Linda Burney Andrew Bolt

Andrew Bolt’s views on indigenous affairs are representative of those held by a lot of Australians, says Simon Nasht, the executive producer and writer of Recognition: Yes or No, which will air on the ABC tomorrow night. This makes engaging with Bolt’s views necessary if a constitutional referendum on indigenous constitutional recognition has any hope of succeeding.

Recognition: Yes or No pits Bolt against Linda Burney, a newly elected member of federal Parliament and the first Aboriginal woman to be elected in the House of Representatives. Over the course of a month, the two of them travelled across Australia and New Zealand, teasing out the many views and potential complications of the issue. Burney was a NSW politician when the documentary was filmed — her higher profile on the federal Labor frontbench is an unexpected benefit for the program.

The format mirrors that of an earlier program by the same production house, I Can Change Your Mind About Climate, in which climate change sceptic and former politician Nick Minchin starred alongside climate activist Anna Rose. The idea is to “throw a bit of light on the issue, and not just heat,” Nasht says. He cites studies that have found when it comes to political issues such as this, people’s positions are often more informed by their values, rather than their knowledge about the subject itself; he hopes the in-depth, respectful examination of the issue from both sides can help overcome this.

When Bolt’s involvement in the program was revealed by Crikey last year, the question many had was: why him? Even within the ABC, the decision was controversial — the Bonner staff committee on indigenous affairs had many questions about the program earlier this year.

There are good reasons for the scepticism, given Bolt’s history with indigenous affairs. It’s a subject he’s devoted much coverage to, but generally not from any close association or careful study of indigenous Australia. Within News Corp, where many commentators — particularly at The Australian — have expressed their views in favour of constitutional indigenous recognition, Bolt stands as one of the idea’s most persistent critics.

Bolt also has the distinction of being the only commentator found in breach of the Racial Discrimination Act — a judge in 2011 found he had breached the 18C provisions in two articles that criticised a handful of prominent Aboriginal people for identifying as such, despite their European heritage. Bolt claimed they claimed Aboriginal identity for personal gain.

Given all this baggage, is Bolt really the best person to present the No case on constitutional reform? Nasht tells Crikey it’s not like there were many others he could approach.

One of the great proponents of recognition is former PM and conservative leader Tony Abbott, Nasht points out. Prominent conservatives have thrown their weight behind the reform, narrowing the field considerably. “The funny thing about those who oppose this case is, with all due respect, they’re not an impressive bunch,” Nasht said. “Andrew at least has an intellectual consistency.” “The usual suspects on the right”, Nasht says, are frequently not opposed to constitutional recognition.

Bolt’s involvement, he acknowledges, was difficult to handle. Bolt himself was rather sceptical about the whole thing. Perhaps it helped that Nasht and Bolt have a prior association: both were cadets at The Age in the late 1970s. “My proposition to him was … a hatchet job wouldn’t change anyone’s mind.”

As for Burney, she was keen to take Bolt on. “You would have thought, why would an indigenous politician go anywhere near Andrew Bolt? The thing is, she was keen to do this. She wants to take on opponents. She thinks they’re wrong, and thinks she can convince them. Which she can use to convince other people.

“She never hesitated … she didn’t hate Andrew Bolt. She judged him as an individual rather than a brand. She took quite a bit of heat from within the indigenous community about doing this. As you can imagine people had a lot of suspicions … I admire her for that.”

There were other challenges. Some Aboriginal groups were reluctant to participate. But most, Nasht says, welcomed the opportunity. “Andrew was welcomed into a couple of indigenous communities. I mean that, really welcomed. It’s a measure of what a remarkable culture it is … 200 years of being marginalised and still willing to sit down and talk. And I want more Australians to understand that … how lucky we are to have this culture in our midst.”

Bolt’s breach of the Racial Discrimination Act is mentioned at the start of the program, but the program does not dwell on that case. Burney doesn’t make it a part of her argument. Nasht says none of the indigenous groups Bolt met brought it up, which is “a measure of their willingness to have a proper discussion with the rest of Australia”.

Refusing to give Andrew Bolt a voice, Nasht says, makes no sense given his views are representative of a large number of Australians. “He has his audience, he has his monologue — in this film he’s forced into a dialogue,” Nasht said. “Here he’s forced to confront not only indigenous Australia … but a politician who’s widely experienced and not shy about expressing her own view. The audience gets the benefit of seeing that. It’s also about the body language … people get to see him stretched, intellectually, emotionally, and from that they can take away their own judgement.

“I am fully aware that a lot of Australians have been offended by Andrew Bolt … but a grown-up democracy has to be prepared to confront this. And I’m thankful that the ABC thinks it should be in the middle of the argument, not on the edges.”

Nasht hopes indigenous Australia will view the program as part of the process towards indigenous constitutional recognition. Part of the issue, he says, is that mainstream Australia has yet to grapple with the idea or its consequences. The success rate of constitutional referendums is very low, so success is impossible if more people do not educate themselves on the issue. “If it takes Andrew Bolt to get people to concentrate, so be it,” Nasht said.