Turnbull rejection is a kick in the guts for Aboriginal Australians

Opinion Article

2017 October, 27

Ten years of my life flashed before me yesterday afternoon like a slow-motion car crash when I read the Turnbull government’s rejection of the Referendum Council’s recommendation on a constitutional amendment authorising the parliament to create “an indigenous voice to the parliament” in legislation. 

My first meeting with John Howard in 2007 when I first proposed constitutional recognition was the first image in my intense psychological slide show. Every meeting, speech, article, conflict, argument, collaboration, high peaks of optimism, low troughs of fear came flooding back. I will never get those hours and days and weeks and months back. Am I a sucker for hopeless causes? Why would anyone put their life’s work in the hands of people who possess the power to dispose of the subject of your work with only a cursory and fleeting consideration? 

But then I see images of my indigenous brothers and sisters with whom I worked during this time, many of them eclipsing my experience by decades; many of them now gone. One’s perspective is restored when one is reminded of the long history of indigenous advocacy in this country for something better. 

The Courier-Mail published a leak Wednesday night revealing Malcolm Turnbull’s rejection. It reported that Attorney-General George Brandis and Indigenous Affairs Minister Nigel Scullion took a submission to cabinet supporting the Referendum Council’s recommendation but it met great opposition. 

That the Prime Minister led the rejection of the proposal was no surprise to me. Ever since he became prime minister by knifing Tony Abbott, his position changed.

My mind flashed back to a meeting my colleague Shireen Morris and I had when Turnbull was communications minister, in his Parliament House office. 

He was with his chief of staff, Richard Windeyer, whose name I instantly recognised as a descendant of the most famous barrister in colonial Sydney town. He had represented the Myall Creek murderers of Aboriginal people, and had asked that famous question that Henry Reynolds turned into the title of one of his books: “What means this whispering in our hearts?” 

The young Windeyer witnessed Turnbull express support for the representative body proposal as a better alternative to the “one-clause bill of rights”, as the proposed racial discrimination clause had come to be known in the eyes of its conservative opponents. A giant portrait of Lucy Turnbull beamed down on our proceedings as the minister, resplendent in his brown cardigan and sipping his herbal tea, offered to host a function at a pub in his Wentworth electorate where we could speak on constitutional recognition. Within three months he would be prime minister and would not support the indigenous body in the Constitution. I expect the younger Windeyer would not be so fickle as his former boss. 

The cardigan, the omniscient Lucy, the elegant pot of tea are seared in the kaleidoscope of my memory. 

So why did Turnbull turn from a genuine supporter to such a vehement opponent of the indigenous voice proposal? 

I’m driving up the highway from Brisbane on a Friday morning in 2014 and have arranged a call with Abbott, then prime minister. I asked to talk to him about the concept of a constitutional voice to the parliament as an alternative to the “one-clause bill of rights”. I make the best case I can parked at the Shell servo. He listens with interest, but then to my dismay says, “I think setting aside designated Senate seats for indigenous people would be an easier concept for the punters to understand and accept, like in New Zealand.” I sink in my seat, knowing that this guy just has not thought the whole thing through. 

The following week I’m talking to him at Gulkula in northeast Arnhem Land where the prime minister is doing one of his remote community stunts. He is now in massive retreat from his bullishness about designated seats and commenting how “hard-hearted” conservatives are today. Even he senses the irony of his observation. 

Turnbull’s blanket rejection of the Referendum Council’s report this week is more about his own political weakness than the weakness of these constitutional reforms. Two malevolent creatures have dogged the Prime Minister’s psychology. 

The first is the ephemeral but permanent ghost of Godwin Grech, lurking in the recesses of the Prime Minister’s mind, causing great uncertainty and cruelling his leadership. In my view the terrible error of judgment Turnbull made with Grech in 2009 shattered his confidence in his own judgment. For me at least it explains his endless cogitation, studying issues until they become so stale he is paralysed, making for jerky judgment and fear of leading. 

As Prime Minister he has never found his mojo. Turnbull is vastly more intelligent than Abbott; nevertheless, Abbott had the confidence and psychological clarity to lead and make decisions that Turnbull lacks.

