Linda Burney says the Indigenous voice will not bother itself with “culture wars” like abolishing Australia Day as she launched an impassioned plea for voters to support the referendum as a way to address poor health outcomes and life expectancy in Aboriginal communities.
The prime minister, Anthony Albanese, branded the Coalition “sad” for targeting Burney for a second straight day in question time, as the Indigenous Australians minister stressed parliament would still have the final say over any issue the voice decided to make representations on.
“This is not about culture wars, this is about closing the gap. This is not about division, this is about bringing people together,” Burney told parliament.
“This is not about tokenism. It is about making it practical and making a practical difference.”
The Coalition peppered Burney with questions this week on whether the voice would give advice on changing the date of Australia Day or military purchases.
Burney accused the opposition of “underhand” tactics, stressing the voice would focus on issues that affected Indigenous people differently. On Wednesday, the opposition again tried to get Burney to rule policy areas in or out of the voice’s remit, as well as continuing criticism of comments made by yes campaigner and referendum working group member Thomas Mayo.
The government has been clear that parliament would retain supremacy over decisions and that it would not be obligated to follow the voice’s representations.
“The voice is advisory. It won’t be Moses handing down the tablets from the mountain,” Albanese told parliament.
“The parliament will still be the democratic centre of our national life, the parliament will still be supreme in matter of policy and law.”
The no campaign have repeatedly said the voice could theoretically give advice on such topics, noting the strong feelings of some Indigenous people about celebrating 26 January.
Burney said on Tuesday that the voice wouldn’t give advice on changing Australia Day, and on Wednesday, she said it was not the government’s policy to alter Australia Day.
“It is the parliament that makes those decisions … the voice may give advice, but the parliament retains its primacy,” she said.
Following further sustained questioning on technical details of the voice, about whether there would be any restrictions on the policy areas it advises on, Burney appeared at one point to hold back tears.
“I have been to communities that are crying out for a different way of doing things. I have been to communities where there are 30 people living in two-bedroom homes. I have been to communities where babies are drinking sweet cordial, instead of water, because it’s cheaper,” she said.
“I have been to communities where you cannot get in and out because of the road conditions. I have taken a friend, who died at 43 of renal failure, to visit his son in jail. I have seen friends die in hospitals, because … their conditions in their life when they were younger were terrible.”
“So do not tell me what I do or do not know about Aboriginal Australia. Do not tell me [the voice] is not needed in this country. I am not interested in culture wars. I am interested in closing the gap.”
Albanese has accelerated his own efforts to promote the voice since the passage of the constitutional alteration bill this week, joining a press conference from Burney and attorney general Mark Dreyfus as well as undertaking multiple commercial radio and TV interviews to promote the referendum.
The prime minister and Labor MPs have also prominently worn “yes” campaign T-shirts this week.
Labor’s Jana Stewart will wear a gown and cape emblazoned with “vote yes” and the words of the Uluru statement from the heart to Wednesday night’s Midwinter Ball in Parliament House. The Victorian senator said the dress – designed by her sister-in-law Laura Thompson, co-founder of Aboriginal social enterprise Clothing The Gaps – was an example of “wearing my values”.