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Source: The Conversation (Au and NZ) – By Michelle Grattan, Professorial Fellow, University of Canberra

The Albanese government is at risk of letting down the Voice’s “yes” case by its tactics of excessive caution and control in the referendum debate.

Inside and outside parliament this week, its performance was, for the most part, woeful, only partly redeemed by a strong counter-attack by Prime Minister Anthony Albanese on Opposition Leader Peter Dutton on Thursday.

The government’s persuasive power in the fight for the Voice is not nearly as effective as it needs to be. Minister for Indigenous Australians Linda Burney struggles constantly. Senator Pat Dodson, dubbed the Father of Reconciliation and a highly respected Indigenous leader for decades, is out of action due to ill health. Albanese has bad days.

The Coalition this week focused its attack on the issue of treaty – the part of the Uluru Statement from the Heart calling for “a Makarrata Commission to supervise a process of agreement-making between governments and First Nations and truth-telling about our history”.

The government has already provided A$5.8 million for a Makarrata Commission – yet to be set up – of which some $900,000 has been spent. When Treasurer Jim Chalmers was asked about the spent money, he provided no details.

In successive question times, the opposition pursued Burney about the commission and what it will do. She refused to engage, just repeating her spiel about the Voice (although she did say “progress on Makarrata will not occur until after the referendum”).

Usually Question Time in the House of Representatives is useless, with the government’s questions a series of “Dorothy Dixers” and the opposition failing to embarrass well-prepared ministers. But when a minister is in trouble, they have nowhere to hide. Burney, unconvincingly trying to stick to the narrowest of scripts, was caught in the headlights the oppositon was shining on the issue of treaty.

Meanwhile Albanese was all over the place when quizzed on treaty during an ABC interview on Wednesday. After he pointed out there was treaty-making under way at state level, he was pressed on whether he was still committed to the Commonwealth negotiating treaties.

“It doesn’t even say that in the Uluru Statement from the Heart. […] It doesn’t speak about the Commonwealth negotiating treaties,” he told Patricia Karvelas. She pushed for clarity, asking, “You don’t think the Commonwealth has a role to negotiate treaties?” “No, I didn’t say that,” the PM replied. “I said, that’s not in the Uluru Statement from the Heart.”

Read more:
View from The Hill: It’s just too hard and too late to delay and recalibrate Voice referendum

The expectation is there would be a treaty, or an overarching structure, at the national level, under which state and other treaties would sit.

Albanese in his comments was trying to erect a solid fence around the Voice debate.

The government fears letting the debate widen to any discussion of treaty will frighten voters, setting back the referendum’s chances.

That might be true. But NOT addressing the issue head-on can potentially be equally or more damaging. It can make the government appear paralysed, as it seemed for much of this week, and leave voters wondering what’s being concealed.

There are several arguments for the government being more upfront about where treaty fits.

Albanese has always said Labor supports the Uluru statement in full. Indeed, the just-released Draft Platform for the party’s national conference this month declares Labor supports “all elements” of the Statement, including the Voice, a Makarrata Commission for agreement-making and a truth-telling process. It adds “Labor will take steps to implement all three elements […] in this term of government.”

Trying to dodge the treaty issue will continue to have Labor spokespeople tied in knots. And given what’s happening in at state level, it shouldn’t be impossible to take some of the heat out of it.

Marcus Stewart, a “yes” campaigner, has just finished his term as elected co-chair of the First Peoples’ Assembly of Victoria. That assembly will soon begin negotiations for a state-wide treaty.

Stewart says the Uluru statement calls for “Voice, treaty, truth. Plain and simple. We’ve seen both the Liberal and National parties support treaty in both Queensland and Victoria, so clearly the opposition leader is out of touch with what the Australian public want and support, including in his own state of Queensland.

“We’ve also seen governments from all sides of politics negotiating treaties around the world including in British Columbia, Canada. They have the evidence and experienced firsthand how all Canadians benefit from treaty-making – including First Nations communities and wider British Columbians.”

Read more:
Politics with Michelle Grattan: ‘yes’ campaigner Thomas Mayo and ‘no’ advocate Derryn Hinch on the Voice

How treaties turn out will obviously depend on their content. Indigenous leaders say they are a long time in the making, even a decade or two. The battles for treaties will be difficult, just as were those over land rights, and in the wake of the Mabo and Wik High Court decisions.

The debate about treaty already goes back decades. In 1979, an Aboriginal Treaty Committee was formed to promote the idea. It was a non-government body chaired by “Nugget” Coombs, one of Australia’s most distinguished public figures who served multiple prime ministers in various capacities and who was a champion of Indigenous rights.

Coombs cast the treaty challenge in upbeat terms. “Whatever the outcome, the coming together of Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal Australians to work out a constitutional-style basis for their living together in this continent represents, in my view, the most exciting political and social adventure in the history of the continent.”

Treaty is relevant to Voice, despite the government’s efforts to ring-fence them. The government says the Voice would concentrate on health, housing, education and jobs but one would expect, as a nationally representative body, it would also have some views on a treaty process, even though the Makarrata Commission would oversee that process.

The Uluru statement must be looked at as a whole, as Albanese did before he tried to roll the Voice into a small target. The government, and others on the “yes” side, could do best by confronting, rather than running away from, that reality.

Albanese (but not Dutton) is at the Garma Festival this weekend. It will be a celebration of the imminent referendum. But there will be fears too, driven by the polls. No doubt the PM will be getting plenty of advice on how to manage a debate that has become a great deal more complex than he wanted it to be.

The Conversation

Michelle Grattan does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.

ref. Grattan on Friday: Trying to dodge talking about ‘treaty’ could do the Voice campaign more harm than good –