Dutton gives voice to Jacinta Price

Apr 25, 2023
The Australian flag and Australian Aboriginal flag fly with a westerly wind on the Sydney Harbour Bridge on a Spring afternoon. This image was taken from Kirribilli on the eastern side of the bridge.

Peter Dutton has staked his political future on Jacinta Price, his new shadow minister for Aboriginal Affairs, a woman of less than 10 months experience in Parliament, none of which have been spent in government.

No one could doubt her zeal, debating skills and her own stake in the success of achieving a No vote at the Voice referendum. By the time it is held, she will probably have given her all. But if it is not enough, as I expect, it won’t be her fault. It will rather be the fault of first, the Nationals, in deciding that she was sufficient alibi to follow their own instincts in opposing the Voice against the opposition of a significant number of their constituents. More seriously, the fault of Peter Dutton who has long distrusted the expertise, the experience and the self-confidence of almost anyone involved – white or black – in Indigenous affairs, or ever thought that Aboriginal advancement was important enough to do anything but parade his disdain for social justice causes about.

He knows perfectly well that Jacinta Price has no workable alternative vision for how Indigenous Australians might live and work with fellow Australians in future. Neither he, nor Price, has any sort of policy or program – different from the manifestly failing programs that Labor and the Coalition have been offering for 50 years – capable of making an improvement to present outcomes. If new policies followed Dutton’s instincts, or the clues offered by Price’s critiques, they could well produce outcomes that were much worse, even if funding were not slashed – an outcome that Price and her co-crusader Warren Mundine appear to favour, with their constant references to armies of bureaucrats.

In one sense that might not matter very much, since Dutton is a political realist who understands that the odds are that the coalition will not be back in power for a long time, and that when, or if, it is, he will not be at the wheel. He also understands that it is unlikely that Indigenous affairs will be a first or second order electoral issue at future elections, regardless of the outcome of the Voice referendum. (Other than, that is, for what his views and record on Indigenous affairs reveal about his general personality, instincts and character, a matter on which most voters have already made up their minds. ) So, he can be as vague or as fervent as he wishes, offering whatever spending, programs and ideological flourishes the occasion seems to demand, knowing that he will not be called upon to deliver.

Framing Aborigines as a problem and a threat, as in Alice Springs

Jacinta Price has been extremely helpful to Dutton in helping to frame Indigenous Australians in just the way that Dutton himself seems always to consider them. As a law-and-order problem. As collections of dysfunctional families who fail to conform to societal norms, whether as to family formation, work patterns, the care and education of children, the management of their own affairs, including the getting of jobs, housing and the wherewithal of life in the normal manner that people in his own station of life do. Considered as such, these people are a threat to the stability of society and the future of our constitutional arrangements, particularly if they are given new rights.

Dutton is a creature of his background who has not adapted to social change. He grew up in a Queensland culture where Aboriginal assimilation – becoming citizens no different from any other – was the aim, and he has never shown any public enthusiasm for any of the alternatives that have stressed self-management, integration rather than assimilation, or multiculturalism. Nor, of course, for any form of collectivism, or the idea that the state should take responsibility for the lives and the welfare of all, or that society generally owes them a living. Whether because they are the First Australians or because many suffer significant disadvantage and invite sympathy.

Indeed, he seems to believe that most of the intervention of the state in Aboriginal affairs over decades has increased Aboriginal dependency, magnified poverty and reduced personal initiative and people taking control of their own lives. He might be right about that, but that is, in major part, because people in his position, Labor and Liberal, have always seemed to prefer to think that they know better than the objects of their attention. The evidence has always been against them.

Some of this is the attitude of the police officer he once was, and still is philosophically. That goes particularly for contempt for sociological explanations of crime, communal depression and apathy. And his general view that there is no street problem that cannot be resolved by criminalisation, higher penalties and judges who are not lily-livered.

