Opinion

Paul Bongiorno
Putting a statement into action

More than any other figure in our democracy, a prime minister can influence the direction of the nation. Anthony Albanese knows it, and he is not allowing the most difficult economic and strategic circumstance in more than three decades to deter him from forging new pathways.

One of those pathways is action on the Uluru Statement from the Heart, which has languished since it was first proposed five years ago. The statement would give substance to recognition in a process that involves a Voice to Parliament, a makarrata commission to supervise agreement between governments and First Nations people, and a truth-telling process about our shared history.

Former prime minister Malcolm Turnbull rejected the Uluru statement for proposing what he speciously described as “a third chamber of the parliament”. When Scott Morrison became PM, he was similarly disinclined. While he talked about legislating the called-for advisory body, instead of enshrining it in the constitution, he didn’t get around to it.

Given the failure rate of constitutional referendums in Australia, there is a view shared by some Aboriginal leaders, including Marcia Langton, that any controversial or contested proposal that doesn’t have bipartisan support is doomed to failure and would be better not put.

But Senator Patrick Dodson – Albanese’s special envoy for reconciliation and the implementation of the Uluru Statement from the Heart – does not agree. He believes the time for prevarication is over and the referendum should be put to the people. If it fails, he has told colleagues, it will be a reality check of where we are as a nation. It would show we are still reluctant to take this significant step towards healing the hole in Australia’s heart.

While Albanese would welcome bipartisan support for a referendum – and takes heart from shadow minister for Indigenous Australians Julian Leeser’s support for the implementation of the statement – he is pushing ahead either way. It is still not clear where Peter Dutton and the opposition will end up, but hostile rejection would be a big political risk. On Tuesday, after Albanese described his intention to put the voice proposal to a referendum, Dutton gave a well-thought-through response that did not challenge Albanese’s direction.

This weekend Albanese will go to the Garma Festival of Traditional Culture in East Arnhem Land, where he will give more information on how he will progress his promise to put a referendum this term. The prime minister says the Uluru statement is a generous offer from Indigenous Australians. He says it is about reconciliation, recognising dispossession and colonisation: “Why wouldn’t you grasp that generous and gracious offer?”

Albanese believes the proposal is like the 1967 referendum recognising Indigenous Australians, or the apology to Stolen Generations delivered by Kevin Rudd in 2008. He says no one would now say “I wish that never happened.”

At Garma he won’t announce a date for the referendum but will explain why a simple proposition to enshrine the voice will be put, leaving it to parliament to decide on how to implement it, with future parliaments able to amend it.

Albanese is investing all the prestige of the prime ministership in this project and every time he has mentioned it in key events he has been greeted with loud, spontaneous applause.

The prime minister is confident his victory came because Australians wanted change, and he is determined to give it to them. He describes his agenda as being that of “a government of ambition, a government which sees it has a responsibility to break Australia out of the inertia that the former government was stuck in”.

Beyond the Uluru statement, Albanese is acutely aware of the other issues he will have to deal with in office. He says he is conscious of the deep anxiety many Australians have as they struggle to make ends meet with cost-of-living pressures mounting. He understands that these worries are compounded by catastrophic climate change for those who have seen their homes and businesses devastated by floods and mega bushfires.

International economic and security instability is exacerbating these domestic crises. In its latest outlook, the International Monetary Fund trimmed its global growth forecast, citing high inflation and the risks posed by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, which could push the world into recession.

This fed into the highest inflation rate in Australia for 21 years – 6.1 per cent – which was announced this week. There is even more upward pressure on borrowers, with interest rates forecast to keep rising as the Reserve Bank battles to curb inflation.

Treasurer Jim Chalmers responded by saying the numbers were “confronting”. The next day he unveiled a list of even grimmer figures, trimming optimistic forecasts in the Coalition’s pre-election budget. Like the prime minister, he warned inflation will get worse before it gets better. He said the idea that forecast wages growth would keep up with the rising cost of living “will not be credible”.

While there is no doubt Scott Morrison’s performance as prime minister contributed in a significant way to his defeat, the onset of rising inflation and a higher interest-rate cycle can’t be dismissed as a factor.

And in this there is an amber light in the latest Guardian Essential poll. It asked how respondents rated the government’s handling of the cost of living. Only 23 per cent thought it was good or very good. Another 37 per cent were neutral – rating it neither good nor bad – and 40 per cent thought it was quite poor or very poor.

In parliament, the treasurer said it took “nine years to make this mess and it would take more than nine weeks to clean it up”. He has just under three years to convince an overwhelming number of voters he is doing a better job of it.

Chalmers’ answer, like those proffered by other ministers in the first question time, demonstrated what Albanese means when he talks about a new “inclusive politics” and that people are suffering “conflict fatigue”. It certainly doesn’t mean refusing to engage in argument, leaving assertions uncontested or being soft on your opponents.

Many on the Labor side will be relieved. Few would disagree with the observation of maverick independent Bob Katter. After 29 years, he is now the longest-serving current member of parliament. He claims “devious cunning” and “ruthless brutality” are hallmarks of successful politics.

We did see something of the iron fist in a velvet glove when Prime Minister Albanese congratulated Dutton on being the new opposition leader and then wished him many years in the job. Some commentators, however, thought the government was weak in not going harder on their opponents. It probably means the government had disappointed the media by not feeding its blood lust. There’s nothing television news producers like more than a bit of “biffo” to enliven their bulletins.

The new speaker, Milton Dick, showed promising gravitas and familiarity with the standing orders to establish his control of the house. It was a more assured first performance than that of his immediate Liberal predecessor, Andrew Wallace, who took over from the impressive Tony Smith. Mind you, Wallace’s task was harder, with an election about to be called and an opposition intent on destroying a decaying government.

Peter Dutton set the tone for the opposition’s day one attacks, linking the government to the construction union, the CFMMEU, which he said was a $5 million donor to Labor and had members charged with criminal behaviour including sexual assault.

Dutton got under Albanese’s skin when he went on a fishing exercise, asking if the prime minister had held meetings with any of these people. Albanese demanded Dutton put names to the smear. One suspects the opposition leader is merely warming up. He winked to the press gallery, clearly pleased that his niggle rankled.

On the government’s part, the “Dorothy Dixer”, or prepared question ignoring the quaint “questions without notice” charade, is still alive. Climate Change and Energy Minister Chris Bowen used one to attack the Coalition’s policy failures and its hiding of energy price hikes immediately before the election.

Bowen told ABC Radio that “reminding people of the previous government’s appalling record is fair enough”. After a decade of inaction, he finally introduced emission reduction targets into the parliament. The real test for that legislation will come when it reaches the senate.

The Liberals aren’t buying Albanese’s talk of wanting a parliament “where there is a genuine debate and dialogue and discussion”. The manager of opposition business in the house, Paul Fletcher, accused the government of skewing the standing orders to the benefit of the enlarged crossbench because it did not want to be held up to more rigorous scrutiny from “experienced shadow ministers”.

To add to the Coalition’s disappointment, the government accepted an amendment from the independent member for Warringah, Zali Steggall, giving the crossbench and indeed the parliament more say when the government wants to declare a bill urgent and ram it through the house.

There is an argument that, in the age of 24/7 TV news channels, radio and social media, the parliament doesn’t have the cachet with the electorate it once did. However, if a government can’t progress its agenda or set the dominant narrative, voters will soon lose faith in it. The early signs are both Albanese and Dutton are well aware of this. 

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on July 30, 2022 as "Putting a statement into action".

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Paul Bongiorno is a columnist for The Saturday Paper and a 30-year veteran of the Canberra Press Gallery.

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