The process for constitutional recognition of Australia’s first peoples may well be dead after the government’s rejection of the Uluru statement as “undesirable”. Australia’s Indigenous peoples have been told that their view — that symbolic constitutional change was insufficient, and needed to be coupled with a mechanism to provide an ongoing voice in debates affecting them — doesn’t count.

How much Indigenous support there will be for a symbolism-only change remains to be seen. Once tempers cool, support for what is being portrayed as the “realistic” option of symbolism-only may resurface. Or the high-handedness with which white Australia sought the views of Indigenous people and then rejected them as “undesirable” (quite why Malcolm Turnbull thought that was an appropriate word to use is anyone’s guess), might permanently alienate many Indigenous leaders from the whole process.

In his response yesterday, Turnbull accused Indigenous leaders of adopting a “take it or leave it” approach. In fact, it is white Australia that has said that: Indigenous people can have a symbolic change and some nice words in a white Australian document, or they can have nothing.

Turnbull’s response also recycles the idea that the Uluru statement proposed a “third chamber” — a lie peddled by Deputy PM Barnaby Joyce in the immediate aftermath of the statement. “It would inevitably become seen as a third chamber of Parliament,” Turnbull said yesterday. “The Referendum Council noted the concerns that the proposed body would have insufficient power if its constitutional function was advisory only.” You’ll note the implication here — indigenous people want more than a merely advisory body so it will therefore be some sort of “third chamber”.

All of these issues and more are canvassed by Noel Pearson’s Cape York Institute for Policy and Leadership in a paper to the Referendum Council that outlines the ways in which a body that is clearly and constitutionally subordinate to parliament could be established, and in a way that satisfies constitutional conservatives. Such a body would clearly be no “third chamber” or anything remotely resembling that. If a hard-right figure like Chris Kenny can back an Indigenous voice, it demonstrates how this need not be an ideologically divisive issue but one that progressives and conservatives, black and white, can get behind, if there’s political will.

If this rejection of meaningful constitutional change prompts an Indigenous rejection of symbolic change, it will kill the chances of a successful referendum — ironically, the very reason Turnbull cites as his reason for rejecting an Indigenous voice. And that will delight the bigots, far right and groups like the Institute of Public Affairs, who have, as part of an effort to exhume terra nullius from the grave to which Mabo rightfully consigned it, argued that it’s somehow “racist” to recognise that Australia was occupied before white settlement and that its inhabitants deserve recognition in the nation’s foundational document. And 230 years after the beginning of white invasion, we’ll remain without any recognition that this is an occupied land.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey