After a week of incompetence, chaos and downright embarrassment Malcolm Turnbull may have been looking for a silver lining.
At least the dual citizen debacle, along with Michaelia Cash’s novel interpretation of parliamentary standards, would cover his most egregious capitulation. Surely the avalanche of bad news would roll over his peremptory, even contemptuous, rejection of the Uluru declaration seeking an indigenous voice in which concerns could be passed on to the Australian Aboriginals’ political masters.
And it almost worked; after all the maxim that there are no votes in Aboriginals all too often means that there is no news for them either. But some of the outrage trickled through, enough to make it clear that our Prime Minister’s legacy will now be irrevocably tarnished.
It is not clear who, if anyone, was consulted before cabinet summarily dismissed ideas that had been germinating for more than a century and had been painstakingly refined over the last ten years. Obviously they did not include most of the participants from the Uluru meeting, or from the referendum Council itself: most of the stakeholders were shocked, deeply depressed and in many cases insulted when they heard the news (through a media leak) that Turnbull had told them, effectively, to go and get stuffed.
Of course he did not put it quite like that: in a short statement he described their proposals as “undesirable,” that they would inevitably be seen as a third house of parliament, and, perhaps most importantly, that they could not pass in a referendum. And to be fair, our Prime Minister is something of an expert in leading failed referenda.
But look at the facts: the last polling showed that 60 percent of voters favoured the establishment of a voice. Obviously the reactionary right, and especially Tony Abbott and the Nationals, hate the idea, and would campaign against it, although Labor and of course the Greens would be vigorously onside. Turnbull could have relied on at least a measure of bipartisanship, but in the coalition party room that is out of the question.
So a referendum would be difficult: but surely that is not a sufficient reason not to even try. As for Turnbull’s worry about the perception of a third house of parliament—this has never been envisaged, and perhaps a smart, agile lawyer could reassure the voters – again, if he was willing to try.
Which leaves us back to “undesirable:” but undesirable to whom? Initially Turnbull thought it wasn’t such a bad idea initially, before he was monstered by the mad right. And it is clearly thoroughly desirable to the people who most matter: the indigenous Australians who were invited to devise it. Now they are told to piss off and go back to some of the suggestions (almost entirely urged by white politicians) which they have long ago rejected as inadequate.
The delegates from Uluru have been declassed not only as second class Australians, but as mere black pawns, to be used and discarded as the political mood dictates. Of all Turnbull’s betrayals this is the worst: cynical, craven and cruel. As Noel Pearson said, referencing Turnbull’s memorable line after the defeat of the Republican referendum, it is truly heart breaking.
Many optimists have been waiting patiently for the real Malcolm Turnbull to finally emerge. Now he has. And now there is no valid reason not to throw him out with as little respect as he accorded the first Australians.
Mungo MacCallum is Mungo MacCallum