'We have got to get this right': Liberal MP warns broad support needed for Indigenous referendum

A key Coalition proponent of constitutional recognition of Indigenous Australians has warned that strong bipartisan support will be crucial for a successful referendum and rushing the process could risk a Brexit-like outcome.

Julian Leeser, a Liberal MP and co-chair of Parliament's constitutional recognition committee, said it would be premature to stake out political positions before the completion of a comprehensive "co-design" of the referendum proposal.

"Nobody in Australian politics wants to put up a referendum that doesn't succeed, so we have got to get this right," Mr Leeser said on Tuesday.

"We know that to have a referendum pass you need to have bipartisan support.


"And indeed we have had two referenda fail when we had bipartisan support from party leaders but not from some senators and premiers."


Indigenous constitutional recognition has been on the political agenda for a decade, but attention has focused on the concept of a constitutionally enshrined Indigenous "Voice to Parliament" since 2017, when it was proposed in the Uluru Statement from the Heart. The Voice would be a representative body advising on policies affecting Indigenous people.

The proposal has been backed by Labor but has faced hostility in the Coalition, with senior figures describing it as a "third chamber" of Parliament. That claim has been rejected by advocates of the idea.

In a report late last year, MPs from both sides on the constitutional recognition committee backed further exploration of the concept and recommended a "co-design" consultation process with Indigenous communities that would examine national, regional and local elements of a Voice. The Morrison government supported the findings and has provided funding for the design process.

Labor had committed to a referendum in this term of Parliament had it been elected.

Mr Leeser said "Labor was writing cheques it couldn't cash" and the detail had to be sorted out first.


"At one point, they flirted with a referendum being put forward without the detail. We've seen an international example of that — it's called Brexit … Vote first and sort out the details later. It didn't end well," he said.

Attorney-General Christian Porter said it was difficult to arrive at a final position while the concept remained "exceptionally vague" but reiterated resistance among senior Liberals to a constitutional Voice to Parliament.

"To the extent that the concept has meant, or means, and in my observation it likely does mean, some kind of constitutionally enshrined extra parliamentary process … members of the executive government, the government itself, have rejected that notion," Mr Porter told Sky News on Tuesday.

"But that doesn't mean that you don't give full consideration to other plans or models and ways in which to recognise Indigenous people in the Australian constitution."

Constitutional lawyer and Cobble Cobble woman Megan Davis said it was "very early days" and the Morrison government was just settling in.

"It's important to exercise patience and respect. We have always sought to educate and persuade government and the Australian people on the Uluru Statement from the Heart and the proposal for a referendum on a Voice to Parliament," Professor Davis said.

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