
“They’re the string pullers – they’re the ones who have lined up behind Jacinta … and their strategy was to find a Blackfella to punch down on other Blackfellas.”
Price said she was “no stranger to attacks from angry men who claim to speak on behalf of Aboriginal Australia” and warned against attempts to “enforce conformity”.
“It doesn’t take long for nasty to rear its ugly head,” she said on Tuesday.
Price said her office had received calls in support of the Nationals’ position but had also been “bombarded with threatening and abusive calls that the women in my office should not have to be subjected to”.
“While the ‘yes’ campaigners have suggested this referendum is all about bringing people together as a unifying exercise for the whole of Australia, their actions speak otherwise,” Price said in a statement.
“We didn’t need a crystal ball to know that if you do not agree with the voice to parliament, you will be called names, be accused of racism, bigotry and it will also be suggested that you are incapable of thinking for yourself.”
The IPA responded to Pearson’s comments by saying it was “an important debate that needs to be carried out in a respectful and constructive manner, and all sides of the debate deserve to be heard”.
Morgan Begg, the director of the IPA’s legal rights program, said: “As Senator Jacinta Nampijinpa Price said, it is not racist to disagree with a proposal.”
Comment was also sought from Littleproud and the CIS.
Before Pearson’s comments, Littleproud told ABC News Breakfast no political party should be “shamed” into a decision on the issue.
“What every Australian should do, in the sanctity of their own home, is to make a decision about what’s the best way to close the gap quicker,” Littleproud said, adding: “Let’s not bring vitriol into this. Let’s keep this sensible and respectful.
“Let every Australian get back to that core tenet. It’s what should bring us together and have the maturity of conversation as a nation.”
Littleproud distanced himself from a comment by Price accusing the minister for Indigenous Australians, Linda Burney, of taking “a private jet out to a remote community, dripping with Gucci and tell people in the dirt what is good for them, but they are in the dark”.
He said: “I don’t think that’s helpful. But Jacinta is very passionate about this because she has lived experience.
“We should create the environment whereby we all understand we’re all trying to close the gap quicker.”
Dreyfus said it was “very disappointing to hear one of the major parties in Australia deciding before the campaign has even started that they’re going to oppose this really important measure”.
But he told Radio National the government would still bring on the referendum next financial year and believed it would be “resoundingly supported”.
Dreyfus argued that people under 40 had never voted in a referendum and most of Australia was willing to listen:
“We’ve got a lot of educating to do about why we need to change our constitution and how we change our constitution,” he said.
The Liberals have yet to finalise their position.