The prime minister, Anthony Albanese, has “got to bring Australians with him” to successfully deliver a referendum on an Indigenous voice to parliament, the new shadow attorney general, Julian Leeser, has said.
Leeser, a longtime advocate of constitutional recognition and the opposition’s new shadow minister for Indigenous affairs, said that the opposition has an “open mind” about enshrining a voice to parliament in the constitution, but is waiting to see the detail before declaring its hand.
“I think the prime minister knows that if he’s going to have a successful referendum, he has to bring Australians with him,” Leeser told ABC radio on Monday.
“This is the government’s policy, we’ve got an open mind, we want to see what the question is, we want to see what the amendment is, we want to see what the model is, and we’ll make some decisions when have seen all of those things,” he said.
“We are waiting to see what they put forward before making any further decisions.”
He said the government was also yet to make clear its response to the recommendations made in the Indigenous voice co-design process final report, which was undertaken by Indigenous leaders Marcia Langton and Tom Calma and handed to the government last year.
The report outlined an Indigenous voice proposal comprising two parts that would work together – local and regional voices and a national voice – and noted “strong feedback that an Indigenous voice must be secure and enduring, and appropriately protected”.
The previous Coalition government committed to progressing the model, but Labor at the time described the announcement as a “fail” that bore little resemblance to the Uluru statement from the heart.
Albanese has promised to hold a referendum on constitutional recognition in this term of parliament, even if it does not have bipartisan support.
In comments to The Australian on Monday, Albanese said that while he wanted to garner as much bipartisan agreement as possible, he would not be “giving any political organisation or any grouping a right of veto”.
“You don’t need a consensus but you need a broad agreement, firstly, among First Nations leaders and then, secondly, you would seek to get as broad a political agreement as possible for a referendum,” Albanese said.
“So that doesn’t mean that any group would have veto power, because my concern is that unless there is a referendum in the foreseeable future, then the momentum will be lost.”
Leeser said that the difficulty with referendums in Australia was that they were “never about the broad principle”, but rather about the detail, and many people were not engaged on the issue.
“There are many Australians who haven’t paid any attention to this, and in a referendum, people will go to the polls and whether they’ve been following the debate closely or haven’t followed it at all they will be asked about to vote on this, and this is why it’s important to get the detail right,” he said.
“We know it’s a rare thing that we change the constitution, and it hasn’t been changed for 45 years. Labor hasn’t put up a successful referendum in 76 years, and we also know that this isn’t like determining the date that senators should start or how old judges should be when they retire, this is dealing with fellow Australians and we need to take these issues sensibly, seriously, and deal with them in an appropriate fashion.”
He also pointed to doubts raised by Pat Turner, the chair of the Coalition of Peaks that represents 70 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community-controlled peak organisations, who said on Friday she was “struggling to see the best way forward” on constitutional recognition.
Leeser said such hesitations, and those expressed by Greens senator Lidia Thorpe, who is pushing for a treaty before constitutional recognition, showed there was a lot of work yet to be done.
“He’s got to bring Australians with him more broadly if he wants a successful referendum,” he said.
“I note Lidia Thorpe from the Greens has said that she doesn’t think the nation is ready, I note Pat Turner, distinguished Indigenous leader at the weekend, saying that she struggled to see a way forward.
“He’s got a range of people saying to him, ‘look, you’ve got to do more here’, and so I think the important thing is that he brings people with him, and that is by coming forward with detail and explaining how we’re going to get to the goal that he has set out for the country.
“The onus is on the prime minister here: he set up the timetable, he set up the process, we want him to bring all Australians with us, whether it’s people in my party, whether it’s in the Greens, whether it’s in all the parties. If he’s going to be successful in the referendum, it’s really important he brings Australians with him.”