If this week was an indication of how the public discussion about an Indigenous voice to parliament is going to unfold when the campaign really kicks off in the new year, then we are in for a rough ride.
On Monday, the federal Nationals stepped out as a “unanimous” front to say they would not support the voice. The Nationals’ leader, David Littleproud, flanked by a handful of senior colleagues dismissed it as a concoction of the “elites”. The Nationals just want to close the gap, he said, and the voice will do nothing to fix the terrible deficits they are so concerned about. Altering the constitution will have unforeseen consequences for the nation, and they could not tolerate any division based on race or another layer of bureaucracy in Canberra.
Then Country Liberal party senator, Jacinta Nampijinpa Price, launched an incredible personal attack on the minister for Indigenous Australians, Linda Burney, who has been travelling to remote communities as part of the government’s consultation process on the referendum, which they intend to put to the Australian people by the end of next year.
“She [Burney] might be able to take a private jet out into a remote community, dripping with Gucci, and tell people in the dirt what’s good for them – but they are in the dark,” Price said.
(In a sign of how ridiculous things got, Burney’s office was asked, and confirmed that she does not own any Gucci clothing).
It didn’t go down well. The next morning, founder of the Cape York Institute for Policy and Leadership and architect of the Uluru statement, Noel Pearson, unleashed fury on the Nationals as a “squalid little party” and Price for “punching down on other blackfellas”, her strings pulled by rightwing thinktanks. ABC Radio National listeners were reminded how formidable he can be in full rhetorical flight. “Redneck celebrity vortex” was hands-down the phrase of the week.
Price hit back, saying she “did not care for the absolute noise of bullies”.
“I will continue to be the voice for the voiceless, who expect nothing less of me,” she said.
But that raised the question of who those voiceless are. Chairman of the Central Land Council, Lesley Turner, didn’t feel he was among them. Writing in the Guardian on Thursday, Turner said the CLC’s 90 elected delegates – representing every traditional owner group in central Australia, and all of them in Price’s electorate – took part in 12 regional dialogues that resulted in the Uluru statement in 2017, and have repeatedly confirmed their support for a constitutionally enshrined voice to parliament ever since.
“How many more times do they need to say it?” he asked.
If their elected senator was campaigning for “the exact opposite” of what they wanted, it just showed how much a voice was needed, so Territory Aboriginal people could be heard.
Less than 24 hours in, the Nationals’ united front began to crumble. Federal MP for Calare, Andrew Gee, said he wasn’t in the party room meeting because he was busy visiting the flooded town of Eugowra in central west of New South Wales, and while he respected the opinions of his colleagues, he was still a supporter of the voice. Western Australian Nationals’ leader, Mia Davies, said she hadn’t been consulted either, and while she agreed there were pragmatic and practical things needed to close the gap, her team supported the voice. “I don’t think it’s one or the other,” she told a press conference in Perth on Tuesday. “I think we can do both.” NSW Nationals leader, Paul Toole, said his party room had yet to form a position on the referendum.
Hearing that the Nats were suddenly worried about closing the gap irritated voice campaigners. Director of the Uluru dialogues, Wiradjuri man, Geoff Scott, said the Nationals had nine years in government and a “record of failure” on closing the gap.
“We will not be lectured by the Nationals on the best ways to improve outcomes for First Nations people,” Scott said.
After all, the Nationals had an Indigenous affairs minister in Nigel Scullion for seven years. Scullion made a series of controversial funding decisions about the $4.9bn Indigenous Advancement Strategy (IAS) fund meant to address Indigenous disadvantage. Scullion gave almost half a million dollars to fishing and cattlemen’s groups in the Northern Territory so they could argue how they might be negatively affected by land rights claims, including one grant to an organisation he used to chair.
Scullion, who was Price’s longtime Northern Territory Liberal colleague, retired from politics at the 2019 election. In the six weeks leading up to it, he committed more than $560m in grants from the IAS, including $91.7m to ten of Australia’s biggest companies like Crown casino, Wesfarmers and Woolworths to spend on Indigenous employment. In 28 cases, he refused projects his department recommended he support, including a grant for the Aboriginal elders council of Tasmania.
By midweek the former Indigenous Australians minister, Ken Wyatt, felt compelled to lay down a bit of truth-telling.
Wyatt told ABC Radio National Breakfast that when he was minister under the Morrison government, he’d taken a detailed plan for the voice to cabinet – twice.
Anyone who was a minister would have seen that detail, he said, and it was obvious to him that the Nationals had not read, or chosen to ignore, the Indigenous Voice Co-design report – the result of two years of work, 115 community consultation sessions, 120 meetings and more than 4,000 submissions.
Wyatt even directed listeners to the relevant pages, 15 to 19.
“There is no excuse to say you do not know the detail,” he said. “It is laziness.
“And to my mind, it offers up a level of immaturity around a very complex issue.”
Wyatt issued a challenge to politicians to get out of their offices and “sit their butts down in the red dirt and listen” to Aboriginal people in their electorates.
But a few hours later, his former colleagues were again talking about the voice as if they had not heard a single word he’d said.
Coalition leader, Peter Dutton, stood up in parliament to say Australians were being “deprived” of important details. He asked 17 different questions, most of which are answered on pages 15 to 19 of the report Wyatt handed to him and his cabinet colleagues in 2021.
It may suit politicians right now to keep asking these questions, but the longer they’re asked, the more they underscore the need for a voice as a means of hearing what Indigenous people are trying to say.
Politicians are good at listening – they tell us so all the time. But if this week is anything to go by, it’s a good thing that the voice campaign, when it formally gets under way in the new year, will be had outside parliament, among Australians who hopefully hear better than their elected representatives.