The Turn­bull gov­ern­ment has burned the bridge of bi­par­ti­san­ship

The Monthly (Australia) - - CONTENTS - by Noel Pear­son

“Don’t get mad, get even.”

This was Paul Keat­ing’s ad­vice when I made what only he could so aptly de­scribe as a “jerky move”, chan­nelling my febrile anger at the Howard gov­ern­ment’s “Wik 10 Point Plan” into a naive and mo­men­tary im­pulse to join the La­bor Party. This was 20 years ago and John Howard’s van­dal­i­sa­tion of the Keat­ing project, his con­jur­ing of the bleak spir­its of Han­son­ism that yielded the mem­ber for Ox­ley in the flesh, was all play­ing out. Keat­ing warned the coun­try would change with a new gov­ern­ment, and here it was, burn­ing be­fore us like Ash Wed­nes­day. In 1997 it was not at all clear Howard would suc­ceed in sub­vert­ing the Keat­ing vi­sion with his prom­ise of re­lax­ation and com­fort: the soul ex­changed for life­style. The dog whistling that turned Aus­tralians against Aus­tralians in the 1996 elec­tion, pros­e­cuted with barely sub­tle sever­ity in the months and years since, was only reg­is­ter­ing: there was a chance the coun­try would ab­jure the moral abyss it faced un­der the new gov­ern­ment if only they could see it for what it was. But Kim Bea­z­ley’s fail­ure to face the Howard project and La­bor’s re­nun­ci­a­tion of Keat­ing – which it main­tained for the next decade – cru­elled the 1998 cam­paign. Bea­z­ley came close but he should have won. Howardism needed to be stopped from tak­ing hold of the na­tion. It was not, and Howard’s prime min­is­ter­ship went on to de­fine this coun­try in the 20 years since. In the wake of the de­feat of Wik, with Brian Har­ra­dine’s be­trayal in the Se­nate in 1998 – ad­vised by Frank Bren­nan and Catholic lawyers in­tent upon sav­ing black­fel­las from a “race elec­tion” – Bea­z­ley’s de­feat left only deep de­s­pair. In the early days of the post-1996 in­sur­gency, Howard de­scribed me as an “ALP man”. He was wrong. I was in truth a Keat­ing man. I was a dis­ci­ple of the 24th prime min­is­ter’s vi­sion for Aus­tralia, the fun­da­men­tal con­tours of which re­main vivid and valid to me to­day. If we are not the coun­try Gough Whit­lam and Keat­ing urged us to be – in­de­pen­dent, rec­on­ciled, con­fi­dent, creative peo­ple fully re­al­is­ing their tal­ents, a true com­mon­wealth with an econ­omy that serves its peo­ple – then what and who are we? In 1999 I shed my par­ti­san­ship be­cause I de­cided Bea­z­ley and post–Keat­ing La­bor would not dis­lodge Howard af­ter the 1998 de­feat. I sub­li­mated my grief over the change over­whelm­ing the coun­try. I un­der­stood as the new or­der the now al­most weekly man­i­fes­ta­tions of of­fi­cially sanc­tioned big­otry and ob­scu­ran­tism. In the face of the his­tory wars and the in­ter­minable war against po­lit­i­cal correctness (ig­nor­ing Robert Hughes’ orig­i­nal iden­ti­fi­ca­tion of the other PC ped­dled by the right: pa­tri­otic correctness), I fell silent. Can we now be­lieve the coun­try feted for­mer com­mu­nist and Pol Pot sym­pa­thiser Keith Wind­schut­tle as a pub­lic in­tel­lec­tual, let alone na­tional his­to­rian? And peo­ple like for­mer La­bor min­is­ter Gary Johns who came to be fonts of pol­icy and po­lit­i­cal wis­dom when they were such fail­ures in the real game? They should have slunk off into be­fit­ting ob­scu­rity. It was an era when po­lit­i­cal lead­ers were rou­tinely strong against the weak, and weak against the strong. There were shades of Joh Bjelke-Petersen’s cruel premier­ship of my home state of Queens­land in my youth, when kick­ing the black dog was not even pol­i­tics, just sport. All of this I felt keenly, and like al­most ev­ery­one I sup­pressed any temp­ta­tion to say some­thing. The abuse of black­fel­las went largely unan­swered. But the hege­mony of the Howard era in­tim­i­dated con­trary voices into near si­lence. The Keat­ing project was ex­ent-er­ated all over the na­tion. Keat­ing was pariah num­ber one – not least to his for­mer party who de­clined to men­tion his name. This was my state of mind in 1999. First, I thought it use­less to be par­ti­san with a La­bor Party in se­vere re­gres­sion. The party John But­ton later de­scribed in his ex­co­ri­at­ing 2002 Quar­terly Essay ‘Be­yond Be­lief’ was a pal­lid shadow of its for­mer glory. Sec­ond, I de­vel­oped a the­ory that some bat­tles are 51% bat­tles – when par­ti­san agen­das are pros­e­cuted through the gov­ern­ment of the day, and re­form is steered through parliament by force of num­bers. The Na­tive Ti­tle Act 1993 was a clas­sic ex­am­ple of the 51% bat­tle. Oth­ers – such as con­sti­tu­tional amend­ment re­quir­ing “a ma­jor­ity of vot­ers in a ma­jor­ity of the states” – are 90% bat­tles. These re­quire bi­par­ti­san­ship. This led to a third con­vic­tion, gained from Dick Mor­ris’ ac­count in Be­hind the Oval Of­fice of the 1996 Clin­ton come­back: on some is­sues Nixon has to go to China.