But these views are compounded by his further career as a self-made man – indeed as a magnificent example of initiative, self-reliance and personal responsibility. Saving his salary, real estate speculation, and, in conjunction with his wife, making hundreds of millions by farming government subsidies for middle-class childcare. Offering himself and his ideas to the community for selfless public service, only in early days for less than $500,000 a year. Being willing to court unpopularity by doing unpopular but necessary things. Almost inventing the science of nastiness and meanness. Working to help create an economy and society where a hard-working citizen can prosper and build a family, save, invest and provide for the future, serve the community and honour God and the King. A prospect as glorious and democratically open to aspiring Aboriginal Australians if only they would stop complaining, blaming everyone else, especially cops and people like him, and get off their bums. If only they stopped waiting for other people to give them everything on a plate.

That Price genuinely believes her narrative does not make it true. Nearly everything she says is disputed by people on the ground.

Jacinta Price is completely on board with the personal initiative and personal responsibility philosophy. Indeed, via the Institute of Public Affairs which has long recognised her ability and helped teach her many of her political arts and aphorisms, she may well have a deeper background in it than Dutton, who is more a university of hard knocks sort of fellow, with a sense of mordant humour and some sense of the ridiculous.

She is no one’s creature, although most of her ideas, strategies and tactics come from others, including (particularly) her father, her mother and white political sponsors. She has a particular and genuine sense of mission about domestic violence and about child abuse and neglect. Her critics would say, with some truth, that she is not a particularly reliable witness of the facts, and that she is stronger on generalisation with a moral message, than with statistics, case histories, or sense of scale. The problem after all is real enough. She seems more comfortable with those who deal in generalities and impressions, and, notably has seemed to quote white foster carers and police officers rather more than women or child victims.

But she is yet far from self-made, let alone invested with a practical realism about her mission. She has no administrative experience, let alone in Indigenous affairs, and is usually quickly caught on detail or when her logic is closely questioned. Her claim to be representative of “real” Aboriginal opinion is quite contestable, even among the language group from which her mother comes.

Her mother, Bess Price, a Warlpiri woman originally from Yuendumu, was elected as the CLP representative for that area in 2012, when Warlpiri people had become exasperated by Labor’s taking them for granted. She beat her nephew with a swing of about 18 per cent and was, briefly, a CLP minister. At the next election, voters threw her out (with a 31 per cent swing) as convincingly as they threw out her predecessor. The protest that put her in seems to be over.

Bess Price, before Jacinta, spoke strongly about domestic violence and child abuse, supported the 2006 Intervention, and was a darling of various right-of-centre bodies such as the IPA and the Bennelong Society. Her political demise owes something to her incapacity to convert others to her ideas, or, at least to keeping them converted, as well as to difficulties in implementing them, even from the ministry. There are lessons there for her daughter, whose stock of ideas, and the way she articulates them, are very similar.

In 2019, Jacinta, who had become a member of the Alice Springs Council, more by representing white rather than Aboriginal grievances, stood for the House of Representatives in the seat of Lingiari, which covers most of the NT other than Darwin. She lost, with fewer votes than her CLP predecessor. It was notable that she got little support from rural Indigenous communities, including from the area from which her mother had come. To win her NT senate seat last year involved her having to win 33 per cent of the vote, as in the ACT, and the real action was in winning the pre-selection in a bitter contest against the coalition incumbent.

There is no reason why senator Price must look first or only to Indigenous support for any sense of authority or legitimacy. She represents her whole electorate like any other politician.

Price has yet to demonstrate that she speaks for an Aboriginal constituency, or, among white Australians, for the young, the educated and those who aspire to be partners in Aboriginal advancement.

There is a lot of significance in the fact that she lacks a real constituency among the Indigenous people for whom she claims to speak over the question of the Voice. It was underlined this week when a large-scale meeting of local land councils (which is to say a meeting containing many more than those she would dismiss as bureaucrats in the Aboriginal industry) disputed her right to speak for the people of the Centre.

Yuendumu man Warren Williams, deputy chair of the council of 90 elected Aboriginal women and men from central Australia, was highly critical of her “continued attacks on land councils and other peak Aboriginal organisations. We are tired of her playing politics with grassroots organisations our old people have built to advocate for our rights and interests,” Mr Williams said. The council was well aware of the scale of the challenges faced by Indigenous families in central Australia and welcomed anyone who was willing and able to work with them.

“We have many good men and women who are trying hard to make our communities better places, who are desperate to be heard, and Senator Price’s divisive approach isn’t helping,” Mr Williams said.

