Editorial: Malcolm Turnbull’s Big let-down

Posted by on April 9, 2018 in Editorial, Home page feature

Editorial: Malcolm Turnbull’s Big let-down

Editorial: Malcolm Turnbull’s Big let-down


The Uluru Statement from the Heart was issued in May 2017 on behalf of 227 First Nations delegates. This was the culmination of a consultation process including 12 Regional Dialogues held under the auspices of the Referendum Council. The Council claims it was the most proportionately significant consultation process that has ever been undertaken with First Peoples. The proportion of First Nations people involved was larger than the proportion of the (non-Aboriginal) population who took part in the constitutional convention debates of the late nineteenth century.


With the exception of some dissent from Amanda Vanstone, the Council endorsed the Uluru Statement and recommended


That a referendum be held to provide in the Australian Constitution for a representative body that gives Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander First Nations a Voice to the Commonwealth Parliament.


In July, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and Opposition Leader Bill Shorten met with the Referendum Council and received their final report. The two leaders made a joint statement which acknowledged the ‘historic Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander consultation process’ and said the recommendation of the Council ‘deserves careful and thorough consideration’.


The divisiveness card

Whatever kind of consideration the Prime Minister gave ended with a media release on 26th October rejecting the proposal for an ATSI Voice to Parliament, saying; ‘The Government does not believe such an addition to our national representative institutions is either desirable or capable of winning acceptance in a referendum’. It attacked the idea as creating a third chamber of Parliament’ that would be elected solely by Indigenous people. This would breach what the Prime Minister termed as the fundamental principle of ‘all Australian citizens having equal civic rights’.


This is curious reasoning not at all informed by the deliberations of the various bodies leading up to the Uluru Statement. The announcement itself was made at the height of the constitutional citizenship cases and on the day that Employment Minister, Michaelia Cash, was fending off accusations she had leaked details of a police raid on the Australian Workers Union. Laura Tingle of the Australian Financial Review said that the timing of Turnbull’s announcement ‘certainly had that feeling’ (of) ‘throwing out the trash”.


Reports, said to emanate from News Limited, claimed that Malcolm Turnbull had spoken and voted in Cabinet against a recommendation in favour of a constitutional referendum to establish an Indigenous Voice to Parliament. The First Nations delegates at Uluru explicitly rejected symbolic recognition in favour of seeking a formal consultative arrangement which, by being part of the Constitution, could not be over-ridden or wound-up by legislation of an unfriendly Government and Parliament. Clearly, Malcolm Turnbull decided he knew better – and that the best that his government will offer is some form of symbolic recognition. This is a return to the days of John Howard and the inglorious preamble to the Constitution.


Kevin Rudd (in the country to promote himself and his book) made common cause with Alan Jones on the ABC Q & A, calling Malcolm Turnbull’s decision ‘a deep insult to the processes of reconciliation’. Some of the direct participants were even stronger, with Dylan Lino calling it ‘a despicable act of mean-spirited bastardry’. Bill Shorten summarised a widely-held view that Malcolm Turnbull was imposing his own view and ‘does not seem willing to listen to First Australians’.


Turnbull seems to have allied himself with the National Party and, more generally, conservative forces in and out of Parliament. National Party leader, Barnaby Joyce, said in late May, just after the release of the Uluru Statement, that it was about a ‘third chamber of Parliament’ - ‘sitting beside or above the Senate’. ‘It would not fly’, he said.


Five months later, Malcolm Turnbull repeated the claim of a third chamber of parliament despite frequent contrary statements from those involved at Uluru. He has persisted with what seem to be extraordinary feats of twisting the proposal. He has also pushed the line (used by Amanda Vanstone in her earlier dissent to the Reconciliation Council) that the proposal for a Voice came out of the blue.


A methodical consultation

Some account of the Referendum Council is essential to understand the flagrancy of Government’s line. The Council, a body of 18 (nine women: nine men – nine ATSI and nine non-ATSI) was established by the Prime Minister and Leader of the Opposition in December 2015 to hold public consultations and advise on changing the Constitution to recognise Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. The Council was charged with building on the work of the Expert Panel on Constitutional Recognition of Indigenous Australians (report published January 2012) co-chaired by Patrick Dodson and Mark Leibler) and the Joint Select Committee on Constitutional Recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples (report published June 2015 chair Ken Wyatt, deputy chair Nova Peris).


The Referendum Council put ‘Five proposals for reform’ out for consultation. Four were taken from the Expert Panel’s recommended model and the Joint Select Committee report, viz:


  • a statement acknowledging Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples as the First Australians (which could be placed in the Constitution or outside it);
  • amending or deleting the existing ‘race power’, (section 51(xxvi) of the Constitution),
  • inserting a guarantee against racial discrimination, ( a new Section 116A of the Constitution);
  • deleting section 25, which contemplates the possibility of a state government excluding some Australians from voting on the basis of their race.


The Referendum Council added a fifth proposal, in its words, ‘providing for a First Peoples’ Voice to be heard by Parliament, and the right to be consulted on legislation and policies that relate to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples’. The Joint Select Committee had received submissions about such a mechanism and suggested that there should be consultation about it.

The question of a voice to Parliament was thus one of the five questions the Referendum Council put to the public as a whole - not just to the Aboriginal dialogues. Critically, as the Council says:

The Council wrote to the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition on 22 March 2016 proposing these five options as the basis of our consultations. On 7 April 2016, the Council received their approval to proceed in this regard.

Plainly, there was nothing ‘new’ about the Voice proposal. Either the Prime Minister (and many advisers and minders) have short memories or they are confabulating.


The ghost of John Howard

Whatever expectations might have been held about Malcolm Turnbull, his response to the Uluru Statement is a (sad) echo of John Howard and some even earlier Coalition figures. In 1989, John Howard spoke against the legislation to establish the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission (ATSIC) on the grounds that it would be ‘a parliament within the Australian community for Aboriginal people’. He said: ‘if the Government wants to divide Australian against Australian, if it wants to create a black nation within the Australian nation, it should go ahead with its Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission (ATSIC)’.


Similarly, John Howard opposed the Barunga Statement of 1988. The proposal for a treaty was, he said ‘utterly repugnant to the ideal of one Australia’