Tomorrow, at around nine o’clock, the Prime Minister will rise to his feet in the House of Representatives to put a motion offering an apology to Australia’s Indigenous peoples. The formal process of saying sorry will be underway.
The Leader of the House, Anthony Albanese, though, says an Indigenous representative will not be able to respond.
“Unfortunately our standing orders don’t provide for that to be a possibility, I know that did occur in some of the state Parliaments, but it’s just not possible,” he says.
This is arrant nonsense.
Prime Ministers were expected to attend Question Time daily until Paul Keating decided he was happier back at the Lodge with a woolly comforter wrapped round his neck and Das Lied von der Erde blaring from the Bang & Olufsen. The sessional orders were changed accordingly to excuse him a couple of days a week. All it needed was a vote and a simple majority.
Parliament is sovereign. Members can decide what they want to do. Standing Orders could easily be amended to require that the Leader of the Opposition has a sign saying “Kick me” sticky-taped to his back whenever he rises to speak at the dispatch box. Sessional Orders could like ways be altered to ensure that the House rose during America’s Next Top Model.
Greens leader Bob Brown has reacted angrily to tomorrow’s plans, saying: “Indigenous people should be on the floor of the Parliament itself rather than in the people’s hall next door.”
Brown has pointed to the precedent of 2003. Back then, within days of each other, the leader of the greatest democracy on earth, George W Bush, and the head of a rapacious and oppressive dictatorship, China’s Hu Jintao, were granted leave by the parliament to address special joint sittings.
Why can’t an Indigenous citizen of Australia be granted this honour too? There are two issues here. No one wants to talk about them this week.
The first is the hardest. Who speaks for Indigenous Australians? There’d be a lot of spilt lattes if the response was given by Noel Pearson. Is there one single person? The answer is probably no. That doesn’t just make a simple response hard. It makes it damn near impossible the deliver without offending some group of people somewhere.
The second is simple arse-covering. Once something happens, other people will want it to happen again. Politicians are afraid of setting a precedent, no matter what the situation is.
In parliament, politics rules supreme.
Even when the parliament is trying to look high-minded.