The Politics    Monday, May 28, 2018

Stop and listen

By Nick Feik

Image of the Uluru Statement from the Heart
The Turnbull government refuses to acknowledge Indigenous voices

The anniversary of the Uluru Statement from the Heart passed on the weekend, as did that of the 1967 referendum. Saturday was National Sorry Day, held to remember and commemorate the mistreatment of the country’s Indigenous people (the “Bringing Them Home” report about the Stolen Generations was tabled in parliament on May 26, 1997), and Sunday was the start of National Reconciliation Week.

How were these occasions marked by government? There was almost nothing. The prime minister sent a tweet. He acknowledged the “grief, pain and loss” marked by Sorry Day. He acknowledged the “resilience and determination of our [sic] First Australians”. But really, what else could he or anyone in his government say?

The Coalition governments (of Turnbull and Abbott) have been worse than useless on Indigenous affairs: they have been actively terrible. They stripped half a billion dollars from Indigenous program funding, and left the portfolio a smoking wreck. Perhaps more significantly, the Turnbull government crashed the recognition process, rejecting out of hand the Uluru Statement from the Heart and its associated proposals.

Having asked First Nations representatives to consult with their communities around the country on ways to achieve meaningful recognition – which they duly did in a magnificent example of unified leadership – Turnbull promptly rejected the plan they put forward. He surmised, without evidence, that their proposals wouldn’t be accepted by the Australian public (polling actually suggests he was wrong), and various government members including Turnbull himself put around the falsehood that Indigenous people were requesting a new “third chamber of parliament”. This was wilful and scurrilous. The Voice proposed via the Uluru Statement was an Indigenous consultative body enshrined in the Constitution that parliament could choose to listen to (or, indeed, not) on matters relating to Indigenous affairs. To listen. How hard would that be?

There were other aspects to the Uluru statement proposals, equally important, that were thrown out with it.

The irony of Turnbull’s tweet (on the first anniversary of the Uluru statement) was that his words contrasted so markedly with his own actions. He had explicitly refused to acknowledge the “resilience and determination” of “First Australians”. To First Nations representatives’ hard work for meaningful recognition he paid no respect at all. He simply rejected their recommendations because they were not in line with preconceived ideas about recognition. How can a prime minister or government acknowledge and honour people’s aspirations without actually listening to them? It cannot.

Like Turnbull’s tweet, the government pays lip service to worthy Indigenous causes (such as launching a half-baked “refresh” of Closing the Gap initiatives, and setting up a new parliamentary committee around recognition), then does nothing.

Many of the prime minister’s colleagues are more interested in honouring the emblems of colonisation, such as Captain Cook, than they are of finding a meaningful basis for recognition of the country’s dispossessed peoples. Perhaps this is why, as on so many issues that Turnbull once professed to support, he is now reduced to such vacuity.

Noel Pearson told Patricia Karvelas on ABC’s National Wrap last night that he believes there is still a “window” to develop a constitutionally enshrined voice representing Indigenous Australians under this government. Let us hope he is right, for without it there is no hope of reconciliation. Bill Shorten has pledged to support one if Labor wins the next election, and would no doubt support it before then too. All that’s required (!) from Turnbull, then, is some political courage.

PS I’ll be filling in for Paddy Manning this week, and I look forward to it.


since this morning

Independent senator Steve Martin has been recruited by the National Party, handing the Coalition an extra vote in the Senate.

in case you missed it

Noel Pearson says there is still a “window” to develop a constitutionally enshrined voice representing Indigenous Australians.

Modelling from The Australia Institute shows that the top 20 per cent of taxpayers get 80 per cent of the benefit of the final two stages of the Coalition’s proposed changes to income tax.

In the latest Newspoll, the Coalition is still behind in two-party preferred terms (48–52), and Bill Shorten is still unpopular, leading Peter van Onselen to surmise [$] that PM Turnbull is safe for now.

Raising serious questions of propriety, Adani will bankroll the jobs of local government staff tasked with assessing activities around its Queensland mine proposal.

Former deputy prime minister Barnaby Joyce has signed a $150,000 tell-all TV deal with Seven Network. Political journalists, among many others, are outraged that any serving parliamentarian is collecting money for an interview, but particularly one who lodged a complaint [$] with The Australian Press Council against The Daily Telegraph for breaching his privacy.

Idiot of the day: In April, Liberal MP Craig Kelly went to Azerbaijan (a country that has been described as a dictatorship), observed its corrupted election, and then declared that Australia could learn from it. Kelly himself learnt something, clearly: earlier today, it was reported [$] that he threatened to join the crossbench (costing the government its majority) and raise hell if he was defeated by democratic means in his upcoming preselection battle.

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Nick Feik

Nick Feik is the editor of The Monthly.


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