Mal­colm Turn­bull burned the bridge of bi­par­ti­san­ship and my long game – a 17-year odyssey – ended.

Abo­rig­i­nal rec­on­cil­i­a­tion (to use the om­nibus if am­bigu­ous term) was a pro­gres­sive, left­ist is­sue, by def­i­ni­tion anath­ema to the right, which would need a leader of the right to go to China, so to speak. Bill Clin­ton’s and Tony Blair’s tri­an­gu­la­tion po­lit­i­cal strat­egy un­der­pinned the so-called Third Way adopted by so­cial demo­cratic par­ties across the globe in the 1990s – also at­tempted but mis­er­ably ex­e­cuted by Mark Latham in his brief what-the-fuck-was-La­bor-think­ing pe­riod as leader in the early 2000s – but Hawke and Keat­ing were its orig­i­na­tors. Step­ping to the cen­tre and push­ing their op­po­nents fur­ther and fur­ther right was the La­bor twostep in the 1980s and early 1990s. Keat­ing has since come to de­scribe his po­lit­i­cal ori­en­ta­tion in ret­ro­spect as the rad­i­cal cen­tre. He is cor­rect. The Aus­tralian La­bor Party in gov­ern­ment held the com­mand­ing heights when it cleaved the rad­i­cal cen­tre. Keat­ing was the rad­i­cal cen­tre’s most as­tute nav­i­ga­tor and re­lent­less cap­tain. Pur­suit of the rad­i­cal cen­tre ne­ces­si­tated tran­scend­ing the left–right po­lar­ity in In­dige­nous af­fairs, the one pol­icy zone that most con­cerned me then. This was my the­o­ret­i­cal frame­work. Look­ing back, I am as­tounded at the prag­ma­tism and dis­ci­pline I mus­tered in giv­ing voice and life to my con­vic­tions about bi­par­ti­san­ship and the rad­i­cal cen­tre. Not­with­stand­ing the shit­storm of op­pro­brium from the left. I have never been an op­por­tunist. My de­trac­tors al­lege other­wise, but this was for me all about the long game. The long game of try­ing to get good-willed Aus­tralians from across the po­lit­i­cal and cul­tural di­vide to sup­port am­bi­tious In­dige­nous re­form in the rad­i­cal cen­tre. On Thurs­day, 26 Oc­to­ber 2017, with his re­jec­tion of the Uluru State­ment from the Heart, Mal­colm Turn­bull burned the bridge of bi­par­ti­san­ship and my long game – a 17-year odyssey – ended. There will be those who will say “but you were not re­al­is­tic” and oth­ers who will say “we told you so”. Schaden­freude and pity-your-fool­ish­ness abound. When Howard’s reign fi­nally ended in Novem­ber 2007, Keat­ing said he felt like he had to take a shower. This month, be­lat­edly, I had a bit­ter cold shower with the harsh­est old scrub­bing brush and a long yel­low slab of Sun­light soap, fi­nally shed­ding the grease and grime of a long and dirty ex­per­i­ment that failed. This essay is not his­tory. It does not pur­port to tell the story of our peo­ple’s strug­gle in any ob­jec­tive way or with a wide lens. Rather it is a hand­held camera ac­count of a per­sonal jour­ney, the only story I can tell – with full apolo­gies – from my point of view. It is jaun­diced and self-ref­er­en­tial, but it may ex­plain some things.

It was a close-run thing

Re­nee Viel­laris from the Courier-Mail broke the leak on the cabi­net’s re­jec­tion of its own Ref­er­en­dum Coun­cil’s rec­om­men­da­tion: that the Con­sti­tu­tion be amended to es­tab­lish an In­dige­nous voice to the parliament. This was early in the morning of Thurs­day, 26 Oc­to­ber.

