Scott Morrison really likes quiet Australians – as quiet as possible. So it was really no surprise that his response to his minister, Ken Wyatt’s modest and tentative proposal to consider reviving an Indigenous Voice through the Uluru Statement from the Heart was simple and direct: bloody well shut up and do what you are told.
We will decide who speaks for Indigenous Australia and the circumstances in which they speak. and by we, I mean me, and Eric Abetz and Peter Dutton and the Institute of Public Affairs and Andrew Bolt – not Indigenous Australians. They can do what they are told.
So the glimmer of hope last week was extinguished as soon as it began. Wyatt knew it probably would be — when he delicately referred to “reticence” within his party room, he was prepared for a backlash, but maybe not one as cynical, hypocritical and downright vicious as the one that transpired.
In nanoseconds the same old lies were trotted out, most outrageously the one that the Voice being a third chamber of parliament. If the deliberately ignorant ever thought that was the case, they have certainly been informed by now that it never was and never is – the proposal is for a Voice, an advisory body with no power to legislate or veto whatever the parliament decides.
This must have been clear even to Dutton. But this did not stop him repeating the fabrication on national television. What he actually means, of course, is that the truth is irrelevant – what matters is that it can be turned into a massive scare campaign to deceive the gullible in much the same way the coalition devised he invention of Labor’s death taxes worked on May 18.
And if that involves rejecting, traducing and misrepresenting the long and tortuous process that led to Uluru, well they can just suck it up. Everyone know there are no votes in Aborigines.
So Wyatt meekly surrendered to the inevitable and will now go back to what he called pragmatism, negotiation, compromise – we must have consensus before we even think about going to a referendum, otherwise there is a risk of it failing.
And indeed there is, but only because of the intransigence of the reactionary rump that now holds sway over his government. The deep strain of latent racism that prevails throughout the joint party room and its acolytes is not confined to the fringes of the National Party – it has infected Liberals as well, some of whom call themselves the protectors of mainstream Australia.
They are worried about what they regard of causing divisions, – offering rights and privileges to one group to disadvantage the rest. This is precisely what they demand for the religious zealots, but no matter. As they well know, there are no votes in Aborigines. And there is a sneaking suspicion that their predicament, while deplorable, is somehow their own fault – if they could just forget the past and get on with it, the incarcerations, the mortality rates, the unemployment, the homeless, the poverty and despair would simply disappear.
So we have the always predictable Craig Kelly say he did not want to spend money on a referendum – he would rather spend it on closing the gap (Actually he would rather spend it on a coal fired power station, but let that pass). Barnaby Joyce says the solution is to break up the senate to bring in more rural members. Amanda Stoker, apparently attempting to remake herself into a transgender Peter Dutton, is against anything even vaguely progressive on principle.
And she is not the only one – come in Morgan Begg, of IPA, which by no coincidence is secretly funded by a large chunk of the mining industry, a traditional enemy of Indigenous rights. Begg sprang into the pages of The Australian (where else?) to claim that a Voice would violate all principles of racial equality. And he went back to the hugely successful 1967 referendum to boost his thesis: by agreeing to count Aborigines in the national census, Australians voted to remove race from the constitution.
But that was only part of that they voted for. They also voted to give the Commonwealth Parliament the right – even the duty – to legislate specifically for Aborigines, a considerably more substantial outcome. This was the power John Howard used in 2006 to bring in his military intervention of allegations of child abuse. There is no record of Begg inveighing against such blatant racism division, illiberalism.
And his hypocrisy is echoed by many conservatives, including Morrison, who is determined to avoid embedding any suggestion of a Voice in the constitution – the key, the non-negotiable plank in the Uluru Statement. Morrison says that if there is to be a Voice – and mind you, he is not saying there will be –, an advisory body established by parliament will be quite sufficient.
But this misses the point: not only would such a body be vulnerable to political interference, in the same way Howard abolished the former Australian and Torres Strait Islander Commission in 2004, but the whole idea is that the Voice should be endorsed by the Australian people, not just by the politicians of the time.
This after all, was the argument of the conservatives over same sex marriage – the change was so important it had to go to a plebiscite. But obviously reconciliation with Indigenous Australians can be regarded as relatively trivial– there are no votes in Aborigines.
In the end, Morrison and Wyatt will probably be able to cobble together some anodyne words, some impotent tokenism he can take to a referendum which may or may not pass, and who cares anyway. But it will be a travesty of Uluru, a betrayal of the painstaking months of good faith the delegates invested in the hope that this time, at last, someone would listen.
Wyatt has been lauded as the first of his race to join cabinet as the first Minister for Indigenous Australia – which Morgan Begg and Andrew Bolt would no doubt call this divisive in itself. But the task was too much for him or probably anyone else. Ken Wyatt could have been a hero – not only an Indigenous hero, but a hero for all Australians of goodwill, the majority who are willing to support the long march to real reconciliation. Instead, he has become just another casualty, yet another victim of the casual racism and cruelty of the right wing rump.
Morrison will no doubt tell him to suck it up – just like the rest of his people. As there are no votes in Aborigines, there is no real need for an Aboriginal minister. Bloody well shut up and do what you are told.