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Not so fast: Tony Abbott calls for the Voice referendum to be cancelled

Tony Abbott says he thinks the Voice will divide Australia on the "basis of ancestry".

Tony Abbott says he thinks the Voice will divide Australia on the "basis of ancestry". Photo: AAP

When Peter Dutton announced he would step in to lead the campaign against the Voice, Noel Pearson lost a night of sleep and delivered a withering portrayal of the Opposition Leader.

But unlike many others behind the referendum, he saw a positive and a contest he said would now be fought between the Australian politics of 2013 and today.

“A unity ticket between Dutton, (Pauline) Hanson and (Tony) Abbott I don’t think is going to resonate with the Australian people.

“That’s a voice of fear and prejudice and negativity compared to the voice of hope and friendship and reconciliation that Uluru offers.”

Mr Abbott entered the debate on this year’s referendum on Monday just, Mr Pearson suggested, as predicted.

The sometimes tense appearance came against the backdrop of new polling and an advertising blitz suggesting the referendum and Mr Pearson’s estimation of the Australian voter are both in the balance.

Under protest

Mr Abbott was a last-minute appearance before the committee considering the text of the referendum proposal.

He was there under protest – his own, aired on Twitter, after it had declined to offer him a chance to air his views.

The former PM, who took on Indigenous affairs responsibilities while prime minister, has long been involved in debate on the Voice.

Mr Pearson wrote recently that the former PM had even looked him in the eye in September 2014 and said that he supported a constitutional advisory body.

But Mr Abbott argued strongly against the idea to be put to Australian voters this year, saying that creating the body would risk inciting “separatism”, legal fallout and could prove a divisive moment in national history.

“I still think it’s important that we achieve Indigenous recognition, but this is so much more than recognition,” he said.

“This is about government. I don’t want to change the way we govern.”

The Voice proposal is least popular with conservatives now, but it was an idea officially advocated by the past government.

In 2014, Mr Abbott declined a suggestion from a parliamentary committee to put the idea to a referendum in his first term as prime minister and said it should instead be held in 2017; it was not.

Mr Abbott warned that if the proposal met enough opposition and failed to pass it would damage social cohesion and so suggested that the proposal be altered or the vote be cancelled.

““The last thing we want is a referendum proposal that fails,” he said.

“It would leave Australians embittered and divided. But I suspect that if this succeeds it will also likely leave us embittered and divided.”

A second thought

Mr Pearson said that plea was “absurd” and that compromises on the nature of the proposed Voice had been made over the past decade – and by Indigenous advocates.

“I’m struggling to find any other example of a public policy issue in Australia that has taken as long as this to reach this point,” he said.

“It’s absurd to suggest we should ditch it.”

A YouGov poll of 15,000 people taken a month ago but released this week shows that the debate is still very much a live one for many Australians.

The poll found 51 per cent of those surveyed across the nation back a ‘yes’ vote, while 34 per cent said they would vote ‘no’ and 15 per cent remain undecided.

The critical test is whether the referendum can win majority support in a majority of states.

So far Victoria, New South Wales, the Northern Territory, South Australia, the ACT and Tasmania are in support, the poll found, but a majority were not backing the proposal in Queensland and Western Australia.

Early runs of the ‘no’ campaign’s television advertisements were debuted last week and have been running in select television markets.

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