Viel­laris claimed At­tor­ney-Gen­eral Ge­orge Bran­dis and Min­is­ter for In­dige­nous Af­fairs Nigel Scul­lion had spon­sored a sub­mis­sion to cabi­net sup­port­ing the Ref­er­en­dum Coun­cil pro­posal ear­lier in the week, where it was re­buffed by a hos­tile prime min­is­ter and other cabi­net mem­bers. I don’t know whether Viel­laris’ re­port on Bran­dis and Scul­lion is ac­cu­rate. If true, then it is tes­ta­ment to the voice pro­posal that it got as far as the cabi­net sub­mis­sion. From meet­ings held by my col­league Shireen Mor­ris with the at­tor­ney-gen­eral’s ad­vis­ers, I would not be sur­prised if Bran­dis had been open to, and per­haps even sup­port­ive of, the voice. His most se­nior staff were en­thu­si­as­tic, and saw it as con­sti­tu­tion­ally far safer than the non-dis­crim­i­na­tion op­tion. For them it was the most sound pro­posal. On Thurs­day morning I sent a text to Turn­bull: “PM, I’ve seen the Courier-Mail re­port on cabi­net’s re­jec­tion of the Ref­er­en­dum Coun­cil’s rec­om­men­da­tion. Would be good if we could talk soon as.” I re­ceived no re­sponse. There had been ru­mours for weeks a cabi­net sub­mis­sion was be­ing pre­pared, but we had no idea of its tim­ing or con­tent. I heard of no con­sul­ta­tions with any­one. I had come to the con­clu­sion that there was no path­way with Turn­bull even if he sup­ported the voice per­son­ally, which I knew he did not – de­spite telling Mor­ris and me the pro­posal seemed sen­si­ble, and of­fer­ing to help pro­mote it, two years prior. Af­ter he be­came PM, all that had gone out the win­dow. Turn­bull was un­able to find and pros­e­cute a po­lit­i­cal so­lu­tion to get his gov­ern­ment on board. In a two-day con­fer­ence with close col­leagues al­most three weeks be­fore, I ex­plored a sec­ond path­way to a ref­er­en­dum – dubbed the “red-line roadmap” in re­sponse to the white­board draw­ing that showed the cur­rent path­way in blue. This would de­lay the ref­er­en­dum to the end of the process, which would see the es­tab­lish­ment of a voice un­der leg­is­la­tion, and the es­tab­lish­ment of a Makar­rata Com­mis­sion as pro­posed by the Uluru State­ment. My col­leagues were loath to switch to the red line with­out giv­ing the blue line a con­certed go. My in­stincts told me we had to switch. I texted Scul­lion: “Min­is­ter, I’d like to talk to you about an in­for­mal idea on con­sti­tu­tional recog­ni­tion, prefer­ably in per­son soon.” He usu­ally an­swered. This time noth­ing for more than a week, but I heard through an in­ter­me­di­ary he owed me a call. When we spoke the fol­low­ing week, he said he couldn’t speak about con­sti­tu­tional recog­ni­tion be­cause it was sub­ject to a cabi­net process. I thought it strange he wouldn’t have a po­lit­i­cal con­ver­sa­tion, but I left it. A week later my worst fears were re­alised. On the Thurs­day morning of the Courier-Mail’s story, I told col­leagues that con­sti­tu­tional re­form was in flames and we needed to see whether the red-line roadmap could pull it out of the fire. I called Scul­lion. He told me about the op­po­si­tion within cabi­net on the

