The left always overdo the emotion, Gemma Tognini agreed with host Chris Kenny on Sky News. She was put off by Prime Minister Anthony Albanese’s tearful press conference announcing the wording of a proposition for a constitutionally enshrined Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice.
“I don’t see Mr Albanese crying about people not being able to pay their bills,” Tognini, a regular contributor to The Australian, said on March 23. “He lost respect from me when he turned on the tears. Seriously, there are plenty of things to cry over in this country. That’s not one of them.”
Kenny was a member of the co-design committee that advised the Morrison government on options for the Voice, and remains a supporter of the referendum. But two days later, in his column in The Weekend Australian, he said Albanese alienated conservatives by making it a focus of his victory speech on the night of the 2022 election and refusing to outline the shape of the body that would be legislated after a successful referendum.
Kenny’s column sat amid some 11,500 words in the newspaper covering the government’s model for the Voice, including scathing assessments by Paul Kelly and Dennis Shanahan, and a pained opinion piece by constitutional lawyer Greg Craven, former vice-chancellor and now emeritus professor at the Australian Catholic University.
Craven was an early supporter of the Voice as a “conservatively acceptable” answer to calls for constitutional recognition of Indigenous Australians. But the original idea, Craven now wrote, had been hijacked by Indigenous activists and progressives and the prime minister’s referendum question proposed the Voice in the “worst possible form”, which “dynamites conservative support”.
Craven’s main objection was that, by empowering the Voice to advise the executive arm as well as the parliament, the government was opening the door to judicial intervention that would interpret the powers of the body ever more widely. Craven wrote that he would still vote for the Voice, because of the moral imperative involved, but he considered it constitutionally unsound. Craven’s view has been rejected by other constitutional law experts, including professor Anne Twomey from the University of Sydney and UNSW Sydney professor George Williams, who advised the government.
Craven’s objections to the referendum model were immediately seized on by former prime minister John Howard, who warned Kenny on Sky News that the Voice could turn into a “constitutional quagmire”. On March 26, another opinion piece in The Australian, by former prime minister Tony Abbott, warned that the Voice would divide Australians by race and represented an attempt by Indigenous leaders to regain sovereignty, which would lead to a “massive disturbance” to our system of government.
“Nothing could happen without substantial Indigenous input,” wrote Abbott, adding that “this is very far indeed from the ‘modest’ change the PM claims ... it’s actually by far the biggest constitutional change we’ve ever been asked to make”.
Had The Australian – flagship broadsheet of the Murdoch empire, whose editorial line is often replicated across the company’s tabloids and which sets the agenda for Sky News – reached an inflection point on the Voice, shifting from in favour to against?
For his part, Greg Craven thinks not. “It’s probably the only media outlet that has actually published pieces from completely different opinions,” he said. “So it’s published ‘No’ pieces, ‘Yes’ pieces, and ‘Yes, but…’ pieces, which is probably where I am.”
Craven, who was a member of the statutory committee on the unsuccessful 1999 republic referendum, argues debate about the Voice will only get more provocative as the final vote approaches. “What invariably happens, as a referendum enters an acute stage, is you start to get more detail, and detail provokes issues.”
He does not shy away from his criticisms regarding the dangers of judicial review of executive action – a problem he hopes will be addressed before the government’s referendum legislation, unveiled on Thursday, passes into law.
Craven sees The Australian as following the news cycle: “I think The Australian’s editorial line has always been, and is still, that it’s favoured a constitutional Voice for Indigenous people. It’s probably done more to popularise it than any other media organ in Australia. I think that it’s alive to challenges to it – and clearly, as it gets closer to referendum, those sorts of challenges and problems are going to become more and more part of the news, and it’s responding to that.”
Supporters of the Voice contacted by The Saturday Paper were reluctant to criticise News Corp or The Australian for fear of antagonising the powerful Murdoch empire. They had a range of opinions as to whether the editorial line had changed since the wording of the referendum proposal was released on March 23.
Some said no. Others cited analysis showing the balance of opinion pieces in the paper was already skewed to the “No” case last year, before former editor-in-chief Chris Dore was dismissed for inappropriate conduct and replaced by Michelle Gunn.
Neither Gunn nor Sky News chief Paul Whittaker, himself a former editor-in-chief of The Australian and chair of its editorial board, would comment on the paper’s coverage of the Voice. Gunn sent a one-line statement: “The Australian has given more space to the breadth of the debate including points of view on both sides of the debate than any other paper or media outlet.”
Filmmaker Rachel Perkins, who is co-chair of Australians for Indigenous Constitutional Recognition, agrees that The Australian is running a mix of opinions on the Voice, both for and against. “They have asked me to regularly write op-eds for them, but I’m running around the country speaking to people and doing other things and haven’t got the time to sit down for a good few hours that it takes to write something decent in my own words. I’m busy talking to the people and putting it out there.”
Conservative Indigenous activist Nyunggai Warren Mundine, who was chair of Tony Abbott’s Indigenous Advisory Council, has consistently opposed the Voice. In a recent column for The West Australian he described it as a “Trojan horse”. The piece – which criticised conservative Voice supporters, including Noel Pearson and Chris Kenny – had been filed to The Australian but Gunn delayed publishing it. In the column Mundine argued the Voice would “radically upend” Australia’s democracy and subject Indigenous Australians to “a separate system of governance, policy making and service delivery, wrapped up in a huge, constitutionally entrenched bureaucracy (and overseer)”.
