Malcolm Turnbull could have just said no. Instead he made the dishonest “No” case. Why? My best explanation is that he got scared by the Indigenous consensus. Scared by the growing, widespread public support. A constitutionally enshrined First Nations voice, modest as it is, would empower Indigenous peoples and hold parliament to greater account in Indigenous affairs. Government wants to keep all its power. It doesn’t want to share. The status quo works well for its purposes – so why change it? That’s why the government wants minimalism.
Recently I chatted to a Liberal Party backbencher who explained the underlying concern. They knew there was no veto, and they knew no “third chamber” was proposed. Some Coalition members were simply scared to give Indigenous people a guaranteed say in their own affairs, because they were worried such a voice might have political influence, and that it might disagree with government policy. It was ironic: the party championing liberal values, freedom and a robust democracy, was afraid of Indigenous free speech. Afraid of Indigenous dissent.
Paul Kelly conveyed a similar fear in a phone conversation with Noel Pearson, which Noel later described in The Monthly:
Kelly said something startling. He understood the voice proposal was not a third chamber, and Turnbull was wrong to describe it as such. The startling thing he said was that the voice, even though only having an advisory function, would operate virtually as a veto on parliament. A body without the legal power to direct parliament would hold some sort of non-legal veto over the parliament. Really? This late in our history and here is a great old white man conjuring a great old white fear about Indigenous voices. A stalwart defender of free speech, now saying he opposes the mere expression of an Indigenous opinion, for fear it might influence Indigenous policy.
Such fears were unwarranted. The only risk in giving Indigenous people a voice, and allowing better debate and discussion in Indigenous affairs, is that Indigenous policy and outcomes might be improved. This would be good for Indigenous people, and good for the nation. Turnbull must also have calculated (wrongly, in my view) that the rejection was a vote winner. Yet he is paying a political cost for his heartlessness. This is another example of his inability to provide the kind of progressive leadership he promised Australians, another example of a politician selling out his principles in exchange for political ascendancy.
It is also a foolish decision on his part.
A minimalist model would be opposed by the majority of Indigenous people, who have now made clear they seek substantive reform over mere symbolism. And constitutional conservatives will galvanise against the insertion of flowery statements, to uphold the Constitution and prevent the transfer of power to the High Court. Indigenous advocates in favour of substantive reform over empty symbolism will find unexpected allies in constitutional conservatives. Together they will form a powerful coalition that would defeat a minimalist referendum.
There is an important analogy here with the failed republic referendum. During that campaign, the direct-electionists joined forces with the monarchists to successfully oppose constitutional reform for Australia to become a republic. The alliance demonstrated the way in which people who might ordinarily disagree can unite against a common enemy in a referendum fight. In the recognition debate, constitutional symbolism would become the common enemy of Indigenous advocates and constitutional conservatives. It would animate an alliance between Indigenous people seeking substantive reform over decorative words, and constitutional conservatives seeking to uphold the Constitution and protect it from uncertainty. But with the right model, these two groups can unite as passionate advocates for sensible yet substantive reform.
Such an alliance may yet play out as reality. A new Joint Select Committee has now been appointed to further Indigenous constitutional recognition. The Uluru Statement and the Referendum Council’s report are part of its terms of reference, indicating that Turnbull’s rejection is far from the last word. The Committee’s co-chairs have been named as Patrick Dodson, the father of reconciliation, and constitutional conservative Julian Leeser, co-designer of the constitutional voice and an integral part of our “con con” alliance. The opportunity to realise a historic radical-centre solution on Indigenous constitutional recognition now looms in the federal parliament. Leeser and Dodson can forge the pathway. Indeed, if they unite in commitment to the dual sensible imperatives of meaningfully recognising Indigenous peoples, and upholding the Australian Constitution, Leeser and Dodson together may be able forge the path to justice. Both will need resolve and courage. Both will need to back the Uluru Statement from the Heart.
The productive political tension is now back, and this bodes well. The Indigenous MPs have risen to the challenge posed by the Uluru Statement. Ken Wyatt contradicts Turnbull and seems increasingly in favour of an Indigenous voice to parliament. “Noel Pearson made the comment that it was not about vetoing parliament, it was not about a third chamber, it was about a voice that governments would listen to that represented a reflection of what came at a community level,” Wyatt said. “If you build the model on empowered communities right around Australia then you would have very powerful local grassroots level voices percolating to the top and informing … Governments make the mistake of hand selecting people that they will listen to.” Linda Burney calls out Turnbull’s misleading “straw man” arguments against the voice proposal, and Patrick Dodson, with impressive courage and honesty, characterised Turnbull’s rejection as a return to the “dog-whistle” politics of the Howard era. These impressive leaders are no longer letting Turnbull off the hook.
And public support continues to grow, despite the rejection.
It grows despite the lies, and despite the fears. It grows because this is a just and modest proposal. It grows because this is a noble compromise, radical-centre reform, capable of bringing all Australians together.
