Malcolm Turnbull is a weak prime minister with a tenuous hold on his job and little internal authority. Any interpretation of his and cabinet’s ill-mannered rejection of the Uluru Statement from the Heart and the Referendum Council’s recommendation for an Indigenous voice to parliament should sit within that context.
To see why, a little history is in order. Going right back almost to Federation, the main parties’ approaches to changing the constitution have gone roughly according to simple scripts.
Labor, whether in government or opposition, enthuses over constitutional change (give or take the odd attempt to ban communism). Going right back to Federation, it has seen “modernising the constitution” as a goal in its own right.
The conservative parties, by contrast, have been suspicious. In practice, leaders of the Liberal Party (and the party’s forebears, the United Australia and Nationalist parties) have felt unable to support Labor government’s referendums, regardless of their personal inclinations, because they have generally lacked the stature to drag their party to the table. But in government, with an election win or several under their belt, they have often been able to take the lead.
Opposition leader Tony Abbott’s early backing for a referendum to recognise local government in the constitution — a bit of constitutional housekeeping — provides a classic example. On the eve of the poll, the party room and the Liberal movement revolted, and the opposition leader quickly capitulated.
Malcolm Fraser, an architype of the strong leader, facilitated a set of four questions in 1977 that the Labor opposition supported. One referendum would have guaranteed that House and Senate elections were always held simultaneously, a proposal Liberals had vigorously opposed when the Whitlam government put it three years earlier. (In 1977 it received a large national majority vote but not the required majority of states.)
Another of Fraser’s questions was intended to ensure that casual Senate vacancies were filled by members of the same political party. If it had applied retrospectively, it would have robbed the Liberal and Country parties of their ability to block supply in 1975. That one passed.
But Turnbull is quite obviously no Fraser, nor a (post-2001) John Howard. He is, instead, rather like Tony Abbott in his final year as prime minister: clinging on grimly for dear life against the opinion poll onslaught, trapped in a bad news whirlwind, terrified of stumbling into yet another unforced error.
A towering prime minister, one perceived as electorally indispensable, might have convinced his or her cabinet and party room to get behind the Indigenous recommendations. A confident one would have felt able to engage with Aboriginal leaders rather than whinge about being told to “take it or leave it.” Might have. We’ll never know what that Turnbull would have done.
Surely, however, few are surprised at cabinet’s rejection, if not at the manner of its communication. In fact, had the Uluru statement contained that much-mentioned “minimalist” change — altering the wording of the race power so that it refers to the advancement of Indigenous Australians instead of “race,” and adding reference to their long stewardship of and relationship with the country — it’s not certain Turnbull would have been able to accept that either. In these post-GFC days, our prime ministers are as disposable as opposition leaders. Perhaps he was even pleased it was so easy to reject.
The Australian Constitution was not created in God’s image. Transcripts of federation conferences reveal not a little confusion about what should go in and what it meant. One of the sillier inclusions was the amendment procedure; the bearded ones were not to know that a rigid two-party system would pretty quickly emerge. In the first decade after federation, before that happened, the document was changed twice (out of three attempts).
But when politics became Labor versus non-Labor, the statistics stand at six successes and thirty-five failures. Out of necessity, the High Court has had to creatively reinterpret its provisions.
It’s understandable that Indigenous Australians were less than excited at the prospect of a merely “symbolic” change to the constitution. So they get a mention — in some paperwork no one reads anyway — hoorah!
I would vote Yes to both of the above-mooted referendums, but I have to admit I don’t really get the determination to change this mouldy old document. Sometimes it seems almost to be driven by a yearning to repeat 1967, to achieve a similar “catharsis.” But much of the idea of 1967 is just a bunch of faulty “memories” of an event most of us can’t actually recall.
The “Aboriginals” referendum fifty years ago played good cop to the more high profile “nexus” question (which went down badly). It was presented as taking discrimination out of the constitution, and the ballot paper wording referred to “Aboriginals” being “counted” but, rather sneakily, barely alluded to the most important and potentially controversial change: cranking into operation the “race power” to enable land rights legislation and various federal government programs.
At times, it seems that for some people the very difficulty of passing a referendum in this country is its chief appeal, and that if we had an easier, more mundane means of achieving the same outcome — like American and Canadian constitutional change, requiring only large legislative majorities — well, what would be the fun in that?
But parliament (through which any referendum would have to first pass anyway) is what we are left with, and parliament is where a Makarrata and treaties can be created. Thanks to the race power, the Indigenous voice to parliament can be created there as well. Let those parched pages gather dust; let us go straight to the legislation. Let parliament do what it’s supposed to do.
Forget “Nixon goes to China,” though. No action on this front is possible in the remaining life of this Coalition government. But the next Labor one, in its first year, before goodwill dissipates and the machine drones get their claws into the leadership, could — Senate crossbench willing — set ambitions high.
Think of Kevin Rudd’s Apology on steroids.
Bill Shorten has said he’s on board with the Uluru Statement, and we can surely can take the Labor leader at his word.
We can, can’t we Bill? ●