SUBJECT | Voice referendum - Local and Regional | 6 April 2023
MARY GEARIN: Dan Tehan, the latest Newspoll today, found that overall majority existed for the Voice —54 to 38 — a majority of voters in a majority of states. So why has the Liberal Party seemingly put itself at odds with the majority of Australians?
DAN TEHAN: Well, as you would be aware, Mary, and I think it's fair to say no party governs based on what Newspoll may or may not say. What we've taken today, and we had a very good constructive discussion amongst the shadow ministry and the broader parliamentary party, is how we think we can best improve outcomes for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders in Australia. And can I say at the outset I think all parties, all individuals, and all members of Parliament want to see better outcomes for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders? What we have now is a debate on what is the best way to do that. We want a bottom-up approach. We think that the best thing you can do is empower local and regional voices to inform government policies. The Labor Party thinks the best way is a top-down approach, and that's going to be the debate over the coming months, and it's going to be an incredibly important debate, and it's one that we have to do sincerely, with the right tone, because this will be the biggest change that we've made to our Constitution since Federation, so…
TEHAN: …we’ve got to make sure what we do is that we get the right outcomes…
GEARIN: It is very important.
TEHAN: …that will lead to the best outcomes for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.
GEARIN: Dan Tehan, I believe everyone would say, agree with you that it is very important, it is important to be upfront about it, but you are framing it as the Government's proposal when in fact, the Government is in lockstep with, the Referendum working group. It's been based on an earlier statement from the heart, all that process — thousands of Indigenous voices have gone towards this position that the Government is backing. You've got Ken Wyatt, a Liberal former Indigenous affairs minister, saying he's disappointed; Indigenous leaders, including Noel Pearson, saying that you know, he would back the voice. Why is the Liberal Party deciding that it knows better than all of that process?
TEHAN: Well, because there are many Indigenous voices who obviously support a voice, but there are many that don't. And what we have to do as a Liberal Party is, ultimately, take a decision that we think is in the best interests of the nation, and that's what we've done. Now, if you take my principled position to start with and that is a very simple one, that all Australians should be equal in our Constitution and how they are referred to in our Constitution. Now, I believe that as a matter of principle. I also know that the current constitution enables, for instance, the Labor Party to legislate a voice. They could legislate a voice tomorrow and there would be nothing to stop them doing that. So these are all the things which…
GEARIN: I beg your pardon for interrupting, but that constitutional recognition without a constitutional voice is something that through the Uluru Statement from the heart process came up with is not what they wanted. That's not what the indigenous voices within that process said that they wanted. Why is the Liberal Party saying, well, that's what you should do?
TEHAN: Because we're listening to other Indigenous voices, including from those within our own parliamentary party who have been voted into the Parliament to represent areas of Australia, and they've said that they think that there is a better way to do this, and that is by empowering people locally, on the ground, and I think that's the best way that we can deal with the violence that we're seeing in Indigenous communities, in the horrific things that we're seeing that are happening to Indigenous women and children. They think that if you empower local and regional voices that's the best way to do it, not the top-down approach that's been put, that’s been proposed. We've obviously been out and listened, we've considered this, this has been something that's been being discussed since I've been in the Parliament in 2010.
GEARIN: Just to clarify on that local and regional aspect of it. Correct me if I'm wrong, but it's not anything that's been necessarily off the table with this coming process. But what this process did do was talk about that national constitutional voice. It doesn't necessarily rule out the other levels?
TEHAN: Well, we had a very clear position that we took to the last election, and that is that we believe that the best thing to do and the best way to start this process was empowering local and regional voices. We took that to the Australian people. Now, ultimately, we weren’t successful at the last election, but that was the clear policy that we took to the Australian people, and that remains our policy. We think that that's the best way to get outcomes on the ground. We don't think that putting a new chapter in the Constitution which could lead to judicial activism — the Government will not release the Solicitor General's legal advice because they know, I'm sure they know, that it will suggest that there could be judicial activism. We just don't see how that will lead to better outcomes on the ground. And we need those better outcomes now, not through a process which we seriously worry is going to divide Australians rather than unite Australians.