Part of the lesson of this story is that the Australian people must ask more of our political leaders. We must demand that they stick to their principles and behave with honour. We must demand that they speak the truth, treat the First Nations with respect, and act in the national interest – rather than just their own interests. Otherwise, how will Australia ever move forward?
There remains an extraordinary political opportunity to achieve the vision set out in the Uluru Statement from the Heart, if only we have the moral courage to demand it. I urge Australians not to be missing in action. Do not cherry-pick the Indigenous dissenters. Do not second-guess the Uluru Statement. Do not play divide and conquer. Stand in solidarity with Indigenous people.
We must not squander this historic opportunity because of our own complacency. We must not sit back and watch as the politicians kick this can down the road in favour of constitutional reform for a republic, constitutional reform to give themselves longer terms in power, or constitutional reform to water down their accountabilities under section 44 citizenship requirements. Non-Indigenous Australians must now insist the government act to guarantee the First Nations of Australia a voice in their affairs. Indigenous people have done the hard work to achieve a consensus. Now the rest of us must back them.
This is what I have learned as an Indian-Australian woman striving to work in solidarity with Indigenous people to help achieve the justice they seek, and that we all seek. It is not up to Indigenous people to achieve this alone. We all bear a responsibility. We cannot be shy or lethargic in our advocacy, or be stymied by the political correctness that says only Indigenous people can advocate for Indigenous justice. That is a cop-out. Non-Indigenous Australians owe it to our Indigenous compatriots to advocate alongside them for change. All Australians carry a duty to create a better country.
I do not believe this reform is beyond us as a nation. Until we resolve it, we will never know peace.
Every year, as January 26 approaches, the pressure for national justice grows greater – 2018 was no different.
I think about the Crown’s unfulfilled instructions when Australia Day rolls around. January 26 commemorates an unrealised good intention – a broken promise. Weirdly, we expect all Australians to celebrate what was in many ways the opening of a national wound, rather the healing of it. No wonder there is division: our nation has not yet done the necessary work to make right the wrongs of the past.
Turnbull, with his head in the sand, pretends the day unites Australians – though it clearly doesn’t. Alan Tudge inanely recites the three parts of Australia – the Indigenous, the British and the multicultural – and pretends each is already equally celebrated: they’re not. “On Australia Day we increasingly recognise Indigenous people through the awarding of the Australian of the Year award to Indigenous people,” he says, bizarrely. In other words: let’s appease our national guilt by handing out awards to Indigenous people while also denying them a voice – an argument for tokenism: dumb and disrespectful, even for Tudge.
I am not yet persuaded that changing the date fixes the problem. My concern is that changing the date is largely symbolic and lets us off the hook too easily. I agree with Indigenous activist Tony Birch, who argues that changing the date:
… suggests that the offence being caused by current Australia Day celebrations can be reduced to the narrowness of the date in question – January 26. The logic of such an argument would suggest that if we were to return to July 15, or March 29 even (my birthday), the history of violence towards Indigenous people would become less offensive? Or forgotten perhaps? … Such is the rhetoric of symbolic gestures in settler-colonial societies incapable of countenancing either the relinquishment of power, or the contemplation of genuine remorse … If the young are our future, and I sincerely hope that they are, their pathway will be forged in action and a call for self-determination rather than hollow symbolism and a patronising call to display patience.
Birch calls for substantive justice over symbolic date changes. I tend to agree.
I have come to the view that Australia Day tensions will persist, and should persist, until our nation comes to terms with the wrongs of the past and resolves them through formal reconciliation – and by that I mean substantive reform, not mere symbolism. Rather than changing the date, why not transform and redeem it? Reform the Constitution. Sign the Makarrata. Unify the nation.
With a bit of vision, January 26 could be the date we belatedly include a First Nations voice in the Constitution and establish the Makarrata Commission, as the Uluru Statement from the Heart requests. And bring together the three parts of our nation through a legislated Declaration enacted by all Australian parliaments, as the Referendum Council recommends.
If we did these things on January 26, the date would become a solemn day of historical reconciliation. A day of healing, resolution and inclusion. This to me seems the radical-centre solution. It would not repudiate our British heritage, which is the only thing currently commemorated by January 26. Rather, it would formally embrace our ancient Indigenous heritage and right the wrongs of the past.
Of course, achieving such reforms, whether on January 26 or any other date, requires morally courageous political leadership. It requires political leaders willing to lead for the national good, rather than dog-whistling to try to win votes. We will need a new government, a new prime minister, and a younger, brighter, better generation to rise to the fore.
In the meantime, why not keep the productive tension January 26 creates, and use this to propel change? Change to redeem the date and make good, finally, on the Crown’s secret instructions. Let us do that which should have been done in 1788 and in 1901: declare our shared country, guarantee the First Nations voice in our constitutional compact, and sign the treaty that will unite us as one Australia.