Tony Abbott’s skill is to say one thing is another thing, even when it is not. It is as close to transubstantiation as politics comes. He can look at a carbon price and call it a tax. Irrespective of whether it is true, he gives the impression he believes what he is saying. He has the zeal and slippery bearing of a street preacher.
To Abbott, the Voice is an “ancestry-based fourth arm of government”. It is a “blank cheque for change, and all that can be answered with certainty about a blank cheque is that it’s full of risk”. It would have “the power to make endless demands without ever having to take responsibility for anything”.
To Abbott, the Uluru Statement from the Heart is a “tirade against Australia”. Noel Pearson is “a tribal chief waging a guerrilla campaign against an oppression that is long since past and that has been replaced by the ‘tyranny of low expectations’ that a grievance and entitlement-obsessed voice would just reinforce”.
Reading Abbott, it is clearer and clearer what the “No” case is promising. The defeat of the Voice is a kind of absolution, a vote on whether or not white Australia should have to deal with the realities of colonisation. Abbott does not want to be blamed for “the original sin of British settlement”.
Guilt sits large in Abbott’s mind. He worries about the “denunciation of Australia’s history as a story of shame”. Everywhere he sees the risk of punishment. He talks about fault and payback. Refusing to acknowledge the subtle layers of translation and meaning, he describes Makarrata as a form of ritualistic spearing.
“Even though this generation of Aboriginal people are not victims and this generation of non-Aboriginal Australians are not oppressors, the voice would mean that all of us and our descendants would have to live forever with institutional arrangements enshrining compensation for the crimes of some Australians’ ancestors against other Australians’ ancestors.”
In Abbott’s cant, a “No” vote is a vote against guilt. It would settle history by refusing to deal with it. The realities of colonisation, the truth of it as an ongoing and continuous act, would be sealed off and ignored. In this inversion, the “No” campaign would be voting to free white Australia from culpability.
This is not new. It is the same reason John Howard could never say sorry. It is the reason the Stolen Generations are denied and the frontier massacres debated. There is a powerful urge in Australia to live without history. Little has changed since W. E. H. Stanner first described this as the “Great Australian Silence”.
What the “No” case fails to see is this silence is crippling. It won’t be answered with more silence. It dims imagination. It creates a kind of national anxiety, an uneasy compact in which we agree not to look too hard or think too hard in case we encounter the truth. It is like blinkers on a horse.
The Voice is part of the answer to this, as will be Treaty and truth-telling. The freedom Abbott is talking about is there, although not in the form he imagines. Very little exists in that form, where one thing is something else entirely only because he says so.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on September 9, 2023 as "Abbott’s blinkers".
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