Razing a voice

Mick Dodson says it was a door slammed. He says Malcolm Turnbull’s response to the Uluru Statement from the Heart was “deplorable”.

Speaking at the National Press Club this week, he said Turnbull was guilty of “a gross distortion of what was said at Uluru and it’s shameful that it’s come from the head of the country, the person elected to lead the country”.

This distortion was done by press release. The greatest consensus ever reached in Indigenous politics was dismissed by email.

The voice to the parliament was formally mischaracterised. Turnbull made clear he would not argue for it and would not address misapprehension of it. He rejected the proposal not for what it was but how it might be seen. “It would,” he said, without irony or clear attribution, “inevitably become seen as a third chamber of parliament.”

Noel Pearson answered this speciousness with angry truth. “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…” he wrote in The Monthly.

“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.”

It is much easier to think of failings in Turnbull’s prime ministership than it is to think of successes. Even so, his condescending dismissal of the Uluru statement numbers among his worst. It will be remembered as the shame of his leadership.

It is through cynicism and lack of imagination that he ignores the voice of First Australians. He is content with their absence from formal recognition in the processes of our parliament. He has failed them and in doing so he has failed this country.

Earlier this week, Pat Dodson said First Nations people were willing to take a “pragmatic” approach to recognition. “The question of the permanency or guarantee of a voice in the constitution is a nice idea but it’s very difficult to see how you would be guaranteed an opportunity to have a say on legislation and policies at every point,” he said. “It’s still under investigation.”

Pat Dodson is working with Liberal MP Julian Leeser on proposals for recognition. It is worthy work, though slow and complicated.

It wouldn’t be happening if Turnbull had a willingness to believe in the country he is supposed to govern, if he had allowed the public a vote on the voice.

That vote would have carried, and Australia would be more whole for it.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on July 7, 2018 as "Razing a voice".

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