The view from Billinudgel

A gap too far
Despite fine words in response to the latest Closing the Gap report, the PM insists that politicians know best when it comes to the question of recognition

Prime Minister Scott Morrison delivers his statement on Closing the Gap in the House of Representatives. © Lukas Coch / AAP Image

We know Scott Morrison seldom takes much notice of those who disagree with him. The great marketeer is a master of distraction, obfuscation and, when all else fails, downright mendacity. But we might have thought that he could at least agree with himself.

But there he was last week offering two completely contradictory messages to Australia’s Indigenous communities and their many supporters. Responding to the current Closing the Gap report, he sounded sensible, compassionate, even conciliatory.

“Closing the Gap has never really been a partnership with Indigenous people. We perpetuated an ingrained way of thinking passed down by two centuries or more that we knew better than our Indigenous people. We don’t,” he said.

“We also thought we understood their problems better than they did. We don’t. They live them. We must see the gap we wish to close not from our viewpoint but from the viewpoint of Indigenous Australians.”

Well said, and about bloody time. The speech would have provided new hope to First Australians and their supporters that finally the government was listening, and that it would actually allow those affected by its decisions to have some say in them.

But that hope was dashed within minutes. When it came to the question of recognition in the Constitution, Morrison went straight back to the conservative playbook. Not only was an Indigenous voice to parliament, enshrined in the Constitution – as proposed by the Uluru Statement from the Heart – off the table, but even the token recognition espoused by the government itself was now at risk: a referendum might not be held in the life of the parliament after all.

The reason for the backflip? There was a lack of consensus about just what was being proposed. Why, even the two sides of politics in the parliament could not come together. True, but that is not the whole story.

In fact, Labor is united in wishing to deliver a voice for Indigenous Australians, embedded in the Constitution, no ifs, no buts, no divisions. It is the government that is split, with the hardliners refusing to countenance even the Clayton’s version in which a voice might be legislated in the parliament.

This wishy-washy compromise has, of course, been comprehensively rejected by the Indigenous leaders who sweated for months over the Uluru statement, and this is the real point: the fact that Morrison and Anthony Albanese are at odds across the table of the House of Representatives should be entirely irrelevant.

“We thought we understood their problems better than they did. We don’t.” Well, apparently the whitefella politicians are still the ones who will decide. They will listen and consult only when it suits them. A genuine partnership would not involve summary rejection of the wishes of those most affected – it would be working to implement them; instead of sliding away from the difficulties, it would confront them and deal with them.

Mungo MacCallum

Mungo MacCallum is a political journalist and commentator. His books include Run Johnny Run, Poll Dancing, and Punch and Judy. Visit his blog, The View from Billinudgel.

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