“in­equal­ity” of In­dige­nous peo­ple hav­ing a voice to parliament com­pared with the rest of the coun­try. It was stag­ger­ing. I thought of the peo­ple out in the red dust of Mu­titjulu and these priv­i­leged, pow­er­ful, white cabi­net min­is­ters com­plain­ing about in­equal­ity. Here were the most un­equal peo­ple in the coun­try, ask­ing for a voice in their own af­fairs. Nev­er­the­less, I ex­plained to Scul­lion there was a path­way that de­ferred a ref­er­en­dum to the end of a roadmap rather than the be­gin­ning. I told him: this is what I wanted to talk to you about. He said he would see what he could do. But I heard noth­ing more from him or Turn­bull. When the state­ment from Turn­bull, Scul­lion and Bran­dis was re­leased on Thurs­day, 26 Oc­to­ber, not only was the chance of In­dige­nous con­sti­tu­tional recog­ni­tion burned to a cin­der but its still-warm ashes were be­ing scat­tered in the wind. The press re­lease is a his­toric doc­u­ment, pre­sent­ing as it did on be­half of a prime min­is­ter who de­clined to front the Aus­tralian peo­ple. It is an egre­gious doc­u­ment, re­plete with self-con­scious un­truths and cal­cu­lated mis­rep­re­sen­ta­tion. Its sheer dis­hon­esty is breath­tak­ing. The method­ol­ogy of the hacks dis­patched to write it is plain to un­der­stand – to win the pub­lic ar­gu­ment through gross mis­rep­re­sen­ta­tion – but the more strik­ing thing is a prime min­is­ter’s pre­pared­ness to au­tho­rise such a tawdry doc­u­ment to form the record of a mo­men­tous event. His­tory will ever re­mind Aus­tralians that at a cru­cial junc­ture of our his­tory the prime min­is­ter lied, and his lie was a slur on the coun­try’s most un­equal peo­ple – its First Peo­ples. More than a week later Turn­bull fi­nally spoke to the press and dou­bled down on the lie in his gov­ern­ment’s re­sponse to the Uluru State­ment, that a rep­re­sen­ta­tive voice of In­dige­nous peo­ples was “con­trary to prin­ci­ples of equal­ity” and a “third cham­ber of parliament” – this was the same pro­posal Turn­bull sup­ported in 2015. The equal­ity rhetoric was pure In­sti­tute for Pub­lic Af­fairs (IPA) pab­u­lum – an un­prin­ci­pled pas­tiche of right-wing dem­a­goguery more redo­lent of the equal­ity rhetoric of US-style cor­po­rate lib­er­tar­i­an­ism than gen­uine philo­soph­i­cal lib­er­al­ism. Keep this thought: lib­er­al­ism, of the Adam Smith kind prop­erly un­der­stood, ap­plies to in­di­vid­ual hu­man ac­tors in so­ci­ety. The vi­cious ide­o­log­i­cal strain of lib­er­tar­i­an­ism ped­dled by the cor­po­rately funded IPA is pri­mar­ily about cor­po­rate, not in­di­vid­ual, lib­erty. From in­cep­tion, the IPA was the hand­maiden of its cor­po­rate back­ers, no­to­ri­ously the old Western Min­ing Cor­po­ra­tion un­der Hugh Mor­gan and his hench­man Ray Evans, and ve­nal to­bacco com­pa­nies in­sist­ing on the hu­man rights of cor­po­ra­tions rather than real hu­mans. When they speak of lib­erty and free­dom they mean of cor­po­ra­tions. Adam Smith’s and John Locke’s sa­cred bones long since writhed their way out of their grave­yards, with out­fits like the IPA claim­ing philo­soph­i­cal de­scent from clas­si­cal lib­er­als. Turn­bull’s in­cin­er­a­tion of In­dige­nous recog­ni­tion was in­formed by these ma­raud­ing orcs. The IPA pre­pared the torch and Turn­bull lit it.


The man is not a repub­li­can, this much I can tell you. If any­one in­sists he is, then Turn­bull’s idea of a repub­lic is one that ex­cludes the First Peo­ples of Aus­tralia as much as the cur­rent con­sti­tu­tional monar­chy does, and one we should de­cline to be part of. I now re­mem­ber the rea­son for my dis­in­ter­est in Turn­bull’s repub­lic. We should have re­called this. Turn­bull cham­pi­oned a repub­lic that pro­posed sym­bolic recog­ni­tion of Abo­rig­i­nal and Tor­res Strait Is­lan­ders in a pre­am­ble to the Con­sti­tu­tion. Es­sen­tially a brass plaque screwed near the front en­trance of the coun­try’s con­sti­tu­tional struc­ture: mere to­kenism. The min­i­mal­ist model of In­dige­nous recog­ni­tion that formed part of Turn­bull’s model for the repub­lic failed at the 1999 ref­er­en­dum. And yet this is ul­ti­mately what he wanted in 2017. He wanted to reprise his 1999 fail­ure. “This was not what was asked for, or ex­pected,” he told the Ref­er­en­dum Coun­cil at a meet­ing in July, af­ter the coun­cil chaired by Mark Leibler and Pat Anderson de­liv­ered its re­port rec­om­mend­ing con­sti­tu­tional en­shrine­ment of a voice to the parliament rep­re­sent­ing First Na­tions. The coun­try’s prime min­is­ter can­not even hear his own words. He ap­pears in­ca­pable of un­der­stand­ing that he sim­ply can­not say such words. He es­tab­lished an in­de­pen­dent coun­cil to pro­vide a re­port mak­ing rec­om­men­da­tions for con­sti­tu­tional re­form, and then he com­plains that this was not what he ex­pected or asked for? My notebook records him bristling about “big change”, “big idea”, “heroic fail­ure”, “col­umn of smoke”, and the voice be­ing a “late­comer”. He is seething and can barely con­ceal his fangs. The meet­ing con­cludes with the in­sult that the coun­cil has left him “no wiser but much bet­ter in­formed”. His ar­gu­ments against the re­port are spu­ri­ous, and de­spite the fact that I know he has heard their refu­ta­tion be­fore, he is im­per­vi­ous to con­trary facts and ar­gu­ments. It is ex­plained that parliament would be re­spon­si­ble for defin­ing the body in leg­is­la­tion, fol­low­ing usual pro­cesses of pro­mul­gat­ing a bill. I specif­i­cally pointed out that the prin­ci­ple of par­lia­men­tary supremacy means the parliament de­ter­mines the de­tails of the pro­posed body through leg­is­la­tion. You can’t have it both ways: in­sist on par­lia­men­tary supremacy and then com­plain the Ref­er­en­dum Coun­cil has not de­ter­mined all of the de­tails of the body. He makes the ar­gu­ment that the In­dige­nous sen­a­tors and MPs now in parliament are the In­dige­nous voice to parliament. For­mer NSW premier Kristina Ke­neally points out, with due re­spect to the In­dige­nous politi­cians present, that they rep­re­sent their re­spec­tive po­lit­i­cal par­ties and the seats and states that elected them. In the same way Nick Xenophon was not the voice for Greeks in the fed­eral parliament but rep­re­sented the peo­ple of South Aus­tralia. This is how low level and, frankly, asi­nine the qual­ity of Turn­bull’s ob­jec­tions are – and he has heard

