Coalition playing ‘spoiling game’ with Indigenous voice to parliament, Noel Pearson warns

First Nations leader concerned opposition’s calls for more details on referendum is a diversion that threatens chance for reconciliation

The Coalition’s demand for more detail on the Indigenous voice to parliament is a “complete diversion” and a “spoiling game” that threatens to end the chance for reconciliation for ever, the First Nations leader Noel Pearson warns.

Pearson, one of the key architects of the Uluru statement from the heart, says the details were a matter for parliament to determine after the referendum on the voice.

“The referendum is about the constitution. Legislation is for the parliament,” Pearson told ABC radio.

Pearson said that the shadow attorney general, Julian Leeser, and the opposition leader, Peter Dutton, “may be just choosing to play a spoiling game”.

“It’s very concerning,” Pearson said. “I hope they are not.”

He said 2023 was “the most important year” for reconciliation since the arrival of the first fleet.

“We’ve got to understand what is at stake – and that is the chance for reconciliation,” Pearson told ABC radio.

“And if the referendum is kiboshed through game playing and a spoiling game by the opposition, we will lose the opportunity for ever.”

Leeser, the Coalition’s leading supporter of the voice to parliament and its spokesperson for Indigenous Australians, has warned the Albanese government was in danger of “losing him”.

He urged the government to share more information on the voice to help supporters make their case.

“It is very hard to explain how it will work when the government is not providing the detail,” he told a Young Liberals convention on Saturday.

Pearson said the Coalition had been in power for nine of the last 12 years and after commissioning a 2019 report on how a voice to parliament would work have had “three years to generate their version of the detail and they didn’t do it”.

The prime minister, Anthony Albanese, on Monday said more detail would be released by the referendum working group, which is due to meet again on 2 February.

Guardian Australia understands more information about the process of the vote will be released soon after.

Albanese said the opposition has had more than six months to comment on the government’s draft wording of the referendum question, announced at the 2022 Garma festival.

“There hasn’t been any suggested changes to that draft from the Coalition.”

A group of Indigenous leaders from 14 communities across Australia wrote to Albanese and Dutton at the weekend asking them to “show leadership” and find common ground on the voice.

Their letter warned the nation is “at a crossroads” on the issue.

“To close the gap, it is local people not just politicians who need to have a say,” they wrote.

Ian Trust, a Gidja man and chair of the Indigenous leaders group Empowered Communities, said every prime minister since John Howard has supported the need for recognition of First Nations people in the constitution.

“Are the politicians really saying they can’t work together now, in the lead-up to the referendum, to prepare the details that can satisfy both parties for when we need them after the successful referendum?” Trust said.

Fiona Jose, a Kuku Yalanji and Torres Strait Islander woman from Cape York and another signatory of the letter, said if the Coalition does not support the voice constitutional recognition, “it is not because they have the answers for Australians, or for Indigenous people”.

“Twenty-one of 26 years in government with much failure and backward momentum is testament to that,” Jose said.

Jose urged politicians to take a non-partisan approach to the Indigenous voice to parliament, “which will give us a say in matters that impact our lives”.

“That’s the commitment we need now from all political leaders – our expectation is that you will work together,” she said.

The letter is signed on behalf of Aboriginal community leaders from Victoria, New South Wales, Queensland, the Kimberley, Arnhem Land and the NPY Lands in South Australia and the Northern Territory.


Lorena Allam Indigenous affairs editor

The GuardianTramp

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