Anthony Albanese says if he had his time over, he would still be holding the Voice to Parliament referendum despite the debate turning “nasty and divisive” at times.
When Mr Albanese claimed victory in May last year, the first thing he committed the Labor government to was implementing the Uluru Statement from the Heart “in full”, with a referendum on enshrining an Indigenous Voice to Parliament the first step.
But, with just more than three weeks until Australians vote in the first referendum since 1999, debate has at-times taken an ugly turn.
After a difficult parliamentary sitting fortnight, both sides of parliament have condemned a group of pro-Voice activists who shouted profanities at No campaigners as they walked into a rally event in Adelaide earlier this week and called for respectful debate ahead of October 14.
When asked whether he would still make the same commitment to hold the referendum if he had his time again – knowing now how “nasty and divisive” the debate would become – Mr Albanese was emphatic.
“Yes because when are we going to get this done (otherwise)? It’s been 122 years,” he told 2SM radio on Wednesday morning.
“There’s provisions in the Constitution to allow New Zealand to be the seventh state of Australia, but there’s no acknowledgment of the first peoples of Australia.
“This should not be controversial.”
Mr Albanese said he was not the only political leader to commit to a referendum, saying it was also the “Coalition’s position before the last election … before 2016”.
“Go back all the way to 2007, John Howard committed to it, within 18 months of his election that there was going to be a referendum for constitutional recognition … I’ve been determined to restore faith in politics by doing what we said we would do and this is an opportunity to move the country forward. And there’s nothing to fear from this proposal,” he said.
Opposition Leader Peter Dutton has pleaded for a delay to the “divisive” referendum or a new question instead asking Australians to vote on Indigenous recognition without a constitutionally enshrined Voice amid declining support for the Yes vote.
Mr Albanese has remained steadfast in his commitment.
Speaking in Sydney on Wednesday, Mr Dutton said everyday Australians were “angry” with Mr Albanese for being asked to head to the polls without the details of the Voice model and condemned the protesters who gathered outside a No campaign event earlier this week.
“We live in a free country. We treasure our democracy. It’s absolutely sacrosanct to our way of life. And I don’t tolerate for one minute Australians being abused by other Australians in those sorts of rallies,” he said.
“If you have anything to say in our country, in any debate, in any political forum, you say it in a peaceful way.”
The Liberal leader sought to link Mr Albanese to the protesters, claiming the Prime Minister had “set our country up to be divided”.
“He’s been warned for months and months and months that he was embarking on a path right up to October 14 and likely beyond which is splitting our country in two,” Mr Dutton said.
“We said to the Prime Minister that he should not proceed with this referendum because Australians haven't got the detail that they require to make an informed judgment.
“And I think that’s why Australians are angry at the Prime Minister at the moment because they’re being asked to vote on something that won’t be designed until after the election takes place.”
It comes as Cathy Freeman – arguably one of Australia’s greatest sporting icons and a proud Aboriginal woman – has thrown her support behind the Yes case.
"I'm voting Yes, and I'm asking that all Australians do too." pic.twitter.com/7Hy79EZlfN
— Yes23 (@yes23au) September 19, 2023
In a video for Yes23, the gold medallist encouraged Australians to vote Yes, saying “I can’t remember a time when change has felt so urgent, where momentum has been so strong”.
“We have the chance to be part of a moment that brings people together, to work hard for something that we can all believe in,” she said.
In a press conference on Wednesday, Mr Albanese thanked the “great Australian” for using her voice, saying it was “not surprising” she was a strong supporter of a Yes vote.
“I hope that people to listen to Cathy Freeman’s very clear and unequivocal plead for people to vote yes,” he said.
Deputy Liberal leader Sussan Ley said while she didn’t agree with Freeman’s position, she had “articulated her views very strongly” and suggested she should consider a tilt for parliament.
“I don’t agree with her. I don’t agree with the argument for Yes, but as I’ve said many times, it’s okay to vote Yes, and it’s okay to vote No,” she told Sky News.
“What’s not okay is the type of disrespect and abuse that people experienced only a day or so ago in Adelaide … The type of abuse we’ve been seeing is just not okay.
“You can have that contest of ideas around the kitchen table, but you absolutely need to respect everyone’s views in this.”
In a bid to encourage undecided voters to support the Voice, the Uluru Dialogue is rolling out a new social media campaign, asking young people to “ring your rello” and discuss the impeding referendum with them.
Uluru Youth Dialogue co-convener Bridget Cama said young people would play a “really important role” in the upcoming referendum.
“We’re asking young Australians right across the country to get on the phone and call their relative, and just talk to them about the Voice – why it’s important to them as young people and then asking them whether they would support the Voice and vote yes,” she said.