ra­tio­nal an­swers to all of them be­fore. But still he per­sists, obliv­i­ous to ra­tio­nal­ity and the truth. He was given (and from the an­no­ta­tions I saw at a meet­ing the pre­vi­ous week, ap­peared to have closely read) a de­sign re­port pre­pared by Shireen Mor­ris and my­self on be­half of the Cape York In­sti­tute. The re­port, com­mis­sioned by the Ref­er­en­dum Coun­cil, sets out an out­line and op­tions for what the body could look like. I don’t know how Turn­bull main­tains that the In­dige­nous voice to parliament was a “late­comer” pro­posal. Mor­ris and I briefed him about it on 2 June 2015. He was the sec­ond cabi­net min­is­ter briefed on the pro­posal, af­ter the then prime min­is­ter, Tony Ab­bott. Turn­bull seems to have erased this meet­ing from his po­lit­i­cal mem­ory as an in­con­ve­nient truth. Mor­ris and I were do­ing the rounds of Parliament House and had a sched­uled ap­point­ment with the then min­is­ter for com­mu­ni­ca­tions in his suite. He was dressed in a brown cardi­gan and drank green tea from an el­e­gant Asian metal teapot. His chief of staff was with him, and glanc­ing at his card I re­alised he must be the name­sake de­scen­dant of the fa­mous lawyer of colo­nial Syd­ney town, Richard Windeyer. I knew him in­stantly from Henry Reynolds’ 1998 book This Whis­per­ing in Our Hearts. The ti­tle is taken from ‘On the Rights of the Abo­rig­ines of Aus­tralia’, a speech Richard Windeyer made in 1842. Reynolds de­scribed it as “per­haps the most sus­tained and in­tel­lec­tu­ally pow­er­ful at­tack on Abo­rig­i­nal rights ever mounted in early colo­nial Aus­tralia”. The Syd­ney Morning Her­ald re­ported:

[W]e be­lieve it to be the unan­i­mous opin­ion of the mem­bers, that the speech of Mr Windeyer, for the neg­a­tive, was the most ar­gu­men­ta­tive and log­i­cal … He … dis­tinctly proved not only that the Blacks have no right to the soil of Aus­tralia for want of set­tled oc­cu­pancy and cul­ti­va­tion; but that they have no right even to the kan­ga­roos more than we have, the game laws of Eng­land agree­ing pre­cisely with the great law of nature, that wild an­i­mals not con­fined by en­clo­sure are not, and can­not be the prop­erty of any man.