GEARIN: The Opposition's spokesman for Indigenous Australians, Julian Lesser, flagged this week that he'd like to see shadow ministers like yourself, like him, given the right to support either side. Why did he lose that fight? Why are you now bound to vote with his party position?
TEHAN: Because we had a shadow cabinet discussion this morning where we went through all the views and all the opinions and all the ways that we should deal with these. And in the end, it was agreed that the best thing that we could do was as a shadow cabinet is to come out in a united way and say that we think this top-down approach is the wrong way to go. And we think that the best thing to do is to propose a different way.
GEARIN: Did you argue for a binding code like that? Is that something that you wanted as well?
TEHAN: Well, I'm not going to disclose conversations within the shadow cabinet. That's something that I've never done when I was a Cabinet minister or when I was a shadow cabinet minister. But I have said previously that I believe that when it comes to our Constitution, everyone, all Australians, should be equal when it comes to that constitution. And that's something that I philosophically, fundamentally believe in and something that, you know, I hold very dearly as a point of principle.
GEARIN: Dan Tehan, the result in Aston last weekend shows that the Liberal Party is in real existential trouble here in Victoria. How do you think this stance on The Voice will be received here?
TEHAN: Well, what we have to do as members of Parliament is, is make sure that people understand that we have taken a principled position, that we've taken a position that we think is in the national interest, that ultimately, in the end, we think will lead to more immediate and better outcomes for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders. And we've got to go out and make that case. We've got to do it in a respectful way, and we've got to make sure that we understand that people will have a variety of views when it comes to this. But this is the most significant change that will be made to our Constitution since the Federation. We are adding a chapter to our Constitution and ultimately, in the end, we've got to do what we think is in the best interests of the nation. And that's what, as a party, we decided today.
GEARIN: As the Member for Wannon, are you satisfied that that's what your constituents want?
TEHAN: Look, I'm always engaging with my constituents, and there is multiple amounts of views when it comes to this issue with my constituents. And what I want to be able to say to my constituents, to all Victorians, to all Australians, I understand that there will be a variety of views when it comes to this issue. What we have to do is have a very respectful and informed debate. Everyone should be able to put their views in a very respectful way, and we should be able to discuss these changes, which will be the most significant changes that we've made in over 100 years. And you do not change the Constitution lightly. And, you know, things like judicial activism are something that we should be able to discuss the reach of the Prime Minister's proposal. Does the reach go to the Reserve Bank or not? These are the types of discussions that we need to have, and the Prime Minister should be upfront and open to have these discussions. He should be able to tell us what was the legal advice that the Attorney-General put to the Referendum working group that was refused. He needs to be able to tell us what has the Law Commission said about this? These are all the things that we need to be able to discuss because this is a significant change and significant change.
GEARIN: Just briefly though, Dan Tehan, to end on if the voice does get up, should Peter Dutton step aside?
TEHAN: Look, let's have a very informed discussion, a very informed debate and let's concentrate on that. This isn't something that we should be talking about the leadership of the Prime Minister because, obviously, there could be a lot of criticism of the Prime Minister if this is defeated because one of the things that we've always held as a position was, when it comes to indigenous recognition in the Constitution, it should be done at a time where you know it will be successful in the best way for that is bipartisanship. Now, in my view, the Prime Minister has not been bipartisan at all which it has come to this issue….
GEARIN: The Prime Minister has also suggested that there hasn't been an approach for that consensus from your side either.
TEHAN: Well, the normal way that this is done, and I know this from chairing the Intelligence and Security Committee, when you have a bipartisan approach, you get all sides together with a committee. You work together on words. You get to work together on solutions. Usually, when it comes to changes to the Constitution, you would have a constitutional convention. We've had none of that up until this stage. All we've been told is this is what the prime minister is wanting, has changed his mind three times on it and finally come up with this wording. I honestly do not think that this has been true bipartisanship.