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Why Dutton will struggle to herd his cats on the Voice

Opposition Leader Peter Dutton… he has to ask himself whether, given the journey towards the Voice is well underway, an attempt to erect a roadblock would send the worst of signals.

Peter Dutton has apologised again for missing the Apology’s symbolism, but how will he see the Voice’s symbolism, asks political columnist MICHELLE GRATTAN.

IT wasn’t the first time Peter Dutton had said he was sorry for boycotting Kevin Rudd’s 2008’s historic Apology to the Stolen Generations, but Monday’s reiteration was an important moment for the opposition leader.

Michelle Grattan.

Dutton is struggling to chart a course and manage his divided party on the issue of the indigenous Voice to parliament.

If he ends up supporting the Voice, Monday’s speech will be seen as a step on the way. If he rejects it (as many think he will), his speech will probably be viewed as an empty gesture.

Back in the day, Dutton defended his boycott by saying he didn’t think the Apology would deliver any practical results. He said in 2010: “I regarded it as something which was not going to deliver tangible outcomes to kids who are being raped and tortured in communities in the 21st century”.

At his first news conference after becoming leader in 2022, he said he’d been wrong to boycott. Scraping off a barnacle, the cynics might say.

Addressing the House of Representatives on the 15th anniversary of the apology, Dutton said on Monday: “I want to speak directly to those in the gallery today and further afield who are part of the Stolen Generation and those who are descendants or are connected to the issue.

“I want to say in an unscripted way, I apologise for my actions […] – that I didn’t attend the chamber for the Apology 15 years ago. I’ve apologised for that in the past and I repeat that apology again today.”

He had “failed to grasp at the time the symbolic significance to the Stolen Generation of the Apology. It was right for Prime Minister Rudd to make the Apology in 2008.”

Now, as he grapples with the issue of the Voice, Dutton has to make a judgement about the symbolic significance of this latest test he faces.

Minister for Indigenous Australians Linda Burney said at the weekend: “I know that some people who boycotted that historic day in 2008 have since expressed their regret. They now admit that it was a mistake. And I say to those people – don’t make the same mistake again.”

While Burney didn’t name Dutton she was applying a political blowtorch to him. But there’s a salutary warning for him here.

Dutton has to ask himself whether, given the journey towards the Voice is well underway, an attempt to erect a roadblock would send the worst of signals.

A signal to indigenous Australians. A signal to the world. This goes deeper than narrow partisan considerations.

If the referendum passes, the resultant Voice may or may not prove an effective instrument in indigenous advancement.

But even if he is sceptical, given the symbolism of the Voice, does Dutton really want to risk being shouldered with some of the responsibility if the referendum fails?

Wherever he lands – pro, anti, neutral – Dutton will have a fractured band of party followers.

Prominent Liberal moderates such as Bridget Archer and Andrew Bragg are already out and active in support of the Voice. Right-wingers are strongly against. Dutton won’t be able to herd his cats.

Meanwhile, the Voice debate is being increasingly accompanied by greater attention on what is happening on the ground, which is to be welcomed.

This is partly because the referendum has meant more discussions about indigenous affairs generally, and particularly due to the publicity about the situation in Alice Springs.

The federal government acknowledges that closing the disadvantage gap is not proceeding fast enough or, in some areas, at all.

Anthony Albanese told parliament on Monday that when the Closing the Gap report was tabled a few months ago “the gaps not only persist but some are getting bigger. The report lays out forensically one lopsided statistic after another, in health, education, incarceration rates and especially damning, life expectancy. These are not gaps, they are chasms”.

In recent days, the PM acted decisively on reimposing alcohol bans in NT communities. More federal money has been announced for a range of initiatives. That’s all good but, on the basis of history, it won’t be transformational.

Whatever their differences, government and opposition agree that we as a country are falling short. As Dutton said: “Our current actions – for all their good intent – are not bringing about enough practical outcomes for which we can all be proud as a nation”.

It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that these issues actually go beyond more resources, more partnerships, or even more listening to indigenous communities. These are classic “wicked problems”.

Australia’s First Nations people straddle two cultures. How this works for individuals varies dramatically, ranging from those living very traditional lives in remote communities (and wanting to continue doing so) to those committed to their culture and country but with day-to-day existences no different from their non-indigenous neighbours.

Good policy must respect and accommodate many circumstances. It must underpin the traditional, semi-traditional and town communities with adequate and appropriate services. These (including even clean water) are often lacking now.

Crucially, good policy must also facilitate choices and social mobility for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. The young girl born into an Alice Springs camp should have a realistic pathway to becoming an urban IT worker, if that is her aspiration.

The overarching challenge is to support the cultural identity of indigenous Australians while ensuring them the same equality of opportunity non-indigenous Australians expect. Multiple rights are involved: their rights as first occupants, their rights as modern citizens. It’s a challenge that in real life produces deep complexities for policy areas. We don’t seem to talk much about this fundamental conundrum, because it can be an uncomfortable conversation that seems just too hard. Perhaps the Voice would.The Conversation

Michelle Grattan, Professorial Fellow, University of Canberra. This article is republished from The Conversation.

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Michelle Grattan

Michelle Grattan

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