Julian Leeser has demanded the release of legal advice about the Indigenous voice’s power to advise the executive government, claiming Australians have a right to know if its top lawyer has “concerns”.
The shadow attorney general wrote to his counterpart, Mark Dreyfus, on Friday. And he reiterated his demand for any advice by the solicitor general to be released in an interview on Sunday. The referendum working group has not yet made its final recommendation.
Labor views the demand as the latest move to undermine support for the voice, following opposition leader Peter Dutton writing to the government in January with 15 questions seeking detail, much of which will be determined by parliament after the referendum.
Conservatives have been lobbying for the voice to be restricted to representations to parliament, and not the executive government.
The move has been rejected by the majority of the working group who have warned there is “no room for mediocrity” in the proposal to give Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders input into decisions that affect them.
The Australian reported that at Thursday’s meeting, the solicitor general, Stephen Donaghue, had “provided advice on the wording of the proposed constitutional amendment” and that Dreyfus had “proposed a different form of words” than Anthony Albanese had first suggested at the Garma festival.
Albanese had proposed that the voice “may make representations to parliament and the executive government on matters relating to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples”.
Leeser wrote that the “plain implication” was “that the solicitor-general has concerns about the wording of the current proposal” – although that interpretation of the meeting is disputed by other participants.
On Sunday, Leeser told Sky News that it appears “at a quarter to midnight the solicitor general has gone to talk to the referendum working group with the attorney general and identified there is a problem with the government’s wording and they proposed alternate wording”.
“If Australians are going to vote on these matters, we need to see the solicitor general’s advice, we need to understand what the most senior government lawyer thinks are the issues and challenges with the words the government has put forward.”
The referendum working group will deliver its final advice on Thursday, with introduction of the bill in late March and a final vote in parliament by June for a referendum in the second half of 2023.
Leeser, who claims to be a supporter of the voice, has warned the government is at risk of losing his support. On Sunday he insisted Dutton still has an open mind and the Liberals are yet to determine their final position.
On Friday Dreyfus dead-batted questions about whether he had proposed a watered down model, telling reporters he would not “be commenting on anything” in the working group meetings as “discussions are continuing”.
“What I can say is that the government will be bringing a constitution alteration bill to the parliament by the end of this month and that will end the speculation that we’ve had.”
Asked if he had concerns, Dreyfus noted that Albanese had “invited comments from anybody” about how to improve the referendum wording. “We’re still getting towards the end of that process.”
The proposal for the voice to have input into the executive government as well as parliament received a boost on Friday, with leading constitutional barrister Bret Walker dismissing “doomsday scenarios” that it could unduly increase litigation.
According to the Australian Financial Review, Walker addressed a seminar on the voice, stating that it would have “a power of influence” or “moral force” only, not legislative, executive or judicial power.
“The doomsdayers say ‘if you do that, you will shift to the court – or require the court to invalidate a decision’,” Walker reportedly said.
“There are several answers, but one of them is: Do you really think an Australian court is going to embark on the political question of whether what the voice said mattered or not?
“And in my view, it’s resoundingly no.”