After a week of incompetence, chaos and downright embarrassment, Malcolm Turnbull may have been looking for a silver lining.
At least the dual-citizen debacle, along with Michaelia Cash’s novel interpretation of parliamentary standards, would cover his most egregious capitulation. Surely the avalanche of bad news would roll over his peremptory, even contemptuous, rejection of the Uluru declaration seeking an Indigenous Voice in which concerns could be passed on to Indigenous Australians’ political masters.
And it almost worked; after all, the maxim that there are “no votes in Aborigines” all too often means there is no news for them, either. But some of the outrage trickled through, enough to make it clear that our prime minister’s legacy will now be irrevocably tarnished.
It is not clear who, if anyone, was consulted before cabinet summarily dismissed ideas that had been germinating for more than a century and had been painstakingly refined over the past ten years. Obviously they did not include most of the participants from the Uluru meeting, or from the Referendum Council itself: most of the stakeholders were shocked, deeply depressed and, in many cases, insulted when they heard the news (through a media leak) that Turnbull had told them, effectively, to go and get stuffed.
Of course he did not put it quite like that: in a short statement he described their proposals as “undesirable”, and said that the body would inevitably be seen as a third house of parliament, and, perhaps most importantly, that the constitutional changes would be unlikely to garner a “yes” vote in a referendum. And, to be fair, our prime minister is something of an expert in leading failed referendums.
But look at the facts: the latest polling showed that 60% of voters favoured the establishment of a Voice. Obviously the reactionary right, and especially Tony Abbott and the Nationals, hate the idea, and would campaign against it, although Labor and of course the Greens would be vigorously onside. Turnbull could have relied on at least a measure of bipartisanship, but in the Coalition party room that is out of the question.
So a referendum would be difficult, but surely that is not a sufficient reason not to even try. As for Turnbull’s worry about the perception of a third house of parliament – this has never been envisaged. Perhaps a smart, agile lawyer could reassure the voters – again, if he was willing to try.
Which brings us back to “undesirable”, but undesirable to whom? Initially Turnbull thought it wasn’t such a bad idea, before he was monstered by the mad right. And it is clearly thoroughly desirable to the people who most matter: the Indigenous Australians who were invited to devise it. Now they are told to piss off and go back to some of the suggestions (almost entirely urged by white politicians) that they have long ago rejected as inadequate.
The delegates from Uluru have been declassed not only as second-class Australians, but as mere pawns, to be used and discarded as the political mood dictates. Of all Turnbull’s betrayals, this is the worst: cynical, craven and cruel. As Noel Pearson said, referencing Turnbull’s memorable line after the defeat of the republican referendum, it is truly heartbreaking.
Many optimists have been waiting patiently for the real Malcolm Turnbull to finally emerge. Now he has. And now there is no valid reason not to throw him out with as little respect as he accorded the First Australians.
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