Editorial
Breaking the heart

Noel Pearson says, “Malcolm Turnbull has broken the First Nations’ hearts of this country, expressed in the Uluru Statement from the Heart”.

He calls the cabinet’s rejection of the proposal for an Indigenous voice, “dog whistling about third chambers of parliament”. He calls it a “hoary line”. He says, “these guys have got the biggest dog whistles they could muster, and they’re blowing their lungs out”.

Speaking to Patricia Karvelas on Radio National, he says John Howard “at least had the grace” to put constitutional questions to the public.

“Malcolm Turnbull has not had the decency to put the proposition that Indigenous people have a voice to the parliament. Not a voice in the parliament, a voice to the parliament. Why not just put it to the Australian people as we are putting, through a plebiscite, the question about same-sex marriage at this very moment,” he says.

“You know, there’s obviously different points of view on the viability of these ideas and so on. At the end of the day, our constitution is the gift of the Australian people. So Indigenous Australians had a reasonable expectation that the question would be put to them for their consideration.

“Instead, the prime minister and his cabinet have arrogated to themselves the entire judgement about this fundamental issue of how do we recognise Indigenous Australians?”

He says Nigel Scullion has, “never understood any of the constitutional issues”. He calls Indigenous Australians, “the most voiceless and powerless people in the country”. He says, “All that they’re asking is to have some say in relation to the laws and policies that affect them.”

Pearson says that in 2013, Abbott privately offered to him the idea of dedicated Indigenous seats in the senate. “Tony has been lurking in this entire debate,” he says. “The fact that the prime minister has not had the political capital to lead on this issue is because of Tony. And Tony has pushed Malcolm Turnbull further and further to the right, given him no scope for leadership. And in a sense it’s Tony who’s determined the outcome here.”

He says Abbott has never previously expressed a view against the model until this week. He says the former prime minister has approached the entire issue not as a question of principal but as a question of political gain.

“Turnbull has no political capital. That is the reason. Turnbull refers to the ‘radical idea’ and the ‘third chamber’ and the Australian people ‘never stepping up to vote for something like this’. Those are just excuses. The real reason why we haven’t ended up with a reasonable acceptance that this question should be put to the Australian people for their decision – the real reason why we’re not going down the path of putting the question to a referendum – is because of Malcolm Turnbull’s fundamental weakness.”

He says, “I’m just part of a long history. A long, more than 100-year, history. We stand in the same fight and in the same shoes as all of our predecessors, going back to William Cooper, Charlie Perkins. All of those people in our history of advocacy about this fought for the same thing. Of course, this struggle is never going to go away. But I think the reality is that after today we will need a new prime minister. Indigenous recognition will need a new prime minister if it is ever going to come to fruition … There is no recognition and reconciliation under this prime minister.”

He says, and it bears repeating, on this and many issues, on issues of courage and national good, of what is right and what is needed, of what does not happen because the prime minister cannot make it happen, because he won’t make it happen: “Malcolm Turnbull has certainly consigned himself, prematurely, to a footnote in Australian prime ministerial history. That is what he’s done today: consigned himself to a footnote even before he’s left the parliament.”

This piece was updated on November 1, 2017, to reflect the fact Noel Pearson said “​arrogated” rather than “abrogated”.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Oct 28, 2017 as "Breaking the heart". Subscribe here.