The lie of resistance

In the ad, James McGrath says the Voice to Parliament is an attempt to “divide Australia … on the basis of race”.

The Queensland senator maintains the lie that the Uluru Statement from the Heart proposes “a special chamber or a special voice”. He says: “We’re all equal, we’re all the same. This is just nuts.”

The lie is not much different from the one Malcolm Turnbull told when he first rejected the proposal, or from the line Scott Morrison has run since.

Perhaps it is more honest, in that it appears in an ad produced by the Institute of Public Affairs. After years of consensus building in the Indigenous community, the government response is still coming from a right-wing think tank.

Referendums are fragile. It is possible the original Voice proposal was destroyed the day Turnbull wrote his press release calling the advisory body a third chamber. He is a man too smart to be that stupid by accident.

Noel Pearson said then that the prime minister had made himself a footnote in history. As time makes the achievements of his government harder to discern, this one, calculated failure does seem to be his legacy.

Pearson said history is long but that we would need a new prime minister before we could hope for Indigenous recognition. We have one, and we can’t.

Scott Morrison appointed Ken Wyatt to manage the Indigenous Affairs portfolio, and immediately set about undermining him. There would be no Voice in the constitution, Morrison said. Consultation would be for a model few want.

At public events, Morrison thanks servicemen at the same time as he acknowledges Country. The message from his government is clear: this might be Indigenous land, but we fought for it and it is ours now.

He says, with his grinning, slippery divisiveness and his condescending pronoun: “We rightly acknowledge our First Australian traditional owners and I have always felt in this spirit we also acknowledge those for whom we owe the greatest debt: to be able to live in the best country in the world and enjoy the freedoms they paid for.”

The Voice is broadly popular, but it is impossible while politicians continue to lie about it. James McGrath is a bumptious oaf, but he’s also the deputy government whip in the senate.

Marcia Langton and Tom Calma will now lead a co-design process for a Voice that will not be enshrined in the constitution. To their credit, both have already said it should be. This government asks Indigenous people to do everything with one hand tied behind their backs.

The resistance to act on something so simple, that so many have said they wanted, is about a broader resistance to reconciliation. White Australia will do anything not to confess to the realities of colonisation. To vote on a Voice to Parliament would be to acknowledge that this land is stolen. The government prefers to live in a continuous present: no plan for the future, lest it be too difficult; no recognition of the past, lest history call them to account. Somehow, they manage to paint themselves as victims of the most marginalised group in society.

Not so long ago, James McGrath posted a picture online of a dead cockatoo, its wings splayed and its body wedged into the roof racks of his car. Underneath, he wrote: “Car 1. Flock of cockatoos 0.”

Later he clarified that the post had been taken out of context: the birds flew into him.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on November 2, 2019 as "The lie of resistance".

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