In brief, this has been the story of a government staying patient, exploring ways of salvaging its position, floating arguments to see what flies, then taking its chances on weathering whatever storm is coming. At least for now, and at least until some new revelation exhausts its political reserves.
Meanwhile you could be forgiven for missing Malcolm Turnbull’s response to the Close the Gap Steering Committee’s assessment that the policy launched after the Rudd apology had been “effectively abandoned” by extensive budget cuts since 2014. In brief, Turnbull commenced talks on how to refresh the policy, and announced a new inquiry into the matter of constitutional recognition, to be done by a joint select committee.
If that sounds familiar, it’s because we’ve just been through an enormous process aimed at the constitutional recognition of Indigenous Australians, which ended in a screaming disappointment.
At the centre of this was the government’s swift rejection of the Uluru Statement from the Heart, itself the result of the most deliberative, representative process of collective Indigenous thinking I can recall. At issue was the statement’s call for an Indigenous voice to parliament: a kind of advisory body that would ensure Indigenous perspectives were heard in the halls in which they are so comprehensively absent.
Immediately the Turnbull government decried this as fundamentally undemocratic. In its hands, this somehow became a “third chamber” of parliament “that sits beside or above the senate”. That, we were told, “just won’t fly” with the Australian people. Those words, as symmetry would have it, happened to belong to Barnaby Joyce.
Here was a process specifically commissioned and sponsored by the federal government, whose fruits were immediately mischaracterised and then snubbed. Precisely why Turnbull and Joyce misled us on what was being proposed, we don’t know. But this week in Parliament, Turnbull restated the reason it was so quickly ditched, namely that “the prospects of such an amendment to the constitution being successful were absolutely zero”.
Cue Noel Pearson’s sharp retort: “The Prime Minister shows every week how poor his policy and political judgment is – why should this opportunity for recognition be lost because of his ineptitude and lack of imagination?”
Pearson picked a good week to say this. It’s true that so much of the Joyce saga is beyond Turnbull’s control, not least of which being that he has so little say on how the Nationals handle their leader. But it’s also true that Turnbull’s office tried on the “not his partner” defence, whose chances of political success must be slim at best.
You can describe this as inept if you like. But maybe it’s not right to call it a “lack of imagination”. If anything, it showed a kind of political ambition: a preparedness run an argument, even if it looks for all the world to be a losing one.
If only that kind of ambition had been evident on Uluru. This week Aboriginal leaders have accused Turnbull of deceiving them: of encouraging them to develop their proposal for a voice to parliament and consult the public on it when Turnbull had already decided it had no future.
The result is that having asked Indigenous Australia to bring him some clear ideas, he didn’t event bother trying to convince the public of them. He didn’t give run them and see how they went. He didn’t try to persuade us. They weren’t deemed worthy of the Barnaby treatment. Turnbull simply foreshadowed our rejection, then made that rejection his own.
It’s funny the things politicians will fight for. I understand these are very different political stories that carry different political logics. I understand that Turnbull probably has little choice but to deploy whatever arguments he can find in defence of Joyce, while he has no such political obligations to those who crafted the Uluru statement.
But perhaps some obligations should be beyond political calculations. Perhaps there are times to spend political capital on people other than colleagues, allies and donors. Perhaps there are times to spend it on those whose people were wronged enough to receive a formal apology a decade ago, who’ve since seen several policies that concern them effectively abandoned, and who in spite of that, when asked to give us their ideas share them from the heart. Perhaps, but apparently not this week.
Waleed Aly is a Fairfax Media columnist and a presenter on The Project.
Waleed Aly is co-host of Ten’s The Project and is a lecturer in politics at Monash University. He writes fortnightly for Fairfax.
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