Tensions over the Turnbull government’s dismissal of proposals for indigenous constitutional recognition have erupted, with a senior minister lashing out at a lawyer central in the process after being accused of putting his own job above the national interest.
Social Services Minister Christian Porter wrote to Cape York Institute adviser, and regular news commentator, Shireen Morris, slamming what he called her “disappointingly inaccurate” characterisations of his position on the Referendum Council’s main proposal — a constitutionally enshrined indigenous advisory body to the parliament.
Ms Morris had written in an opinion piece that Mr Porter initially supported the proposal in two separate private meetings, but once being elevated to the social services ministry in 2015 had “changed his tune and started arguing against it”. The result, she wrote, was that he had “(sold) indigenous people out”.
In an extraordinary break with general protocol, Mr Porter returned fire in a private letter to Ms Morris, disputing her version of events and saying he was “very disappointed in the way that you have determined to characterise our dealings on this important matter”.
In it, he suggested that “frustration” expressed in her opinion piece of October 30 was because the recommendation, which was contained in the Uluru Statement from the Heart issued after a historic indigenous constitutional convention in May, “has not garnered widespread support amongst constitutional conservatives or others”.
Mr Porter wrote that he had never supported the “constitutional enshrining of an additional parliamentary process”.
However, Ms Morris said yesterday this was a misrepresentation similar to Malcolm Turnbull’s “third chamber of parliament” language, itself aimed at discrediting a proposal despite the fact it would be unlikely to have a veto power over legislation, and which he used when he unexpectedly announced its binning in late October.
“The fact the minister bothered to write to complain tells me his conscience is hurting him, and so it should be — mine would be too,” Ms Morris told The Australian. “Porter will go down in history, like Turnbull and Tony Abbott, as a leader who sold out indigenous Australians, and his convictions, for his own political gain. Australians won’t forget this.”
Mr Porter admitted in his letter that “I have never before written to the author of an opinion piece about its content, but in this instance considered the … statements … were so disappointingly inaccurate it appeared necessary to query why they were ever made”.
He said he could not recall the advisory body being raised in a meeting in his office with Ms Morris and Cape York Institute’s Noel Pearson in June 2015, as Ms Morris had suggested.
In a blistering reply delivered to Mr Porter yesterday, Ms Morris accused him of using “intentional spin” and the government of “pushing (a) dishonest characterisation” of the proposal.
Ms Morris pointed out that as a member of the Joint Select Committee on Constitutional Recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders, established in December 2013, it was “objectively evident” he was aware of the proposal, which was first raised in a Quarterly essay by Pearson in September 2014.
A letter sent by Pearson to Mr Porter in March this year reminded him of his support for the advisory body idea at the 2015 meeting, pointing out he had later described it as an “elegant solution”, and expressed disappointment that he had by this year begun to “publicly pick the proposal apart … this was a significant change of position on your part”.
In her letter yesterday Ms Morris accused Mr Porter of “moving from support to opposition according to your calculations concerning your political advancement”.