Yet Windeyer’s con­science asked: “How is it that our minds are not sat­is­fied? … What means this whis­per­ing in the bot­tom of our hearts?” Windeyer was a par­lia­men­tar­ian and bar­ris­ter. He at­tended the meet­ing that es­tab­lished the Abo­rig­ines’ Pro­tec­tion So­ci­ety in 1838; in the same year he de­fended the white stock­men in the Myall Creek tri­als, where seven were hanged for the mas­sacre of up to 30 Abo­rig­ines on the Gwydir River. His de­scen­dant was wit­ness to our meet­ing with the politi­cian who in three months would be­come the 29th prime min­is­ter of Aus­tralia. The In­dige­nous voice to the parliament was the sub­ject of that meet­ing. An over­sized por­trait of Lucy Turn­bull dom­i­nated the room,

Turn­bull has cho­sen to lie about his prior knowl­edge of the pro­posal for an In­dige­nous voice, and in­deed his en­dorse­ment of it as sen­si­ble more than two years be­fore he re­jected it.

om­ni­sciently wit­ness­ing her hus­band tell us the voice was “a sen­si­ble idea”. He un­der­stood the ob­jec­tions to the non-dis­crim­i­na­tion pro­vi­sion pro­posed by the pre­vi­ous Ex­pert Panel, and agreed with them. Turn­bull not only de­clared the pro­posal sen­si­ble but also agreed to host an event on con­sti­tu­tional recog­ni­tion to help pro­mote it in his elec­torate (“I like hav­ing events at a pub”) . I was dis­con­certed by that large por­trait, though. There is no short­age of great art owned by the parliament to adorn politi­cians’ of­fices. What mes­sage was he send­ing with his choice of in­dis­creet spousal por­trai­ture in a build­ing of pub­lic democ­racy? It seemed more aris­to­cratic than repub­li­can to me, a pen­chant for the per­sonal good, over the pub­lic. That worry has proven cor­rect. Turn­bull, as prime min­is­ter, has cho­sen to lie about his prior knowl­edge of the pro­posal for an In­dige­nous voice, and in­deed his en­dorse­ment of it as sen­si­ble more than two years be­fore he re­jected it. Richard Windeyer’s de­scen­dant and Mor­ris are wit­nesses to this lie. Turn­bull sup­ported the In­dige­nous voice to parliament when he was not prime min­is­ter, but then ended up call­ing it a “third cham­ber of parliament” when he was, know­ing full well that was a gross un­truth. He did this be­cause he was trapped by his po­lit­i­cal sit­u­a­tion: de­void of cap­i­tal, hostage to the con­ser­va­tives whose leader he had stabbed in or­der to gain the prime min­is­ter­ship, and with­out the gump­tion to break his cap­tiv­ity. The truth may well be that he was never a sup­porter and only op­por­tunism caused him to tell me he sup­ported the voice in 2015 – that in his heart of hearts he wanted to re-run his 1999 fail­ure – but my col­leagues and I had also sought to leave him no room for min­i­mal­ism. He ca­pit­u­lated his prime min­is­te­rial lead­er­ship to the man he de­posed.

Tony Ab­bott ended up us­ing In­dige­nous recog­ni­tion as a stalk­ing horse in his cam­paign of vengeance against Turn­bull. Min­i­mal­ism was a risk be­fore he lost the prime min­is­ter­ship, but be­came a clear and present dan­ger fol­low­ing it. Ab­bott turned away from am­bi­tion and prin­ci­ple. When he had po­lit­i­cal cap­i­tal he seemed gen­uinely in­spired by the achieve­ments of his wife Margie’s home­land of New Zealand. Ab­bott sig­nalled this inspiration in his sur­pris­ing speech in re­sponse to then min­is­ter Jenny Mack­lin’s Abo­rig­i­nal and Tor­res Strait Is­lan­der Peo­ples Recog­ni­tion Bill in 2012. He said, “We only have to look across the Tas­man to see how it could have been done so much bet­ter. Thanks to the Treaty of Wai­tangi in New Zealand two peo­ples be­came one na­tion.” Then he squan­dered his cap­i­tal in one in­dul­gent atavis­tic spree, deem­ing Prince Philip the most wor­thy re­cip­i­ent of his per­son­ally re­vived knight­hood. Some of that cap­i­tal could have been for black­fel­las, for recog­ni­tion. In­stead it was spent on that dum­b­ass knight­hood, the ful­fil­ment of some in­con­solable fan­tasy about

