Yesterdays joint statement by Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and Attorney-General George Brandis rejecting the “Voice to Parliament” proposed in the Uluru Statement was both unsurprising and brutally direct.
Unsurprising because, as I said here in May this year, the Uluru Statement was little more than a “tepid call to arms [with] all the revolutionary fervour of a cup of cold tea” that was doomed by its creators to:
… fizzle away into interminable talk-festing, rancour within and without the Aboriginal milieu, the dead zone of administrative and bureaucratic torpor, populist confusion (read resistance) and political chaos and opportunism that has characterised previous attempts at resolution between pan-Aboriginal Australia and settler society.
And so it has gone. While the Uluru Statement had some good elements, it was riddled with vagueness and soppy motherhood statements. The Voice was at once its big pitch and its fatal flaw.
As Turnbull’s statement noted, The Voice was doomed because—whether true or not—it would be seen as a third chamber of the Australian parliament, rubbing raw against fundamental principles of Australian civic philosophy and a magnet for populist rage:
A constitutionally enshrined additional representative assembly for which only Indigenous Australians could vote for or serve in is inconsistent with this fundamental principle. It would inevitably become seen as a third chamber of Parliament.
Turnbull noted the Referendum Council’s lack of detail as to how The Voice would function and the broader and legitimate concerns that The Voice wouldn’t even rise to the status of a rubber stamp, with its sole constitutional function limited to that of a powerless advisory body, readily ignored by both houses of parliament in a blink. A sop, and a less than symbolic one at that.
How did the Referendum Council get it so wrong?
Some clues were provided by Nigel Scullion, an occasionally hapless but well-meaning and well-regarded politician who is far from the worst—and there’ve been some shockers—minister for Aboriginal affairs we’ve seen. Scullion was wheeled out as the sacrificial lamb to Patricia Karvelas’ passive—faux—aggressive slaughter on ABC RN’s Drive program last evening.
Karvelas went for Nigel’s throat from the get-go, asking why the government had rejected a proposal the subject of years of consultation. Scullion went to the nub of the matter—The Voice was “simply never going to get up … we know, that if it had been put to the Australian people it would have absolutely zero chance of success, and you know, we can be a bit dishonest and just say, ‘Let’s kick it into the weeds, let a parliamentary committee deal with it, maybe it’ll die by process’ … Why would you set the reconciliation process back by twenty years by pushing this car off the cliff of democracy?”
Scullion was weaker on providing evidence in support of his views but he was clear on what he regarded as an ambush, which he said was “… a matter that came in very, very late in the Council’s deliberations … what came back was completely outside of the terms of reference.”
Karvelas noted that Noel Pearson had raised the idea of The Voice in 2013. “I wrote the story.”
Scullion responded that “Parliament was expecting to have a set of words around Recognition but what the Referendum Council told us was that all of those things are off the table and all we are going to have is an all-or-nothing and its a Voice. Now, we have to be fair dinkum and say, ‘Well that isn’t going to be accepted by the Australian people’ … there were a whole suite of other bits and pieces that were added that were not part of the terms of reference … things like the Makarrata Commission, [the] Settlement Commission, there was a whole lot of other issues that are certainly not off the table. This [The Voice] had absolutely zero chance of success.”
Karvelas failed to pick up on Scullion’s “other issues,” instead hammering away at Scullion on the finer points of The Voice as a consultative body for legislative provisions effecting the lives of indigenous Australians. Scullion gave back as good as he was getting, noting the views expressed by Tasmanian Aboriginal people and others that an advisory body made little sense and that they didn’t want a bar of.
“What’s the point?”
“What’s next?” Scullion proposed “pulling together” the conclusions from joint parliamentary reports from 2012 and 2015, appreciating the centrality of bipartisan support and of wider consultation “than the 300 people who were at Uluru” and to come up with something that not only dealt with particular provisions in the Constitution but with recognition of “our first Australian in our founding document … That was the task we gave to the Referendum Council and thats not the answer that came back. It’s unfinished business.”
Skarvelas and Scullion went toe to toe for a few minutes more and finished in a draw.
Next up was one of architects of the proposal, Noel Pearson, who unsurprisingly received an easier run from Skarvelas than Scullion had done.
Pearson—for mine sounding increasingly like part Bob Katter/part Gerard Henderson—was his usual blovative self, all hyperbolic one liners and theatrical gravitas. Malcolm Turnbull had “broken the first nations’ hearts of this country,” Scullion’s interview was “extraordinary,” Turnbull’s presser was “egregious dog-whistling” and the decision to can The Voice was “indefensible.” Pearson, always conscious of his own self-importance, sounded tired, a tad bored and disengaged.
For Pearson, Scullion was deserving of the faintest of praise as “a good guy and a decent human being … [that] never understood any of the constitutional issues.”
Karvelas cast out Tony Abbott’s comments on Facebook—noting he was regarded by some in the Liberal Party as a “leading light on indigenous recognition”— that “…in my judgement the government has made the correct decision not to proceed with the establishment of a separate constitutionally entrenched body to represent indigenous people.” Pearson rose to the nicely cast fly, noting Abbott’s proposal for designated seats in the Senate for indigenous Australians that Pearson regarded as a “bigger challenge than the modest idea of The Voice.”
It only got better.
Abbott, according to Pearson, had not only been “lurking in this entire debate” but Abbott had so nobbled Turnbull, pushing him “further and further to the right, giving him no scope for leadership” and that Turnbull—and there’ll be few that will disagree with this proposition—has “no political capital” left in the bank. After today, Pearson fearlessly predicted, Australia would need a new Prime Minister if indigenous recognition was ever to come to fruition.
Karvelas queried whether Bill Shorten might be that new Prime Minister? Perhaps. Shorten had been “genuinely bi-partisan” but there had been “no reconciliation or recognition under Turnbull.”
What next, asked Karvelas? “We will re-group … obviously, when such a dishonest press release such as the one the prime minister has issued this afternoon is put out there it is likely to be conservative policy for a long time to come, Malcolm Turnbull has certainly consigned himself prematurely to a footnote in Australian prime ministerial history.”
This last assessment of Turnbull’s future is almost without doubt correct. But The Voice was a fatally flawed proposal from the start and what happens next may well determine the future of Aboriginal policy for decades to come. Back in May I said that neither Turnbull or Shorten “had the wit, interest or political savvy to get a treaty—or the other proposals in the Uluru Statement—past their respective right wings, who…will … be more than willing to employ dishonesty and deceit to push back on any proposal for a treaty.”
Turnbull was right to reject The Voice but he has made an absolute hash of the rest of the recognition issue and has left the field open for Shorten to make merry havoc. It is an old saw but true that there are no votes in Aboriginal policy but Shorten can now pick up and run with the many “other issues” that Scullion noted are still on the table and use Labor’s strong Aboriginal parliamentary representation to rebuild some of the bridges knocked down by The Voice and Turnbull’s poor handling of this issue.
The next few days will see a lot of finger-pointing and blame-shifting about The Voice but the causes of its failure lie almost wholly with its architects. Whether the Referendum Council will have much of a future role to play remains to be seen and Labor’s wise heads—led by Senator Patrick Dodson, never a fan of The Voice—will see that better and more constructive solutions lie elsewhere.