Indigenous leaders enraged as advisory board referendum is rejected by Malcolm Turnbull


2017 October, 27

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull has been accused of being paternalistic and "egregious" in deciding to walk away from the key recommendation of the historic Uluru Statement from the Heart.

Pat Anderson, the co-chairwoman of the now disbanded Referendum Council, said Mr Turnbull's decision was patronising.

"It's been a kick in the guts for us all. And of course now, the Prime Minister has turned himself into the latest mission manager," she said.

"He knows what's best for us and also he's omniscient because he knows what the Australian public are going to — how they're going to vote at a referendum."

The Uluru Statement was the end point of six months of consultations commissioned by the Federal Government to determine whether constitutional change was supported by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

Hundreds of influential Indigenous Australians attended a three-day summit at Uluru in May, and a majority endorsed a referendum to establish a permanent Indigenous advisory body.

Ms Anderson, who led six months of dialogues with Indigenous communities, said Indigenous people had requested their own assembly of First Nations people to advise parliament.

"Number one of our terms of reference was to go out and ask Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people what we wanted," Ms Anderson said.

"We told [Mr Turnbull] and he said 'Nope, we're not doing that'. Why [even] ask us?"

Opposition Leader Bill Shorten has written to Mr Turnbull, saying he is "deeply disappointed" the Government has rejected "the views of the majority of people consulted."

"It strikes me that a unilateral decision of this kind runs contrary to your repeated promise to do things with Indigenous Australians, and not to them," Mr Shorten wrote.

"It is not for us to dictate to First Nations Australians what form their recognition should take."

In estimates this morning, Senator Nigel Scullion was grilled by Opposition and crossbench members over the Government's decision.

He said the Government would consider the calls for a "Makaratta" treaty and a truth and justice commission, but would not proceed on a referendum to establish and Indigenous advisory body in the constitution.

"There are other matters we hope a joint select committee will deal with," Senator Scullion said.

"But in terms of the notional voice or assembly in the constitution, [that] was something we didn't think we should pursue."

In a statement, Mr Turnbull said "the Government does not believe such a radical change to our constitution's representative institutions has any realistic prospect of being supported by a majority of Australians in a majority of States."

'Why not put it to the Australian people?'

Mr Turnbull's statement on the issue was an "egregious" dog whistle, said Cape York leader Noel Pearson, who blamed Tony Abbott for pushing Mr Turnbull "further and further to the right".

"When you go back to 1999, John Howard at least had the grace to put the public question to the Australian people for their vote," Mr Pearson told RN Drive.

"John Howard was opposed to it, but he had the decency to put the question to the Australian people at a referendum."

The Government indicated it would not drop constitutional recognition from the agenda altogether.

But even if a fresh referendum proposal is devised by the Parliament, many Aboriginal leaders are likely to actively campaign against it.

"Malcolm Turnbull has not had the decency to put the proposition that Indigenous people have a voice to the Parliament — not a voice in the Parliament," Mr Pearson said.

"Why not just put it to the Australian people, as we are putting through a plebiscite on the question about same-sex marriage at this very moment?"

'Tony has been lurking this entire debate'

Mr Pearson accused Mr Abbott of influencing the Government's decision on the referendum proposal.

"Tony has been lurking in this entire debate. His presence, and the fact that the Prime Minister has not had the political capital to lead on the issue, is because of Tony," he said.

Darkinjung Land Council chief executive Sean Gordon said he would encourage Aboriginal people to walk away from any future referendum proposals seen as minimalist.

"As Indigenous leaders and Indigenous people we should go back and firm up our position and really question whether we want to go with anything proposed by the Parliament," Mr Gordon said.

Victorian Liberal senator James Paterson has been a vocal critic of the Uluru proposals, and said he welcomed the cabinet's decision.

"It was the most radical option on the table that had no prospects of success as a referendum. I know many advocates will be disappointed by this, but a No vote would have been much more damaging to the cause of reconciliation," Mr Paterson said.

But Jill Gallagher, chief executive of the Victorian Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Organisation, said the Uluru recommendations were modest and achievable.

"I believe fully in my heart of hearts that the Australian population would have supported a referendum [on an advisory body] and I don't think anyone should pre-empt what the Australian population would do," Ms Gallagher said.

The delegation at Uluru also endorsed a treaty and truth-telling commission, but the Government has not said whether it would consider legislating such a body.

Indigenous leaders enraged as advisory board referendum is rejected by Malcolm Turnbull