He said by generalising about Aboriginal people without any evidence and authority, Senator Price was hurting Aboriginal people.

“Our kids are the apples of our eyes,” Mr Williams said. “We are not abusers. We love our children. We’d like to know where she got her information from. It is mandatory to report such evidence to the authorities. We can do without self-appointed lone crusaders who are unable to bring people of goodwill together.”

Lajamanu community leader Valerie Patterson said Senator Price was misrepresenting the support for the Voice in remote communities.

“I am a Warlpiri woman, and I will vote yes because I believe that having the right to be heard by the parliament and the government will open a door for our children,” Ms Patterson said.

“Senator Price should support us, not tell lies about us.”

“The voice comes from the people,” Mr Williams said. “It’s a big opportunity for us. It opens everything up for us. There’s a lot of people who think the same thing. We want to go ahead with it. We will probably never have that chance again.”

“We’ve never seen her on communities. She needs to get down to the grassroots and find out the truth, not just speak with the few people who will talk to her.”

This is not to suggest that senator Price has no support among Aboriginal communities, whether in Central Australia or elsewhere. But while No campaigners have usually sought to have Aboriginal speakers at campaign rallies, most (sometimes all) of those speaking have been non-indigenous, and almost all of the audience has been. Her campaign is largely funded by prominent people from the conservative white organisations which have always championed and sponsored her.

The referendum is an opportunity for all Australians to be heard on the need to respect Indigenous opinion.

Most of the support for the No case seems to be coming from angry old Anglo-Celtic men, and a few very prominent rich old conservative women. Polls show the No case lacks support among middle-aged and young Australians, among the best educated and professionals, among people born overseas and among women. If Dutton and Price are to get their way, they have to win significant support from these groups. They must override the perception that the Voice is eagerly sought by Indigenous Australians, and that voting for it could be an important act of reconciliation and a new start in the black-white relationship in Australia.

It is not so clear that there’s a downside for non-Indigenous Australians, least of all from the argument that the amended Constitution would create two classes of Australian citizens. The Constitution has many divisions of citizens with different rights: NT voters such as Jacinta Price, for example are like ACT citizens in not having their votes count in the referendum of the states. Australian-born citizens enjoy privileges as against the foreign-born: under Peter Dutton as home affairs minister immigrants can lose citizenship or be deported even after being in the community for many years.

Some are arguing that explicit authority for the Voice to lobby the “executive” will create constitutional difficulties, including the possibility of endless litigation. It is interesting to note that the 1689 British Bill of Rights, which is constitutional law in Australia, asserts (or re-asserts) the right of every citizen to petition the King. That is to say the executive government. It has caused no legal lock-jams in Britain, nor in the Australian colonies between 1788 and 2023, nor in the Commonwealth since 1901.

Jacinta Price’s role is potentiated by the continual promotion of the idea that Alice Springs, her hometown, is suffering an acute law and order crisis. The problems, both of alcohol and children roaming unsupervised around the streets at night, incidentally, exposed to the risk of physical and sexual abuse, are real enough. But they are of much longer standing that Dutton would imply, and are not likely to be resolved by pandering to the prejudices of the white and black middle classes or grandstanding about being “tough.” Arguing about the Voice from inside the narrative of a law and order crisis puts Dutton on comfortable ground, at least while he argues that the Voice cannot solve such intractable problems. Others see the dysfunction and chaos of modern Alice Springs, aggravated by the drift of rural townsfolk to the city, as emblematic of a systemic problem of Indigenous Australians being continually in the last place in the politics and resource allocation of the community and are enraged by the way it is being hijacked for a purpose unlikely to help either perpetrators or victims..

As the Territory police commissioner has commented, these are not problems that can be arrested away. In any event, Dutton-style law and order has already made NT Aborigines the most incarcerated on earth. Many of the problems have been aggravated by federal and territorial government policies which have overridden Aboriginal wishes and imposed the superior wisdom of Mr Dutton’s much derided Canberra bureaucrats (and ministers) instead. No one could expect that the Voice can create some miracle of consultation and consensus that there will be harmony overnight. But the power of being heard must surely be an essential part of any solution..

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