If Malcolm Turnbull did not know it before, he certainly should now: before you stomp your way into Aboriginal politics, it is wise to first don the emu-feather sandals of a trained Kadaitcha man.
The area is fraught with uncertainty and sensitivities which are not always apparent to the outsider; whitefella politics are relatively straightforward compared to the Indigenous version.
But one thing should always be clear: pushing forward without the necessary consultation is disastrous. And so it proved when our Prime Minister decided, with the best of intentions, to act swiftly and decisively to set up a Royal Commission over the atrocities which were revealed in the Four Corners program last week.
It must have looked like a no-brainer: to get it moving quickly the Commission had to involve the Northern Territory, and the obvious choice to head the it was a well-credentialled and experienced local, the former chief justice Brian Ross Martin. It made perfect whitefella sense; but that was precisely the problem.
Blackfellas, and especially the locals, were immediately suspicious and resentful. Once again they were being left out of the process; solutions were being imposed upon them by high-handed and disrespectful politicians and what was worse, their immediate oppressors – Chief Minister Adam Giles and all his unlovely colleagues – were being encouraged by the lords and masters of Canberra to play the parts that should have been their own.
So they made their opposition clear and that made Martin’s – although, apparently not Turnbull’s or his Attorney General George Brandis’s –position untenable. Before the serious argument got under way, Martin determined to resign.
When he did so publicly two days later, after Turnbull and Brandis had tried to talk him out of it, he explained his stance with logic and dignity; he did not believe that he was involved in any conflict of interest, or that there should be a perception of one; but the hard fact was that there was such a perception and that as a result he could not have the full confidence of sections of the Indigenous community. Thus there was a risk that the Commission would be compromised unless he resigned, and he did.
Turnbull and Brandis scrambled; there was still not time for genuine consultation with anyone who mattered, but their selection of joint commissioners from outside the Territory, one of whom was a respected – even esteemed – Gangulu man Mick Gooda stilled the clamour, at least for the moment.
The critics in the media suggested that Gooda could himself have a conflict of interest: his immediate response to the Four Corners program was a terse tweet: “Sack the lot of them (the Northern Territory government).” Now, it appeared, he would be sitting in judgement on them.
Gooda later said that this was an emotional rather than a considered response, but it was hardly surprising one; my own reaction was not only should they be sacked but thrown into their own prisons. But within the calmer surrounds of the Commission, there is no reason to suppose that Gooda will not behave dispassionately and impartially.
There have, of course, been many precedents to the current blunder. The most recent – and the one Turnbull should have noted – was Tony Abbott’s Royal Commission into the trades unions. This was seen by the unions and by a great many others – even by some Liberals — as a deliberate political stitch up, a ploy to damage the union movement and, by association, the Labor opposition.
And so it transpired: Dyson Heydon, the hand-picked conservative former judge who was put in charge called two former Labor leaders to the dock, and offered gratuitous comments of the credibility of the present one, Bill Shorten. But the clincher came when it was revealed that Heydon had accepted invitation to be the guest speaker at a Liberal Party fundraiser. Unsurprisingly there were calls for him to stand down; even if, as he maintained, there was no actual conflict of interest, it could hardly be denied that there was a perception.
But Heydon held his ground; with somewhat lofty disdain he told the world he had thoroughly examined himself and found himself innocent of all charges: perceptions of conflict were utterly unfounded and could be therefore be dismissed. They were not, and as a result his findings were widely regarded as tainted, as was the whole sordid exercise.
Perhaps a more salutary example was the Royal Commission into child abuse initiated by Julia Gillard; this time there was extensive consultation before all interested parties before the Commissioners and the terms of reference were established, and although much of that still-running Commission has been controversial, it has not attracted accusations of bias.
Turnbull’s insistence that the revelations from the Four Corners program needed to be dealt with promptly was entirely correct; while it is true that many of the horrors of the Don Dale Centre had been reported previously, none had been compiled so comprehensively or in such graphic and scarifying detail. But he should have trod more carefully: he is sympathetic to the Indigenous cause, but he could never be called an expert.
He should have taken more notice of those who were, and the same will apply even more forcefully when he eventually moves on to confront the issue of the recognition within the constitution. His instinct, and that of his party, is to proceed with the utmost caution: real changes, they believe, will encourage the conservative opposition and frighten the voters away from even the mildest form of recognition.
But others – most notably Indigenous leaders Noel Pearson and Galurrwuy Yunupingu – insist that is not enough. Tokenism will not suffice – if the referendum only delivers symbolism, it is not worth having. If it is left in the hands of the whitefella politicians and lawyers, it will do little if anything to move the nation towards genuine reconciliation.
Turnbull needs to talk to them, and to as many involved Aboriginals as he can find. After all, there is not much to be achieved by recognition if no one wants to be recognised. It’s time to start collecting names — and emu feathers.
Mungo MacCallam is a political commentator and former senior correspondent in the Canberra Press Gallery.