The Politics    Friday, July 29, 2022

Indigenous voice to the Coalition

By Rachel Withers

Image of Country Liberal Party senator Jacinta Price making her maiden speech in the Senate chamber, July 27, 2022. Image © Mick Tsikas / AAP Images

Country Liberal Party senator Jacinta Price makes her maiden speech in the Senate chamber, July 27, 2022. Image © Mick Tsikas / AAP Images

Some conservatives are only willing to listen to Indigenous voices when they match their pre-existing views

Prime Minister Anthony Albanese and Minister for Indigenous Australians Linda Burney are off to the Garma Festival in north-east Arnhem Land, where the PM is tomorrow expected to outline details of Labor’s referendum plans for a voice to parliament. The intention of the trip, as Albanese tweeted this morning, is to “advance talks between First Nations peoples and the government on a voice to parliament” – an important step in what is a complex, compromise-heavy process that will obviously never please everyone entirely. But there is already trouble brewing in the Coalition ranks, threatening the chance of a bipartisan approach to the issue. As Nine reports, three senior Liberals are expressing “grave concerns” about the voice, “prompted” by conservative NT senator Jacinta Nampijinpa Price’s fiery maiden speech this week. Liberal MPs Tony Pasin, Phillip Thompson and Claire Chandler have come out publicly against the voice, saying there isn’t enough detail, and that they stand with Price. As Marcia Langton, a co-chair of the voice design group, points out, there’s more than 500 pages of detail already available. Do Pasin, Thompson and Chandler really care about the perspectives of Indigenous Australians, or only those who align with their conservative views?

It’s long been clear that Price, a Sky News darling who identifies as “an empowered Warlpiri Celtic Australian woman”, is going to play an interesting role in the national debate, using her platform to push back against what she sees as progressive “symbolism”. She came out hard against Greens senator Lidia Thorpe during last month’s flag debate, calling for Thorpe to be removed from parliament if she wasn’t willing to show respect to the Australian flag. In Wednesday’s maiden speech, Price railed against the voice, ripping into the PM for what she called a “virtuous act of symbolic gesture” – a point that quietly ignores the fact that calls for an Indigenous voice to parliament originated with the hundreds of Indigenous leaders who came together to endorse the Uluru Statement from the Heart. Yesterday, she came to the defence of One Nation senator Pauline Hanson, after Hanson stormed out of the Senate in protest of the acknowledgement of country. “I understand Pauline’s frustrations,” Price told 2GB’s Ben Fordham, arguing that the acknowledgement was being overdone, another “symbolic gesture” in place of real action.

Price is, of course, entitled to her views on the voice, on flags and on Hanson’s Senate walkout. (Although it does seem rather a stretch to suggest that Hanson – who exited the chamber when the Senate president paid respect to “elders past and present”, shouting “No, I won’t, and never will!” – only stormed out because she cares too much about seeing real progress for Indigenous Australians.) It’s worth noting that the maiden speeches from Indigenous MPs Marion Scrymgour and Jana Stewart in support of the voice did not receive the same coverage, as Crikey’s Cam Wilson notes. The voice to parliament is a complex matter, and there is no model that is going to receive the full approval of the approximately 1 million people who identify as Indigenous Australians. But there is something deeply disingenuous about the way in which these white conservative MPs are opposing the voice by citing one or two Indigenous people’s views, when it’s pretty clear they were planning to oppose it anyway. Price has become a popular figure in conservative circles because she takes positions that are becoming untenable for white Australians, railing against the “false narratives” of racism. Conservatives are then able to “stand with” Price as a shield against any allegations that they don’t care about Indigenous issues.

Price speaks passionately about wanting real solutions to Indigenous issues, and she clearly cares deeply about them. But the same cannot be said of the white conservatives who piggyback off her views. Opposition Leader Peter Dutton has started spouting the “empty symbolism” line; apparently he didn’t want to attend the apology to the Stolen Generations because the problems were “not resolved” , though he now acknowledges that was a mistake. While Dutton hasn’t yet come out with a firm position against the voice, he seems poised to do so, speaking at the opening of parliament on Tuesday about the need for “practical changes”. But how much do these people care about taking practical steps outside of the times they’re using it to argue against symbolic acts?

At the end of the day, Price is right. Australia will need to undertake much more than symbolic gestures if we are ever to close the gap, which we are currently failing desperately at. Burney intends to take concrete actions, and having an Indigenous voice to parliament will surely help. (Thorpe, who Price often disagrees with, has some concrete ideas of her own.) Conservatives railing against a voice on the basis that we need “real solutions” really ought to stick by that the next time a chance arises to vote for a real measure to close the gap. Otherwise, their opposition will be nothing but – to use Price’s words – “pointless virtue-signalling”.

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Rachel Withers

Rachel Withers is the contributing editor of The Politics.

@rachelrwithers

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