Albanese says he was never asked to delay Voice referendum as defeat loomed

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Prime Minister Anthony Albanese has denied ever being asked by Indigenous leaders to delay the referendum in the face of defeat, as he censured Opposition Leader Peter Dutton for using the words of the late Aboriginal elder Yunupingu in arguing against the Voice.

This masthead has confirmed with four Yes campaign and government sources, speaking anonymously because they were unauthorised to comment publicly, that senior figures in the Yes23 campaign had an informal but intense discussion in late July about the referendum timing and the wisdom of proceeding with it.

Albanese and Dutton in parliament on Wednesday.Credit: Alex Ellinghausen

At that time, public and internal polling indicated the Voice was on track to defeat unless the campaign’s trajectory shifted. On July 22, the Resolve Political Monitor showed the Voice in a losing position for the first time.

Internal Yes campaign research also showed many voters remained unaware of the proposed Indigenous advisory body and showed little interest in Indigenous affairs as an inflation spike occupied voters’ attention.

The sources suggested the Yes23 campaign made no formal approach to Albanese to delay or call off the vote. But conversations were had between top government figures and Voice campaigners about how difficult it would be to win as the pro-referendum movement was gripped by doubts in late July and early August.

One of the campaign sources said that even after Albanese on August 30 announced the referendum date, senior figures not involved in Yes23 spoke about trying to call off the October 14 vote.

Asked by Nationals MP Sam Birrell in parliament on Wednesday if he received “advice from a member or members from the referendum working group” to postpone the referendum beyond the planned October 14 date, Albanese said: “No is the answer to the question”.

In the same answer, Albanese – who earlier described Dutton as an unreformed wrecker intent on nasty politics – called out the opposition leader’s comments last week about Voice advocate Yunupingu, an esteemed Yolngu leader who died earlier this year.

In response to a question about his view that the Voice would not deliver practical results, Dutton said last week that in East Arnhem Land, where Yunupingu lived, school attendance rates were high, housing was plentiful, and “they’ve got a functioning society”.

“And in that instance, it’s because of the leadership demonstrated by Yunupingu and others around him over the course of a long period. And that’s what we want to see replicated elsewhere.”

Albanese said Yunupingu’s people were upset by the comments. The prime minister then quoted Yunupingu’s request for an Australian leader to take up the task of reconciliation, which Albanese said he had done.

“And I note that very insensitively, last week the leader of the opposition raised it – something that I know from speaking to the leaders of the people there in Arnhem Land, they were terribly offended by, given the role that [Yunupingu] played in the Uluru Statement from the Heart,” Albanese said.

“That is something for the leader of the opposition to consider.”

Dutton rose to his feet after question time ended to respond to Albanese’s statement.

“During the course of question time today … many and varied misrepresentations have been made by the government, and the prime minister in particular,” he said.

“But there’s nothing more egregious that the prime minister said during question time than to cast aspersions on comments I made in relation to a great Australian, Yunupingu, last Tuesday in Adelaide,” he said, before again quoting his previous remarks about Yunupingu.

“For the prime minister to misrepresent that in a way today to suggest that I had dishonoured Mr Yunupingu or said something in a derogatory way in relation to Mr Yunupingu, reflects more on the prime minister, frankly, than it does myself,” Dutton said.

Meanwhile, some republic campaigners fear the failure of the Voice poll may result in their cause being lost for a generation, while others remain hopeful of another referendum on Australia splitting from the monarchy.

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