The Indigenous Australians Minister attempted to reframe the Yes campaign amid recent polls showing support for the referendum proposal plummeting.
One of the central anchors to her argument was that the gap between indigenous and non-indigenous living standards had “not been closing fast enough”.
While the minister attempted to clarify persisting concerns over the Voice’s powers and functions, her speech created more questions for the government less than four months out from the expected referendum date.
During her address, Ms Burney defended the government’s decision to push ahead with the referendum arguing the Voice needed to be constitutionally enshrined to preserve its independence.
“One question I am sometimes asked is, why does the Voice need to be in the constitution? Why can’t just be legislated? There are two main reasons, everyone,” Ms Burney said.
“Firstly, a Voice or representative body cannot be truly independent or give frank advice to the government of the day if the government of the day can abolish it with a stroke of a pen.”
Senator Price said the minister’s claims were “another falsehood” from the Yes campaign pointing to existing commonwealth bodies which sat outside the reach of government.
“Does the Minister now believe the National Anti-Corruption Commission, the Solicitor General or any independent statutory non-partisan body is not truly independent unless it is enshrined in the constitution?” Senator Price told SkyNews.com.au.
A senior opposition source also hit back at Ms Burney’s comments and rejected suggestions the body would not be independent without constitutional enshrinement.
“Minister Burney’s claim that only constitutionally enshrined bodies are truly independent would come as a concerning revelation to the dozens of independent agencies and the thousands of public servants who execute their daily roles independently and professionally on behalf of the Australian people,” the source told SkyNews.com.au
“It seems like in her haste to switch up messaging to manufacture a case for the Voice, Minister Burney is happy to simply make stuff up.”
There are multiple statutory bodies and corporate commonwealth entities which are independent from the government of the day such as the Australian Broadcasting Corporation and the new National Anti-Corruption Commission.
The Indigenous Australians Minister also suggested if the Voice to Parliament was not constitutionally enshrined and instead was legislated, it could be abolished with a “stroke of a pen”.
But to remove a body from the list of commonwealth entities and companies, the government of the day would still need to pass it through both houses of parliament and would likely face significant opposition in the Senate which is rarely held in majority by one party.
As the government attempts to revive the Yes campaign, Ms Burney sought to clarify concerns around the body including its policy remit.
She maintained the Voice would “give independent advice” to parliament and the government, but also declared she would ask it to consider four main priority areas: health, education, jobs and housing.
But Ms Burney dodged multiple questions on whether these policy areas would be included in the legislation and avoided The Australian’s Rosie Lewis who asked if the Voice would be free to “determine its own scope” or would it be expected to advise on those priorities “first and foremost”.
The minister also pointed to three possible situations where the Voice could help indigenous communities including tackling low school attendance, investing in skills, and improving access to medical services.
Senator Price however argued there were solutions already being offered for similar issues and questioned why the government had not already acted.
“Is she suggesting that she doesn’t have any ideas at all or that she’s not listening to those that currently do have ideas?” she said.
“There is nothing stopping Labor from acting on any of the Voice’s so-called priorities right now.
“We need to look at the billions of dollars that are being spent or misspent and understand where it can be better supported and where it’s actually producing outcomes.”
The government has persistently attempted to distance itself from suggestions the Voice was a body formulated by the political elite by claiming it has broad support in the indigenous community.
At the Press Club Ms Burney said constitutional recognition through the voice was what First Nations people had “asked for themselves”.
Senator Price said the Voice proposal “does not speak for all indigenous Australians” and hit out at suggestions to the contrary.
“Even the Anangu elders from Uluru have spoken up about the fact that they have not been heard throughout all of this process,” she said.
“This is just another falsehood from the Yes Campaign. This is in line with their suggestions that all indigenous Australians asked for this and that it will only impact Indigenous Australians.
“These are simply not true and continue to muddy the water of this proposal.”
While the 2017 First Nations National Constitutional Convention formulated the Uluru Statement From the Heart which was the source document for the Voice, indigenous support for the issue is not unanimous.
A poll conducted for the Uluru Dialogue Group by Ipsos in January showed 80 per cent of 300 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people surveyed supported the Voice.
Another study by YouGov asking 732 First Nations people whether or not they supported the proposal came back with an 83 per cent yes vote.
Indigenous MPs and Senators are also divided on the Voice to Parliament with the Coalition’s opposition to the body being led by Senator Price and Senator Kerrynne Liddle.
Independent Senator Lidia Thorpe has also been a vocal mouthpiece for the black sovereign movement which has demanded treaty over the Voice.
In her speech, Ms Burney also invoked the emotional story of indigenous photographer Michael Riley who died in 2004 at the age of 44 with renal failure following extensive health battles linked back to early childhood poverty.
The Minister said Mr Riley’s death was condemned to an early but “preventable death” and declared the “injustice of it” motivated her to this day to improve living conditions of Australia’s First Nations peoples.
Towards the end of her address the minister also positioned the government as being the source of facts for the debate and has disparaged opponents of the Voice as spreading misinformation and “post truth” talking points.
Ms Burney went off-script in her scathing rebuke of the no campaign suggesting it was employing “Trump-style politics” to polarise and “sow division” on the Voice.
The No Campaign rejected the minister’s “arrogant attack on ordinary Australians” with Senator Price claiming the speech proved the referendum was “about division.
“If you stand against her campaign to change the Constitution to quite literally divide us by race, you’re accused of division, racism, and misinformation. How is that not divisive?” the No campaign spokeswoman told SkyNews.com.au.
“The good news is that mainstream Australians are wise to the division the ‘yes’ campaign is trying to enshrine in our national rulebook and we will not be standing idly by while Ms Burney launches her elitist attacks from the comfort of the Canberra Press Club.”
SkyNews.com.au has reached out to Indigenous Australians Minister Linda Burney for comment.
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