Indigenous Voice to Parliament deal prevails against partisan trend

There was a rare moment of bipartisanship in Canberra on Wednesday as the major parties came together to pass a law clearing the way to hold this year’s Indigenous Voice to Parliament referendum.

A bill aimed at updating the rules or “machinery” for holding referendums in Australia cleared the Senate on Wednesday night as the wording of the question to be put to the Australian people was finalised.

“We are one step closer to the Voice referendum,” Minister for Indigenous Australians Linda Burney said.

“The Referendum Act hasn’t been used since 1999. We’re modernising it so it’s more like how federal elections are run, that means pre-poll and postal voting.

“Constitutional recognition through Voice will take Australia forward.”

Opposition Leader Peter Dutton did not follow through on a threat to oppose the legislation despite some urging from Coalition MPs, including Ross Cadell and Keith Pitt, who argued against any agreement unless both the ‘yes’ and ‘no’ campaigns received public funding.

(Staunch conservatives argue the referendum will not be fought on even ground because ‘woke’ corporations like international construction giant Lendlease will donate to the ‘yes’ campaign but not want to be associated with opponents.)

The Greens and members of the Senate crossbench, who had advocated changing procedures to allow people to enrol and vote on the day of the referendum and to lift restrictions on prisoners’ voting rights, were sidelined by the deal.

The government has instead agreed to distribute a pamphlet to Australians’ homes outlining the cases for both camps before the referendum, which is slated to be held by year’s end.

The mobile polling period for remote communities will be extended to 19 days and a greater number of identification methods will be accepted as part of a drive to increase voter turnout.

Outside Canberra, these may not seem like details needing to be hashed out in negotiations like those between Liberal Senator Jane Hume and Labor’s Don Farrell on Tuesday night.

But after the Nationals made an early move to officially oppose the Voice, which has become a target for some talking heads who say it makes no substantive change, there has been a real risk that even the procedural aspects of a referendum aimed at unity might be overwhelmed by partisan rancour.

As debate on the machinery of the referendum continued in the upper house, its 21-member working group was set to meet Ms Burney and Prime Minister Anthony Albanese before finalising the wording of the motion to be put to voters.

“We are so close to taking the next historic steps towards a successful ‘yes’ vote. We are putting the finishing touches on this historic change,” Professor Megan Davis said.

“So close to doing what grassroots communities across the country have asked for.”

Nationals Senator Jacinta Nampijinpa Price said the government should not presume Indigenous Australians would support the referendum as she led a delegation of protest.

“We’ve overcome segregation in our country, to then go ahead and put it in our founding document [… is] not right,” Senator Price said.

But Greens Senator Dorinda Cox said that recognition was not mutually exclusive to substantive change, but its forerunner.

“The only way we’re going to do that is actually secure a ‘yes’ vote in the Voice to Parliament,” Senator Cox said.

The referendum will be held in the second half of this year.

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