dun­geons, thrones and Down­ton Abbey. A Catholic boy’s nose pressed to the aris­toc­racy’s stained glass. Dis­cuss. Whereas pre­vi­ously Ab­bott told me his pref­er­ence was for des­ig­nated Abo­rig­i­nal and Tor­res Strait Is­lan­der seats in the Se­nate – a sim­pler propo­si­tion, he wrongly thought, than the voice to the parliament – all of the in­di­ca­tions were that he had shrunk back to ex­treme min­i­mal­ism. Prior to Ab­bott’s visit to north-east Arn­hem Land in Septem­ber 2014, the Aus­tralian’s Den­nis Shana­han re­ported that con­sid­er­a­tion was be­ing given to the idea of des­ig­nated Se­nate seats. This was a day af­ter Ab­bott spoke about it to me, parked on the side of the high­way to the Sun­shine Coast to take his call. This was when I had first out­lined the con­cept of the voice to parliament de­vel­oped with con­sti­tu­tional con­ser­va­tives. I was dis­mayed at Ab­bott’s sim­plis­tic re­sponse that des­ig­nated seats might be more saleable to the pun­ters. The next day Shana­han had floated the anony­mous bal­loon and ex­ploded it him­self, in the same ar­ti­cle. By the fol­low­ing week I was sit­ting with Ab­bott at the Garma Cul­tural Knowl­edge Cen­tre at Gulkula with him ex­press­ing re­gret that to­day’s con­ser­va­tives lack com­pas­sion. Ab­bott had gone from des­ig­nated Se­nate seats to a three-sen­tence bronze plaque in less than a week. I sensed the huge scale of our chal­lenge, but nev­er­the­less we had to keep go­ing. In the end Tony Ab­bott proved, like Turn­bull, to be an op­por­tunist. Not a con­ser­va­tive. One of the de­vis­ers of the voice-to-the-parliament pro­posal was the lawyer and philoso­pher Damien Freeman, prin­ci­pal au­thor of the re­cent book Ab­bott’s Right. In­deed, it was Ab­bott who ini­tially en­cour­aged Freeman to work with us to forge com­mon ground – back when he was feel­ing am­bi­tious. We found com­mon ground, and Freeman es­tab­lished with Lib­eral MP Ju­lian Leeser the con­ser­va­tive or­gan­i­sa­tion Up­hold & Recog­nise, ded­i­cated to In­dige­nous con­sti­tu­tional recog­ni­tion via the voice to parliament. Freeman is a true con­ser­va­tive. But Ab­bott moves from con­ser­va­tive to re­ac­tionary ac­cord­ing to what suits him at the time. De­spite a num­ber of dis­cus­sions since his de­scent to the back­bench, with me and also Freeman and oth­ers, Ab­bott de­clined to pub­licly state his po­si­tion. Which meant Turn­bull knew he would be stalked on this is­sue as much as any other. Then, dur­ing the di­a­logues and af­ter the Uluru con­ven­tion, Ab­bott told Freeman, as well as Shireen Mor­ris and me, that he was not op­posed to the voice pro­posal, but he made no pub­lic state­ment. Ab­bott fi­nally re­vealed his po­si­tion fol­low­ing Turn­bull’s re­jec­tion of the Uluru State­ment and the Ref­er­en­dum Coun­cil’s rec­om­men­da­tion, stat­ing on Face­book:

In my judg­ment, the gov­ern­ment has made the cor­rect de­ci­sion not to pro­ceed with the es­tab­lish­ment

of a sep­a­rate, con­sti­tu­tion­ally en­trenched body to rep­re­sent In­dige­nous peo­ple … I know that this de­ci­sion will dis­ap­point many fine Aus­tralians, es­pe­cially those who put so much work into the “From the Heart” state­ment, but am sure that it’s right for our long-term na­tional unity. It turned out nei­ther man was wor­thy of their am­bi­tions. Their am­bi­tions they held only for them­selves and not for the coun­try.

Don’t look back in anger

This essay is in part a med­i­ta­tion on anger and po­lit­i­cal cru­sade. The ti­tle of DA Pen­nebaker’s doc­u­men­tary about Bob Dy­lan’s tour of Eng­land in 1965, Don’t Look Back, has been loop­ing through my mind. I am full of re­grets. About the years of work on the part of so many peo­ple. The hope we urged from our peo­ple. At the op­ti­mism we told our mobs we should have. That we needed to turn up and make our des­tiny. At the light we saw on the hori­zon. I had been one of those urg­ing this work and hope. About the mis­takes I made. Li­ta­nies of them. They can’t all be off­set against other peo­ple’s mis­takes and mis­cal­cu­la­tions and the thou­sand things that were done, the mil­lion things that were not done. I take re­spon­si­bil­ity for my fuck-ups and mis­placed faith. Anger is for the fu­ture, not the past. Anger for the past is cor­ro­sive and burns hope. Only anger to ac­tion makes sense: this is anger for the right. Right­eous anger at in­jus­tice is the fuel for fu­ture jus­tice. Other­wise we just re­tire to lives of re­lax­ation and com­fort while anger de­stroys our peo­ple from within. This agenda will not die. It is the agenda for the fu­ture. This set­back at the hands of these two peo­ple who never lived up to the lead­er­ship they sought is not our des­tiny.

