The New South Wales premier, Dominic Perrottet, has given his strongest endorsement yet of the Albanese government’s Indigenous voice to parliament, questioning “what the real concern is” from opponents to the referendum.
Perrottet has previously given his support for the voice, at odds with federal Liberals who have so far refused to commit to supporting the referendum.
The premier, who incorporated closing the gap measures into his ministerial charter letters and who in February last year took the step of flying the Aboriginal flag atop Sydney’s Harbour Bridge permanently after a long campaign by activists, told Guardian Australia in an interview that his changing views on the value of symbolism had informed his position on the vote.
“My views have changed a lot … I was very much completely focused on practical reconciliation,” he said.
“I used to get really frustrated with the left. Not that I was coming from any sense of great experience, but I felt they had no idea and I kind of felt that this was feelgood politics without actually really being focused on [outcomes].”
That concern is among the chief objections from organisers of the no campaign, including the former Greens senator Lidia Thorpe.
But Perrottet said he believed the principle of the voice was fundamentally positive.
“It’s having a voice at the table, and that’s positive, so I naturally agree with that,” he said.
“My natural sense [is] this is the only way to work through that issue of engagement, to make a difference, [and] I don’t know what the real concern is.
“What’s the point here? The point of the voice is to have greater engagement on issues which affect First Nations people. Take out the structures, and we haven’t yet got the final [detail] … it’s about having a voice at the table.”
The Coalition has been criticised for its failure to support a state-based treaty process with Indigenous Australians. NSW has the largest population of First Nations people in the country, but is the only state not to have begun a treaty process or engaged in comprehensive land settlement deals.
Lynda Edwards, named both the premier’s woman of the year and Aboriginal woman of the year last month, has bemoaned the fact NSW was “so far behind everyone else” on a treaty process. The Labor opposition has committed to beginning a treaty process if it wins government.
But Perrottet said he did not support a treaty, saying that while he was “very much in favour of anything that drives engagement” he believed “we don’t need a treaty”.
Instead, he insisted that by tying individual ministers to closing the gap measures it made the ministers “accountable”.
“They’ve got to meet with the peak bodies, and they all go, and if they don’t go, I find out and I speak to them about it. That’s happened a couple of times,” he said.
“They’re responsible for their areas and reporting back to me in relation to what’s going well and what’s not going well.”
The Coalition remains behind in the polls a week out from the next election as it seeks a fourth term in power. During his interview with the Guardian, Perrottet revealed his push for poker machine reform – a key plank of his re-election platform – had almost been derailed amid opposition from within his own party.
“If I hadn’t literally put my career on the line on this issue, I would never … never have achieved the change,” he said.
The $344m cashless gambling policy will see clubs offered industry assistance during a four-year transition period before the system becomes mandatory in 2028.
The premier admitted he had wanted an earlier deadline, but had negotiated with the Nationals in order to win their support on the policy. However, he insisted the benefits of “moving first” would see cashless gaming adopted more widely before the 2028.
“I think what you’ll see is a lot of pubs and clubs coming in first [and] getting the benefits of those grants to help them diversify,” he said.
“If there’s one thing I’ve learned from 10 years in this industry, it is that change is hard.
“People see what they see and therefore, it’s really hard to kind of imagine something different. But once you imagine something different, and it’s in, then it’s like, well, that’s the way it always was. So that’s exactly what’s going to happen.”
Asked whether he believed the club’s lobby had over-stated the financial hit resulting from cashless gaming he said “yes”, and suggested Labor had “overestimated” fear of a campaign against the changes.
“I don’t think there has been a significant campaign, if any, against the position I’ve taken,” he said.
The Coalition’s push for pokies reform has marked one of the major policy differences between the two parties in the buildup to the election, after the Labor leader, Chris Minns, instead committed only to a trial of the cashless technology if it wins government.