Australians should know the facts of the Turnbull government’s despicable rejection of the Uluru “statement from the heart” and the Referendum Council’s report on constitutional recognition. First Dog on the Moon nailed the truth: this government was never interested in listening to Indigenous Australians.
The prime minister let slip the minimalist outcome he wanted before consultations even began. In November last year, Malcolm Turnbull told the Referendum Council, which was appointed to advise the government on how to proceed with recognising Indigenous people in the constitution, that only minimalism would be acceptable. In a private meeting, Turnbull said the representative body had a “snowflake’s chance in hell”. “It’s just my personal view,” he qualified – with the omniscient wisdom of the guy who led the losing team in the republic referendum.
I saw the council members’ stricken faces after that November meeting. That was the first time he kicked Indigenous people in the guts.
Turnbull realised his mistake, however, when challenged to tell the Australian people his view on the reform option about to be discussed in dialogues around the country. He bristled when Noel Pearson said it would be disingenuous for government not to tell Australians, and Indigenous people particularly, if they’d already ruled options out. In a letter jointly written with Bill Shorten, Turnbull then said they expected all options to be put to the forthcoming dialogues, which the council had set up to consult Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people on reform options.
Indigenous leaders didn’t give up. They had to pursue this chance at positive structural reform – what other choice did they have? Their people were dying, languishing in jail, committing suicide at unprecedented rates – still subject to top-down policies that waste money and don’t work. They had to fight back.
They did. They consulted widely and forged a historic First Nations consensus. The Uluru statement rejected minimalism and backed a single, modest constitutional reform: the representative body – also the most popular reform in submissions from the wider public. Surely Turnbull, morally, could not ignore both Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australian wishes?
He could. Amazingly, when the final report was delivered, Turnbull let slip again: “This isn’t what we asked for,” he said.
Turnbull’s personal views have proved fickle. At a meeting at Parliament House in 2015 Turnbull, then communications minister, told Noel Pearson and I that the representative body proposal “seemed sensible”. He understood its logic and even asked how he could help. Things changed when he became prime minister.
He was not the only politician to sell Indigenous people out.
Christian Porter also told us he supported the Indigenous body proposal, and in a separate meeting, without Pearson, he described the approach as an “elegant solution”. But after Turnbull elevated Porter to the social services ministry, he changed his tune and started arguing against it. We wrote to Porter in March asking him to work with us to refine the proposal. We never heard back.
When Tony Abbott was prime minister he was ambitious about recognition and even flagged reserved Indigenous seats as an ill-considered alternative way of ensuring Indigenous peoples a voice. Abbott was subsequently ambiguous about his position, but during the dialogues and after Uluru, he told me and Indigenous leaders including Pearson, that he wasn’t opposed to an Indigenous body in the constitution – he just wanted it drafted differently. We asked him to help advocate the proposal. He said he’d think about it. When Turnbull rejected the Uluru statement last week, Abbott backed him, almost the only time he ever has.
A cabinet leak revealed Indigenous affairs minister Nigel Scullion, together with the attorney general, George Brandis, took the Referendum Council’s recommendation to cabinet, where it was rejected. The rejection was confirmed in an especially dishonest press release.
The government could have just said no. Instead they made the no case with rhetoric parroting the Institute for Public Affairs. Astoundingly, Turnbull appeared to have embraced the bizarre characterisations of monarchist, David Flint, who facetiously described the body proposal as “a cross between a House of Lords and a Raj Chamber of Princes”, with the government press release adopting the “third chamber of parliament” caricature.
The government knows full well it is not. The proposal is a voice to parliament not in parliament – an external body with no veto or voting powers. The release attempts to create a self-fulfilling prophecy. Again, First Dog on the Moon got it right in the cartoon: “this may well be seen by some to be a third house of parliament … And if it isn’t seen that way to start with we will make sure it is by the end …”
Why did they attack so viciously?
That the attorney general took the reform to cabinet shows how close the representative body got to being accepted. Brandis’ department had advised us the proposal was legally sound and constitutionally modest, thus their preferred option. It was backed by serious constitutional conservatives. And now it had unprecedented Indigenous consensus. All this was achieved despite concerted undermining of the model from government, pollsters and Recognise over the years.
Scared politicians had to actively kill off this proposal, or else momentum may grow and Australians might just support the reform. A constitutionally enshrined First Nations voice, modest as it was, would empower Indigenous peoples and hold parliament to greater account in Indigenous affairs.
The only explanation seems to be that the government wants the impression of change, not actual change. It wants to be seen to be doing something, while doing nothing. That’s why it wants minimalism.
But Turnbull’s push for minimalism is misguided. A symbolic mention already failed when put to referendum in 1999. It will be opposed by Indigenous people who rejected minimalism at Uluru. It will be opposed by constitutional conservatives who want to protect the constitution from uncertain judicial interpretation of ambiguous words.
Just as direct electionists joined forces with monarchists to defeat the republic referendum, so too will Indigenous advocates join forces with constitutional conservatives to defeat tokenism. Natural opponents become unlikely allies in referendum campaigns. Turnbull should know this. That he wants to proceed with minimalism, despite Indigenous rejection, is not only immoral – it’s foolish.
Our national leaders have destroyed our best chance of meaningful structural reform in Indigenous affairs. We got close but Turnbull’s expediency killed this hope. Australians should not stand for this injustice.