Linda Burney: Turnbull's abrupt rejection of Indigenous voice spells end of bipartisanship

Labor MP responds to Noel Pearson essay on rejection of Uluru Statement, saying parliamentary committee should look at it

Linda Burney says the opportunity for bipartisan support on the proposed referendum to introduce an Indigenous voice to parliament is gone and the reform will have to be pursued “in a different way.”

Burney made the comments after Indigenous leader Noel Pearson wrote, in an excoriating account of prime minister Malcolm Turnbull’s decision not to support the proposal, that advocates for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander rights would have to turn back to the left side of politics push any potential changes through.

“When faced with the question of whether we predicate our struggle on the political right finding compassion or the political left finding its brains – I now know the answer,” Pearson wrote in the Monthly. “The left have an altruism the right will never muster. Every progress we make will have to be fought for, and every battle will be partisan. Bipartisanship is dead.”

Speaking on ABC News Breakfast on Sunday, Burney said she was appalled and disappointed by the Turnbull government’s rejection of the proposed Indigenous voice to parliament, which was a cornerstone recommendation of the Referendum Council report and the Uluru Statement from the Heart, which was endorsed by a gathering of more than 200 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community leaders at Mutitjulu in May.

It was the first large-scale consultation of Indigenous peoples on what they wanted to see in the form of constitutional recognition.

Turnbull dismissed the idea in a press release in late October, a few hours after the Courier Mail published a leaked report of cabinet voting down the idea.

Burney said that the nature of the rejection meant that “the issue of bipartisanship on this particular point … is gone.”

“You cannot have a successful referendum unless there is bipartisanship and political leadership,” she said. “That doesn’t mean that there cannot be other ways found and explored to create a voice of Indigenous people to the parliament.”

Labor has pushed for a joint parliamentary committee to examine the Referendum Council’s proposals. The Indigenous affairs minister, Nigel Scullion, told Senate estimates that the matter would be put back to a joint select committee.

But Burney, echoing the earlier words of Labor senator Pat Dodson, said it was “reprehensible” that a voice to parliament had been rejected before that process had even begun.

“It is a significant setback, but Aboriginal people are pretty used to significant setbacks,” she said. “I do believe there is goodwill and enough people within the parliament to take this agenda forward,” she said, adding that a committee would “explore ways in which we can still be true to the referendum council’s recommendations.”

“I have a very firm belief and I think enough experience in this space to believe that we can achieve the outcomes, perhaps in a different way.”

Pearson said he proposed an alternative path to recognition, which would put a referendum at the end of the process outlined by the Uluru Statement, after the proposed legislative changes and establishment of a Makaratta or treaty commission, to Scullion a week before the government publicly rejected the voice to parliament.

It did not gain traction.

In a phone call with Scullion after the cabinet leak but before the joint press release, Pearson said: “He told me about the opposition within cabinet on the ‘inequality’ of Indigenous people having a voice to parliament compared with the rest of the country.

“It was staggering. I thought of the people out in the red dust of Mutitjulu and these privileged, powerful, white cabinet ministers complaining about inequality. Here were the most unequal people in the country, asking for a voice in their own affairs.”

Pearson said Turnbull supported the Indigenous voice to parliament model when it was first discussed with him in 2015, at a meeting that was also attended by Shireen Morris, a senior adviser and constitutional reform research fellow at the Cape York Institute, and Turnbull’s chief of staff.

In October Turnbull said the proposal was neither “desirable or capable of winning acceptance at referendum” and “would inevitably become seen as a third chamber of parliament”, despite the proponents of the proposal clearly stating that it would have an advisory role only, with the parameters to be set and defined by parliament.

Polling conducted for Griffith University and the University of New South Wales before the cabinet decision was announced found that 60.7% of respondents broadly supported the idea of the voice to parliament.


Calla Wahlquist

The GuardianTramp

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