The minister for Indigenous Australians has blasted Peter Dutton for spreading “misinformation and scare campaigns” about the Indigenous voice, after the opposition leader invoked George Orwell in claiming that the referendum would wind back progress of the civil rights movement.
Linda Burney accused critics of the voice of being “hell-bent on stoking division” and hinted that the government wasn’t planning on amending its constitutional proposal.
It capped a tense afternoon of debate in the parliament on the referendum, after Liberal MP Keith Wolahan accused the Indigenous leader Noel Pearson of making an “odious slur” against Dutton, while the voice supporter Bridget Archer rubbished claims the body would divide Australians by race, an argument advanced by her party leader.
The House of Representatives resumed debate on the referendum on Monday. The government hopes to pass the bill in June, for a referendum expected in October. Dutton, who committed his Liberal party to opposing the voice, said it was a “reckless roll of the dice” which would divide Australia.
He was critical that the government hadn’t held a new constitutional convention on the voice. “Instead, we’ve had a four-and-half day committee – a kangaroo court led by a government that never wanted to entertain changes to its proposed bill,” he said.
Referencing Orwell’s novel Animal Farm, an allegory for the Russian revolution and Stalinism, Dutton said the voice would “have an Orwellian effect where all Australians are equal, but some Australians are more equal than others”.
He described it as “a symptom of the madness of identity politics”, claiming it would “re-racialise our nation”.
“The great progress of the 20th century’s civil rights movement was the push to eradicate difference – to judge each other on the content of our character, not the colour of our skin,” he said. “This voice, as proposed by the prime minister, promotes difference.”
Speaking after Dutton, Burney was scathing. “We have just heard, in one speech, every bit of disinformation and misinformation and scare campaigns that exist in this debate,” she said.
Constitutional recognition was overdue, she said, noting gaps in Indigenous education, life expectancy and justice outcomes.
She denied that the government had rushed into the referendum, saying there had been no “shortcuts”.
The Labor MP Peta Murphy said the voice had gone through a longer consultation period than any other constitutional change over 13 years.
Burney said critics were ignoring the legal advice of the solicitor general, who said the voice would enhance Australia’s system of government.
“Yet this is not enough for those hellbent on dashing the hopes of a people,” Burney told parliament. “Not enough for those hellbent on stoking division.”
The minister backed the voice making representations to executive government.
But this view was contested by Wolahan, the deputy chair of the parliamentary committee on the voice. The Labor-dominated committee recommended the bill be passed unamended but Liberal MPs including Wolahan wrote a dissenting report.
Wolahan thanked contributors to the inquiry who had raised concerns. “They were not afflicted by subconscious racism, or bed wetting, or the odious slur ‘Judas betrayal’,” he said. “We are better than this. If such attacks on motive and personality are normalised, we will be a more divided nation, no matter the result.”
Pearson, one of the architects of the voice, accused Dutton of a “Judas betrayal” after the Liberals opposed the voice. He also described the former human rights commissioner Mick Gooda as a “bedwetter” for proposing amendments to the bill.
Wolahan said there would be people in the community who went against the position of their employers, professional associations, sporting codes or friends and family. Being a “contrarian”, he said, was “the true measure of character and courage”.
Archer, a Liberal MP who has pointedly opposed her party’s stance on the voice, said it wouldn’t divide Australia by race, have a veto power or be a third chamber.
“To claim otherwise is a deliberate and harmful misrepresentation of the facts and I’m disappointed to have seen this wilfully perpetuated by some,” she said.