Malcolm Turnbull and Tony Abbott used indigenous constitutional recognition as a disposable weapon in their internecine war and had ambitions “only for themselves and not for the country”, Cape York lawyer Noel Pearson has alleged in an explosive new attack.
In a powerful, sharply aimed essay titled “Betrayal”, in The Monthly out next week, Mr Pearson says the former prime minister helped wreck substantive constitutional reform by using it as “a stalking horse in his campaign of vengeance against Turnbull” once the latter deposed him in 2015.
Minimalism — what Mr Pearson describes in the piece as “essentially a brass plaque screwed near the front entrance of the country’s constitutional structure” — was always a risk while Mr Abbott was leader but it “became a clear and present danger” after his overthrow, he writes.
He accuses Mr Abbott of “squander(ing) his capital in one indulgent atavistic spree” by bestowing a knighthood on Prince Philip when he ought to have used “some of that capital … for blackfellas, for recognition. Instead it was spent on … the fulfilment of some inconsolable fantasy about dungeons, thrones and Downton Abbey”.
And Mr Pearson says Mr Turnbull uttered a “gross untruth” last month in a release disparaging the Referendum Council’s recommendation of an indigenous advisory body, or voice, to parliament, something he had supported before becoming Prime Minister.
Mr Turnbull rejected the proposal — which otherwise has won conservative support — because he was “trapped by his political situation: devoid of capital, hostage to the conservatives whose leader he had stabbed in order to gain the prime ministership, and without the gumption to break his captivity”, Mr Pearson writes
He accuses Mr Turnbull of declining even “to front the Australian people” on the matter, resorting instead to issuing “an egregious document, replete with self-conscious untruths and calculated misrepresentation (whose) sheer dishonesty is breathtaking” and which was designed “to win the public argument through gross misrepresentation”.
He also reveals his personal notes from the July meeting where the council, chaired by Mark Leibler and Pat Anderson, handed its recommendations to Mr Turnbull and Bill Shorten and where the Prime Minister, he says, retorted that “this was not what was asked for, or expected”.
“My notebook records him bristling about ‘big change’, ‘big idea’, ‘heroic failure’, ‘column of smoke’ and the voice being a ‘latecomer’,” Mr Pearson writes. “He is seething and can barely conceal his fangs. The meeting concludes with the insult that the council has left him ‘no wiser but much better informed’.”
Mr Pearson writes that his “long game” of 17 years cultivating support for substantive reform from leaders on the conservative side of politics “availed us nothing in the end” but warns that anger must now be focused on the future.
He offers hope that the agenda for substantive recognition “will not die”, suggesting that “this setback at the hands of these two people … is not our destiny”.