Kevin Rudd with an Aboriginal leader in the NT (Pic: Bob Gosford)

Yesterday wasn’t the first time that someone has played fairly unseemly politics with a referendum for indigenous referendum. But it was the worst.

Last year shadow Attorney-General George Brandis demanded a referendum not be held under a Labor government, ostensibly on the basis that only Tony Abbott could convince conservatives of the case for recognition. It was a patently false statement, given Brandis’ close friend John Howard had disastrously failed with an indigenous recognition referendum in 1999 and Newspoll found in 2011 there was 75% support for recognising indigenous people in the constitution. Brandis was indulging in pure political opportunism on an issue that everyone agrees should be above politics.

But Brandis is merely a shadow minister, a mediocre lawyer with a hypertrophied ego. Yesterday it was the Prime Minister seeking to insinuate, while in the Northern Territory, that the main impediment to a successful referendum was Tony Abbott. “We can take people to a referendum but if one side of politics is going to arc up about it then we have a problem,” Kevin Rudd told ABC Darwin. Asked about the timing of a referendum, Rudd said “these are questions, I daresay, which are appropriately addressed to Captain Negative, Mr Abbott, more generally and that is whether he’s prepared to be positive in bringing forward a rapid conclusion to the content of the question for the recognition of the First Australians.”

From that, one would get the impression Abbott had cast into doubt the whole process.

“So far he’s worked constructively on this,” Rudd then graciously allowed, contradicting himself. “I believe that we really need to get this thing done.”

Rudd went on to say he wanted Abbott to join him on the “journey” of the referendum.

As Rudd knows perfectly well, Abbott proposed a referendum to recognise indigenous people in the constitution in 2010 and supported the process initiated by Julia Gillard after the election that year to develop an amendment. Abbott’s approach to indigenous issues generates considerable hostility within, particularly, Aboriginal communities, but there’s no doubt that he has taken indigenous issues more seriously than most other politicians in the Parliament.

And that is not necessarily the most popular position to take for a conservative leader, given the indifference or active animosity of many in the party membership, and of some Coalition MPs: recall that frontbenchers Peter Dutton and Sophie Mirabella both boycotted Rudd’s apology to the stolen generations that Abbott now lauds as a key moment in reconciliation. And while the Liberal leadership was arguing over whether to join the reconciliation walk in 2000, Abbott went ahead and did it.

Moreover, Rudd has form on using such issues politically. It’s now forgotten that in delivering the apology in 2008, Rudd sprang on then-Opposition Leader Brendan Nelson in the speech a proposal for a bipartisan National Policy Commission on Indigenous Housing, despite having met with Nelson before the apology to discuss its wording. Hopelessly wedged on indigenous issues — he had enough difficulty getting his colleagues to back the apology — Nelson agreed to the body. Rudd and Nelson met once on the commission, but later efforts by Nelson and his office to engage with Rudd or his office were rebuffed, and repeated correspondence ignored, until the issue broke into open conflict when Nelson proposed to nominate Mal Brough.

Now Rudd is trying the same approach in an effort to paint Abbott as the recalcitrant on indigenous recognition. The label may apply to many of Abbott’s colleagues, but it fits poorly with the man himself given his demonstrated commitment on the issue. Abbott is right to criticise Rudd for such a cynical attempt to politicise it.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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