This week cabinet rejected a constitutional amendment that would honour the call of First Nations to have a voice in laws and policies made about us, while upholding the Constitution. 

The rejection is a tragedy for Australia. Turnbull has killed recognition, likely for years to come. 

The proposal is for an indigenous advisory body, constitutionally mandated but legislatively implemented, to give indigenous peoples a non-binding say in our affairs. Not a veto. Just a voice. Not radical, as the government falsely claims, but modest. Like so many constitutional clauses, it would empower parliament to define the body, fully respecting parliamentary supremacy. 

The call for a First Nations voice was endorsed by unprecedented indigenous consensus through the Uluru Statement from the Heart. It reflects a long history of advocacy for empowerment in our affairs. Can you blame our people for wanting a fair say, given the history of discrimination? Given the history of unjust, top-down decisions disregarding our rights? 

The proposal was developed and advocated by constitutional conservatives: Australian Catholic University vice-chancellor Greg Craven, University of Sydney professor Anne Twomey, Liberal MP Julian Leeser and Damien Freeman, author of a recent book on conservatism with a chapter by Abbott. 

As The Courier-Mail’s leak revealed, the Attorney-General advocated for the proposal in cabinet. I am not surprised about this. His department consistently supported the proposal over the past two years. According to senior staff, the voice was the most legally sound and therefore the preferred constitutional approach. Why would the Attorney-General and his department put forward a proposal that was legally unsound?

Turnbull’s rejection was described by senator Patrick Dodson as a “kick in the guts for the Referendum Council and its proponents”. Indeed: this is a kick in the guts for our people and our fellow Australians. 

In 1999, Turnbull said Howard broke the nation’s heart derailing the republic. Now, without any sense of irony or reflection, Turnbull has broken the hearts of all Australians of goodwill. 

The Prime Minister’s calculations are wrong. There was only one way to succeed in constitutional recognition. Craven correctly laid down the political challenge three years ago. He said we had to find the common ground that united indigenous aspirations with constitutionally conservative concerns. Indigenous people needed to forge an alliance with the true conservatives wanting to uphold the Constitution. 

The second malevolence lurking around Turnbull was his bitter predecessor. Images of my many meetings with Abbott since he involuntarily became a backbencher came flooding back to me. 

Abbott would never say clearly what position he would take. I urged him to play a constructive role on this question. I hoped he would exempt recognition from his campaign against the man he so detests. My hope was that he would become the most important influence on the political chances of recognition within the government partyroom. If he gave Turnbull the space to do the right thing then we would really have a chance. Instead, Abbott played his cards close to chest. Like every issue he could lay his hands on, indigenous recognition was just another stalking horse for Abbott’s unremitting war on Turnbull. If Turnbull took a position even marginally to the left, Abbott would cut his throat. 

Thus Abbott pushed Turnbull to ultra minimalism. Having stalked him to this wasteful end, Abbott then reveals where he stands in a Facebook post following Turnbull’s announcement. It is one of the few decisions of Turnbull’s he endorses. 

The press release is one of the most misleading documents ever released by a prime minister. It calls the voice proposal a “third chamber of parliament”, using former deputy prime minister Barnaby Joyce’s description following the Uluru Statement from the Heart in May. 

The proposal is no such thing. The body would be external: a voice to parliament, not in parliament. It would have no veto power. No voting rights. It would not change the make-up of the houses. It would be an advisory body like the one that exists now, except constitutionally guaranteed in terms of existence and hopefully more effective.

The Uluru Statement from the Heart rejected mere symbolism. That the government will now pursue it against indigenous wishes shows how badly the First Nations need a constitutional voice.

An image of the man who created the meme of the “third chamber” awaiting the High Court’s judgment on his own constitutional question flashes in my mind and I think that perhaps there may well be something to karma. 

The final image is one of the Aboriginal children with the long burnt red hair, playing in the dust amid a cloud of flies with meandering mangy dogs as the sun sets over Uluru and visitors from all over the country sign the canvas of the Uluru Statement from the Heart. They signed with feelings of hope, and for once we were all joyous at the end of a long and hard meeting.

Turnbull rejection is a kick in the guts for Aboriginal Australians