Mundine had a private conversation with Gunn about the column before placing it with another newspaper. He tells The Saturday Paper he has been writing for The Australian for 20 years and believes there is a shift in support for the Voice, particularly among the newspaper’s readers. “I find it strange, but we’re starting to see changes across the board at the moment – across society – because people are getting a bit worried about how far the Voice will extend into the executive. So there’s going to be a lot of interesting debates over the next few months.”
One former senior journalist at The Australian, speaking off the record, said the newspaper is up to its old tricks. “The Oz does that pretend ‘both sides’ thing,” says the source. “So they will always justify everything they run by saying, ‘Well, everyone deserves to be able to have something to say.’ News Corp generally – but The Oz in particular – can get away with pretending to be accommodating of all arguments, while nonetheless suppressing some and valorising others … That’s what the sleight of hand trick is, right?
“This is a modest proposal. I don’t think The Oz has really strayed in general from that. I do think that they’ve absolutely been mischief-making, like all that questioning of whether a Voice will be able to pass comment on foreign affairs, or on interest rates, or whatever. It’s just mischief-making, because, constitutionally, of course, it could pass comment or make inquiries on any aspect that affects Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and that’s a whole range of things – it’s not going to be restricted just to fucking didgeridoos and boomerangs.”
The Australian has a proud history of courage in Indigenous affairs. At its 50th anniversary celebration, Noel Pearson said, “Ever since The Australian declared Eddie Mabo its Australian of the Year in 1992, following his historic and controversial victory in the High Court, the paper’s coverage of native title, reconciliation and the fundamental reassessments of Indigenous policy of the past dozen years was newspaper campaigning at its relentless best”.
Pearson lauded then editor-in-chief Chris Mitchell, who had “opened the pages of The Australian to all shades of debate and Indigenous leaders and commentators”. He said Mitchell, like Murdoch himself, seemed “impelled by an unremitting sense of native duty to the nation by taking his Indigenous brethren with utmost seriousness”.
Pearson did not respond to an approach for comment for this story. The former senior journalist on The Australian doubts he would still hold that view. “I suspect Pearson is deeply disappointed … [He’s spent] a professional lifetime courting conservatives who have now effectively turned against him. One of Pearson’s great ideas in all this was, you persuade the right because the left will already be there. I’m speculating here now whether Pearson fears that his whole grand scheme has got away from him. I don’t think he’d be particularly worried about that, though, because he can be at his best when he’s got his back against the wall. Noel is a street fighter and he’s now just engaged in throwing Molotov cocktails at the people who’ve turned on him.”
Asked about Murdoch’s coverage, Tony Koch, a five-time Walkley Award-winning journalist who spent the better part of three decades reporting on Indigenous affairs at The Courier-Mail and The Australian, tells a story from his student years. A social worker came into a classroom and asked everyone in the room to spend 10 minutes writing down everything they knew about how to solve the problems of Aboriginal Australia. After the time was up, he asked everyone to write the names of every Aboriginal person they knew.
“None of them knew a single name,” says Koch, who in retirement has become a trenchant critic of the Murdoch press. “I see a similar situation in The Australian today. Who among their reporters and senior columnists – people such as Paul Kelly, Peta Credlin, Warren Mundine, Greg Sheridan – has been and spent time in an Indigenous community in Queensland, which has the highest Aboriginal population of any state? Have they ever spoken to an Indigenous person who isn’t wearing a suit?
“They’re just ignorant of the truth. It’d be like asking me to go and write an article about The Australian Ballet.”
Koch suggests The Australian is a shadow of the paper that was edited by Chris Mitchell. “Chris has been gone a long time. There’s a bunch of lightweights in charge now. They’re not making any real effort.”
Koch sees in The Australian a kind of diminishing influence and kneejerk conservatism, though he singles out Gunn for praise, saying: “In my dealings with her, she’s been an absolute champion. I have no doubt her soul is in the right place.”
Koch has four Indigenous grandchildren and says in Indigenous communities, politicians and journalists are known as seagulls, who fly in and shit on people before they leave. “You’ve got to go back to Aboriginal communities many times before you earn their respect. You don’t go and talk with Aboriginal people – you go and listen to them.”
When it comes to Indigenous issues, there are too many white solutions to Black problems, he says.
Koch is dismissive of the opinions of conservative politicians such as Abbott, who he says is “not even yesterday’s man, he’s the day-before-yesterday’s man”.
“I’ll make a prediction for you right now: the referendum will succeed,” says Koch. “Anything that can help Indigenous people will be supported.”
As the former journalist from The Australian says: “If the referendum gets up in October, or whenever it ends up being, The Oz will triumphantly say, ‘We supported this from the beginning. We absolutely supported it, Noel Pearson, as the thing was developed, et cetera’. All of which will be true. And they’ll just pretend that they never ran anyone who said this is a terrible thing, including fucking Paul Kelly the other day.
“I do believe it’ll get up and I also believe that it’ll be a hard, hard road … as with marriage equality. The end result will be the one that was sought by the majority, but a lot of people get hurt unnecessarily in the process.”
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on April 1, 2023 as "How News Corp is framing the ‘No’ case".
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