Last weekend, Indigenous leaders gathered at the Garma festival in north east Arnhem Land. The coverage on NITV showed a distinct slide from initial politeness and hope to disappointment and anger.
In August 2016, I wrote on this blog about the cynicism of federal Liberal politicians wanting to hold a plebiscite on marriage equality. A year later, the hypocrisy is back with even greater defiance of common sense, compassion, public opinion and the responsibilities which legislators should take on such vital issues. In August 2017, it should be obvious that the Turnbull Government is not just ignorant, uncaring and nasty about the human rights of couples who do not meet the heterosexual definition in marriage legislation. It has the same attitude to the rights of Indigenous peoples.
To be fair to Mr Turnbull, it should be said that he did respond in statesmanlike terms to the welcome and challenge issued by Yothu Yindi Foundation chairperson Galurrwuy Yunupingu. Unfortunately, much of the positive impression created by the Prime Minister’s speech was spoiled by his failure to set any timetable for reform. He said that the proposals before him were ‘new’ and that he would consult parliamentary colleagues about the issues. Some commentators remarked that the specific demands – or humble requests really – had been public knowledge for more than a month since the issuing of the Statement from the Heart at Uluru. Others pointed out that these suggestions for change had been made many times over at least two hundred years. Wiradjuri man Stan Grant pointed out that Windradyne had asked Governor Brisbane for peace in the 1820s and that Indigenous people were still waiting for simple justice.
When the terms of reference ran out for the constitutional recognition committee, it became clear that their consultations had shown that Indigenous people wanted to broaden the agenda. The retiring committee dared to speak of the need for a treaty, for a Makarrata or reconciliation process and a way to ensure that Indigenous people received formal consultation in the procedures of Parliament. While constitutional recognition might be the immediate choice of conservative elders as a first step, the Turnbull Government seems to think that the entire process of reform is bound up in the referendum process. It does not seem to believe that anything else can be achieved. And predictably, the Prime Minister noted the difficulties involved in that process, citing his experience with the ill fated republican referendum so cynically defeated under the Howard Government.
The deliberations at Garma were not solely a campaign for Indigenous rights. Australia will not be a fair country until historic wrongs are corrected. It was a campaign for all of us. Prime Minister Turnbull has the opportunity to create an impression as strong as that made by Kevin Rudd when he issued an unequivocal apology to the Stolen Generations as his first act as Prime Minister. Instead he looks to be set to procrastinate as he does over so many issues. The Coalition’s policy paralysis is now obvious in numerous areas: the plight of the homeless, the unaffordability of houses, inability to imagine a future free of fossil fuels and the desperation of the working poor. Labor Leader Bill Shorten at least proposed swift action on constitutional recognition, but he acknowledged that it is the Prime Minister’s prerogative to lead the process. What a pity that leadership is a skill that seems to be missing from the Prime Minister’s list of abilities.
Tony Smith is a former political science academic with interests in elections, parliament and political ethics. His recent writings have appeared online at Eureka Street and The Cud.