Opinion: Peter Dutton wantonly exploits Voice moment for Liberal Party's own ends

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Friday 24 March 2023

By Mark Kenny

A version of this article was originally published by The Canberra Times.

The first question Peter Dutton had for Anthony Albanese after the Prime Minister had finally unveiled the Voice referendum wording, was why he had not lowered household electricity bills by $275 a year.

It was also the opposition's second and subsequent questions.

This mismatch between the profound and prosaic points to an unedifying contest in 2023 as an electorally humiliated Coalition fans cost-of-living grievances to peel voters off an ascendant Labor government. And, as a vulnerable Opposition Leader places the partisan jollies of his backers ahead of a wider national leadership.

It felt unusually grubby, even disrespectful given the nation-shaping sentiments coursing through the arteries of Capital Hill at the time.

Hopes were high. Exhausted activists filled the public gallery benches.

Laborious negotiations stretched back 10 months - and for 10 years before that - culminating in what many Australians will agree was a seminal national moment - gracious, positive, and clarifying. Tears flowed.

Just hours before, Albanese had struggled to manage his own emotions when revealing the final wording to be put to voters.

He'd been flanked by Linda Burney, former Morrison minister for Indigenous Australians Ken Wyatt, and senior Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander representatives he called "heroes" and "great Australians".

"This is a modest request, I say to Australia, don't miss it, don't miss it," he pleaded.

Albanese had personally briefed Dutton and the leader of the Nationals, David Littleproud - whose own name might well describe his party's shame following its prejudicial declaration against the Voice last November.

Dutton says he still wants more detail, despite being furnished with the finalised wording, the design principles around the Voice's creation, and that briefing.

Is anyone really surprised? Has Dutton ever looked as if he is genuinely, constructively engaging?

Political sophistry aside, after 10 months, his leaden song remains the same.

Rarely has a putative party of government so wantonly paraded its preparedness to exploit a national moment for its own narrow ends.

If Dutton's Liberals cannot say now where they stand on this simple proposition of historical truth, then that too is clarifying - just not in a good way.

However, Dutton may yet prevail. Australians outside the political community are consumed with the cost of living rather than the Voice. Some will mark down a government they judge to be pre-occupied with abstract or elite ideas rather than on-the-ground solutions.

With a budget looming, Labor must succeed at both.

Albanese's sincerity on the Voice is manifest. He believes the details vacuum many have fretted over since his election night commitment will be quickly forgotten once the pro-Voice goodwill cranks up.

Perhaps, but what was always challenging may prove impossible with a cost of living crisis and a Coalition playing spoiler.

Mark Kenny is a professor at the ANU Australian Studies Institute and host of the Democracy Sausage podcast.

Updated:  24 March 2023/Responsible Officer:  Institute Director/Page Contact:  CASS Marketing & Communications