It may be sheer fantasy, wishful thinking. But in the last week the torpor of politics appeared to lift a little; there were signs that progress might not be stalled forever in the coalition party room in Canberra. Not that anything much has changed within the gaffe-prone cabinet of Malcolm Turnbull – at least not yet. But perhaps the exit of the reactionary influence of Barnaby Joyce as deputy prime minister is providing a glimmer of hope for the handful of rational optimists who have been frustrated for so long by Turnbull’s capitulation to Joyce and his rightist rump.
In particular the Nationals, seen for so long as the dead albatross hanging around the moribund neck of the government, have shown a surprising and welcome acceptance to change and reform.
David Littleproud, the unheralded successor to much of the mess Joyce created, has moved to deal with the live export industry – there is still a long way to go, but Littleproud had the courage to acknowledge its long denied horrors and make some improvements. Too little too late, the critics say – eventually the industry will have to be closed down, running it humanely would cost too much to leave a profit. But it’s a start, and there is even a chance that Joyce’s long-running war on sensible water policy can be reversed.
Joyce demanded the ministry when Turnbull replaced Tony Abbott as part of the price of coalition and Turnbull, who had once held the portfolio himself and so knew the dangers that could be wreaked by a rural populist like Joyce, cravenly agreed. And if anything it turned out worse than Turnbull could have anticipated: Joyce transformed it into his personal fiefdom for his mates, protecting them even when they broke the law to siphon up as much water as they wanted. Litleproud is behaving with more attention to the national interest.
Early days, but we can hope. Joyce apparently believes he is still in the loop; although theoretically on compassionate leave from the parliament he is supposed to serve, he lobbied (or more correctly bullied) his colleagues in the New South Wales house to persuade them not to pass legislation banning religious zealots from harassing and abusing those who use and work in abortion clinics.
But he picked his targets carefully; one who did not get a call was the state National leader John Barilaro, who was in favour of the bill. Barilaro, who like Littleproud is one of the newer breed of Nationals, said that if Joyce had called, he would have hung up on him.
Presumably sooner or later the message will get through to the Beetrooter that he is now politically irrelevant. So at least some of the Nats in some of the jurisdictions are prepared to move. But on the whole they, and the rest of the coalition, need a pretty hefty shove to stir them into action.
And on that most intractable of issues – Indigenous affairs –it is the states and territories, not the lethargic commonwealth, who are making the running in partnership with a re-enthused Indigenous population. Malcolm Turnbull’s contemptuous and hurtful rejection of the Uluru Statement from the Heart was probably the catalyst: it proved that there was no point in talking to a government that is simply not interested in anything Aboriginal Australians have to say.
If months of painstaking discussion, negotiation and drafting were to be dismissed with a paternalistic flick by the national administration, the only way forward was to try and go around it, and fortunately there were state and territory ministers and premiers who were prepared to listen.
Uluru was not abandoned – far from it; the indefatigable Tom Major and others have been taking a decorated copy of the statement around the country where it has been greeted with wide support from both black and white. Uluru may be on the back burner, but it is still alive and well and ready to re-emerge once Turnbull and his right wing controllers are gone.
But in the meantime negotiations for a treaty – yes, an actual treaty – are well underway in Victoria and the Northern Territory. Western Australia has joined in and South Australia and Queensland may not be far behind.
Such agreements are most welcome, but they are not, as even their most fervent adherents admit, quite the real thing: if genuine recognition and reconciliation are to be achieved, Canberra – and, crucially, the federal constitution – have to be involved. But if the different treaties are passed into law by some of the second-tier administrations, there will be considerable pressure on the feds to move to a uniform and national agreement to tidy up the discrepancies – that, after all, would be the sensible, and even the conservative, thing to do.
Turnbull, apparently still unsure whether he is conservative or liberal, is obviously not the man for the job. He may be in the process of ditching Joyce, but there are still enough Neanderthals in the party room to keep him dishonest.
But Bill Shorten just might be both ready and willing. He has committed Labor to going forward on the Uluru statement and reaffirmed his promise at Barunga last week – just 30 years after Bob Hawke made the same pledge and shamefully reneged on it after when the states, especially Western Australia, dropped the wood on him.
But as we have seen, times have changed and now the west, and indeed all the Labor states, are onside and the others – New South Wales and Tasmania — are not likely to try and beat up mendacious rubbish about people losing their backyards or even Turnbull’s absurd characterisation of an advisory body enshrined in the constitution as a third chamber of parliament. Shorten also flagged a truth-telling commission to unravel the exaggerations and lies that have bedevilled the debate for more than 200 years; he might like to call Turnbull as the first exemplar.
The wilful refusal to confront the reality of Aboriginal dispossession and the potential breakthrough of the Uluru statement may remain mouldering in the too-hard basket, as did so many hopeful initiatives in the past. Bob Hawke failed, and Shorten is no Bob Hawke. But a generation later, surely it is time to try again. The Australia Institute has produced a poll which shows a narrow majority of voters already favoured a treaty. And Barnaby Joyce is effectively neutralised.
Perhaps, just perhaps, the rainbow gold of bringing the old and new Australians together is not quite an impossible dream.