From bi­par­ti­san­ship to par­ti­san­ship

The rad­i­cal cen­tre is still the place to hunt. What I have learned is that only those with power can take the coun­try to the rad­i­cal cen­tre. Ac­tivists on the out­side can ad­vo­cate for the bril­liant cen­tre but only those who com­mand the struc­tures of power can cause the tec­tonic shifts. My cri­tique of pro­gres­sive think­ing still holds. The left­ist con­fu­sion of ends and means still re­mains. We share the end of so­cial jus­tice, but the means by which that jus­tice is se­cured is still the sub­ject of dis­pute. My strat­egy of reach­ing out to the po­lit­i­cal lead­er­ship of the right availed us noth­ing in the end. This is the bit­ter truth I learned these past 17 years. The po­lit­i­cal lead­er­ship of the right is to be distin­guished from their con­stituency. As with the far left, the right has its ide­o­logues and ex­trem­ists. But the bulk of the Aus­tralian peo­ple in­cline to the rad­i­cal cen­tre if and when it is pre­sented to them. So I have lost faith in the po­lit­i­cal lead­er­ship of the right but not its con­stituency. This con­stituency is ill served by its lead­er­ship, as surely as the na­tion is. With­out the rad­i­cal cen­tre, bi­par­ti­san­ship is just the low­est com­mon de­nom­i­na­tor. The rad­i­cal cen­tre is the sweet spot be­tween re­al­ism and ide­al­ism, the real mean­ing be­hind the tru­ism that pol­i­tics is the art of the pos­si­ble. When faced with the ques­tion of whether we pred­i­cate our strug­gle on the po­lit­i­cal right find­ing com­pas­sion or the po­lit­i­cal left find­ing its brains – I now know the an­swer. The left have an al­tru­ism the right will never muster. Ev­ery progress we make will have to be fought for, and ev­ery bat­tle will be par­ti­san. Bi­par­ti­san­ship is dead. The day af­ter Turn­bull’s be­trayal, my friend, the doyen of the Aus­tralian, Paul Kelly, came down from his moun­tain at Holt Street with those heavy tablets of stone declar­ing the correctness of Turn­bull’s call. Kelly is one of the prin­ci­pal trus­tees of the Idea of Aus­tralia and I thought that we had per­suaded him to shift from his orig­i­nal op­po­si­tion. He had con­grat­u­lated Mor­ris on one of her TV al­ter­ca­tions with An­drew Bolt prop­a­gat­ing the IPA-style equal­ity ob­jec­tion. Kelly knew it was bo­gus, and en­cour­aged us. Then, af­ter Turn­bull’s re­jec­tion, Kelly re­verted to type. His opin­ion was hor­rific and bru­tal in its moral cer­ti­tude. I tele­phoned him that morning. I said there were two pow­ers of fed­eral parliament hav­ing unique ap­pli­ca­tion to Abo­rig­i­nal and Tor­res Strait Is­lan­ders: sec­tion 122, the ter­ri­to­ries power, which dis­pro­por­tion­ately af­fects our peo­ple; and sec­tion 51(26), the race power, which was an ex­clu­sive In­dige­nous power, used only for our peo­ple. I asked why peo­ple sub­ject to such spe­cial pow­ers should not have a voice, non-bind­ing at that, in re­spect of what parliament might pro­pose. Kelly said some­thing star­tling. He un­der­stood the voice pro­posal was not a third cham­ber, and Turn­bull was wrong to de­scribe it as such. The star­tling thing he said was that the voice, even though only hav­ing an ad­vi­sory func­tion, would op­er­ate vir­tu­ally as a veto on parliament. A body with­out the le­gal power to di­rect parliament would hold some sort of non-le­gal veto over the parliament. Re­ally? This late in our his­tory and here is a great old white man con­jur­ing a great old white fear about In­dige­nous voices. A stal­wart de­fender of free speech, now say­ing he op­poses the mere ex­pres­sion of an In­dige­nous opin­ion, for fear it might in­flu­ence In­dige­nous pol­icy. Dis­cuss. He told me he sup­ported recog­ni­tion. I re­sponded by say­ing that if not a non-dis­crim­i­na­tion pro­vi­sion or an in­sti­tu­tional voice, then what is the recog­ni­tion he has in mind? He said with some cha­grin, I think, “I don’t know.” And there ended my long les­son in the pol­i­tics of jus­tice.

Se­na­tor Pat Dod­son. © Paul Miller / AAP

Me­gan Davis (left) and Pat Anderson at the First Na­tions Na­tional Con­ven­tion, Uluru, 2017. © Alex Elling­hausen / Fair­fax

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