Leading Yes advocate Noel Pearson says senator Jacinta Nampijinpa Price broke the Coalition away from a tradition of bipartisanship on Indigenous recognition.
In a powerful interview, he called the idea of a second referendum an “absolute mirage and noted the Opposition Leader was at odds with his own Indigenous Australians spokeswoman about what would happen should the No vote succeed.
Opposition Leader Peter Dutton last week said if the Voice failed, and he became Prime Minister in 2025, he would run a second referendum solely on Indigenous recognition, without what he calls the “divisive” Voice.
But just days later, Senator Price declined to back the plan.
Mr Pearson said it was disappointing that after years of bipartisanship working towards Indigenous recognition, the Coalition was fighting against and seeking to water down what Indigenous people had asked for.
He said that Indigenous leaders had spent 14 years putting in “assiduous spade work with the conservatives”, and bipartisanship had existed for nine years.
“The bipartisanship broke when (Nationals Leader David) Littleproud, forced by the Indigenous spokesperson (Senator Price) decided that they would be opposing the Voice. Previously they had supported it,” Mr Pearson told ABC’s Insiders.
Asked if he was saying it was “Jacinta Price’s doing”, Mr Pearson replied: “She’s obviously been a compelling arguer in favour of no”.
“I think the set the policy for the National Party. Of course the Liberals followed later,” he said.
“We saw it last week – the leader said ‘we’re going to have a second referendum’, and four days later the spokesman says no way.
“So it’s the spokesman that determines the policy here, not the leader of the opposition.
“That’s unfortunate that bipartisanship has broken, but that does not mean this is suddenly the wrong thing to do, because there has been a bipartisan commitment for 14 out of 15 years.”
Senator Price’s predecessor, Julian Leeser, quit the shadow cross bench after the Liberal Party room decided to vote against the Voice.
Mr Pearson said Mr Dutton’s proposal was nothing but smoke and mirrors, reminding Australians that the last time symbolic recognition was put to the vote in the 1999, it failed “worse than the republic” question, and would not succeed if asked again.
“It’s just an absolute mirage. The thing that it does, it pushes this debate for another five years. We’re already 15 years into it. John Howard promised this thing … on the election eve 2007,” Mr Pearson said.
“And we’re now 15 years later. Peter Dutton wants to kick this can and get the debate and division and argument going for another five years. Wait until he becomes Prime Minister he says. Then they will have another go.”
He said that despite the polls being stacked up against the Yes campaign, he was hopeful – but warned Australians that voting No would show such a level of “unrequited love” that was unconscionable at this point in the country’s history.
“It’s always been very hard for us, but we have won gains over these years,” he said.
“We are always the underdog. We are three per cent of the population. We are the most powerless people in the country, with the weakest political constituency in the country, but through persuasion and through argument and constant campaigning we’ve managed to make gains … I still believe we can achieve victory.”
Asked what a “No” vote would say about the country, Mr Pearson said he would make that judgement after the referendum.
“I believe we still have the capacity to do the right thing,” he said.
“I just don’t believe when the hand of friendship and reconciliation is extended from Indigenous people that … their love will be unrequited. I can’t believe that.
“I cannot believe we still are an Australia where that hand would just be slapped aside … I just don’t believe Australians are capable of that.”
Senator Price has been contacted for comment.