Monday, January 29, 2018

Today by Paddy Manning

Statement from the heart falls on deaf ears
The PM didn’t turn his back but he may as well have

Welcome to the first edition of The Monthly Today for 2018, a year which so far does not look like being much different to last year. Culture wars ablaze, ditto the planet, while the remorseless engines of growing inequality grind on.

I’d hoped the parliament’s historic win for marriage equality at the end of last year would provide an #auspol circuit-breaker: exposing and cornering that rump of naysayers stuck firmly in the past. No such luck.

Thanks to my esteemed predecessor, Sean Kelly, now ensconced in London. As I’ve talked to readers of TMT over the holidays, I’ve been amazed at the goodwill for this newsletter in general, and Sean in particular.

I hope to carry on Sean’s thoughtful analysis of federal politics. Unlike him I will approach the job as a journalist (I don’t have much choice to be honest!), working in and out of the Canberra press gallery. So as of today, TMT is open for business: welcoming your calls and leads, bouquets and brickbats. We have a few plans for TMT this year, will not hesitate to break the odd story on merit and have a brief to dig deeper in the occasional bigger piece for The Monthly.

The debate over Australia Day brought back qualms I had writing the unauthorised biography of the prime minister two years ago. My research involved plenty of reading from the journo phase of Malcolm Turnbull’s career, particularly for The Bulletin, where he made a couple of unsympathetic references to Aboriginal Australians that jarred. 

It was 1977 and Malcolm Turnbull was 23, still studying law, and juggling what was effectively full-time work as a journalist. He was pulling it all off extraordinarily well, but was spread thin. Before he’d even finished his degree, Turnbull had launched a popular weekly column on the law for “The Bully”, in which he ticked off everyone from High Court justices to attorneys-general, and the rest of a pompous profession trading in gossip and forthright opinion. It was great stuff, and generated plenty of stories for the magazine.

One of Turnbull’s stories, headed “The law in black and white”, had a provocative opening par: “How do you blend the rules and customs of a Stone Age people with the complicated laws of Australia in 1977?” The article pondered whether the integration of blacks and whites had failed, and whether white law should really apply in black communities. Turnbull had travelled to Alice Springs for two days with members of the Australian Law Reform Commission, including Justice Michael Kirby. The commission was inquiring into the recognition of Aboriginal customary law. Young Turnbull observed:

The drunken, brawling Aborigines that stagger through the streets of Alice Springs and Oodnadatta are ample testimony to the white man’s failure to administer their lives. As one large drunken black women [sic] yelled obscenities at us across a park I decided the Aborigines could do no worse than us in governing themselves.

Turnbull’s piece did argue for recognition of Aboriginal law – partly, because that was the reality on the ground – but there was something gratuitous about the “Stone Age” line that stuck with me.

A second reference deepened the unease. In a column the next month, Turnbull bashed out a few pars on Paul Coe’s pending landmark legal action against the Commonwealth and Britain seeking $20 billion in compensation for the illegal seizure of Australia from the Aboriginal people. Turnbull concluded: “The case will prove that the law is the law of the conqueror. While the law will not allow a man to encroach by three inches on to his neighbour’s land, it will permit the occupation and seizure of a whole continent from a primitive people.”

I left these things out of the book: it seemed unfair to judge articles written in 1977 based on the mores of post-Mabo, post-apology 2015. At least Turnbull was airing the issues, even if in a rather sneering manner. Now, however, more than two years into a prime ministership that has let down Indigenous Australians, those references seem more revealing. I fear that when it comes to Aboriginal sovereignty, disadvantage – anything – the prime minister has a tin ear.

So, on Q&A in December, we saw the prime minister lecturing a young Aboriginal woman – successful lawyer Teela Reid, who worked on the Uluru Statement from the Heart – about why a First Nations Voice to the federal parliament was not a good idea and she should show more respect to the Indigenous federal MPs Ken Wyatt and Linda Burney: “I’m disappointed that you place so little store on the Aboriginal people … members of the Australian parliament … What are you suggesting? They are tokens? … They are there, proud Australians, proud first Australians, and they are there, powerful voices with 60,000 years of history in our parliament.”

It was a bad look. What’s more, Turnbull was downright misleading about the First Nations Voice, saying that it would have “effectively” created a “third chamber” of parliament. It just isn’t so – the Voice would have no power to veto legislation – and we can only assume the PM knows it. His summary rejection was a historic betrayal, as Noel Pearson wrote so powerfully for this magazine last year, and a backlash is brewing.

Likewise this weekend, after tens of thousands marched to change the date of Australia Day, Turnbull dismissed the number of people protesting as “not many”.

Every leader has strengths and weaknesses. One of the few redeeming features of Tony Abbott as leader was his apparent desire to be the first prime minister for Aboriginal Affairs. Abbott said, memorably, that he had been on a long journey since Paul Keating’s Redfern speech in 1992: “The further this journey has gone, the more, for me, Aboriginal policy has become personal rather than just political.” It turned out to be so much Abbott “crap”, of course.

Turnbull has other strengths, and the family has a quiet track record in philanthropy, including in Redfern. But on a list of things Turnbull might be prepared to lose some political skin over, making peace with the First Australians is at the very bottom.



  • The government’s foreign donation laws could decimate GetUp!’s income.
  • The Greens and others have slammed a $3.8 billion scheme to make Australia one of the world’s top 10 arms exporters (of all things) [$].
  • Tasmania is going to the polls on March 3 [$].
  • The first poll for the year from Sky News/ReachTel has Labor continuing to lead the Coalition, but by a narrowing 2PP gap of 52:48.
  • Anthony Albanese spoke to Fran Kelly this morning about his proposal to hold twin referendums – on the republic and recognition – on Australia Day.
  • The right to strike is “very nearly dead” in Australia.

What other people are saying

by Richard Cooke
The fabulous tale of Nelly Yoa
The Sudanese community leader and sports star’s improbable rise

by Mungo MacCallum
Do we really need an honours system?
Australia Day honours are at odds with our democratic ideals

Paddy Manning

Paddy Manning is contributing editor (politics) at The Monthly and has worked for the ABC, Fairfax, Crikey and The Australian. He is the author of Inside the Greens and the unauthorised biography of Malcolm Turnbull, Born To Rule?


The Monthly Today

Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews

Locking back down

Victoria’s woes are a warning for the whole country

Image of Labor candidate in Eden-Monaro Kristy McBain

Bega pleased

Kristy McBain’s win has implications for the Morrison government

Images of Kristy McBain and Fiona Kotvojs

Southern discomfort

Tomorrow’s result in Eden-Monaro is on a knife edge

Image of Defence Minister Linda Reynolds speaking at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute

Grey zone

Between war and peace, Australia’s defence strategy is evolving

From the front page

Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews

Locking back down

Victoria’s woes are a warning for the whole country

Illustration by Jeff Fisher

Weal of fortune

Rebuilding the economy means government investment, but not all public spending is equal

Image of Labor’s Kristy McBain and Anthony Albanese

A win’s a win

The Eden-Monaro result shows that Morrison’s popularity has not substantially changed voting patterns – and Labor has still not cut through

The man inside and the inside man

Crime, punishment and indemnities in western Sydney’s gang wars