Something very unpleasant is happening with Malcolm Turnbull’s opposition to the Uluru Statement — almost as if the Prime Minister is intent on giving credence to suggestions he is dogwhistling on the issue.

Yesterday, speaking at a press conference with Jacinda Ardern, Turnbull repeated and re-emphasised the language he used in rejecting the Uluru Statement proposal for an Indigenous voice recognised in the constitution. “To have a national representative assembly, which is what we’re talking about here, which would be in the Constitution, and to which only Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders could be elected, is contrary to the principles of equality, of citizenship in Australia and it would inevitably be seen as a ‘third chamber’.”

“National representative assembly” is Turnbull’s own phrase, used more than once, to describe what the Uluru Statement described as “a First Nations voice enshrined in the constitution”. No one else has used “national representative assembly” to describe the idea — only the government in rejecting it. A cynical observer might suggest Turnbull is keen to reinforce the idea that the proposal is for some form of additional parliamentary assembly, to complement and support the fact that he keeps insisting it “will be seen as a third chamber”. It’s always “be seen as a third chamber” with the Prime Minister, rather than him coming out and calling it one, allowing him to hide behind the deliberate and malicious misrepresentation of the proposal by figures like Barnaby Joyce.

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But as the rest of Turnbull’s statement yesterday indicates, that’s exactly how he wants people to view the proposal, when he says would be an assembly “to which only Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders could be elected… contrary to the principles of equality, of citizenship in Australia.” (Don’t laugh at the mention of citizenship please)

In Turnbull’s misrepresentation, Indigenous Australians would somehow get three votes, when everyone else only gets two — one for the House of Representatives, one for the Senate, one for what he calls the “national representative assembly”. “Every single Australian has the same right to vote and stand for and serve in our Parliament. Our national representative assemblies are our Parliament, our House and our Senate. Every Australian can aspire to that and that is critically important.”

Turnbull says this “third assembly” interpretation is “contested”. That’s like saying climate change is “contested” — it’s only contested by those of bad faith engaged in wilful misrepresentation. And the logic Turnbull is using to portray an Indigenous voice as inherently “unequal” is exactly that of the racist right opposed to any form of Indigenous recognition: that recognition of any kind is automatically unfair to non-Indigenous Australians, that Indigenous Australians have no special status derived from being the first peoples of this land, from being the ongoing survivors of a colonial occupation.

No wonder a huge range of non-Indigenous and Indigenous Australian figures and institutions are calling on Turnbull to rethink this. His response has occasioned deep anger, not merely by Indigenous figures like Noel Pearson, but conservatives who have backed an Indigenous voice. But his intemperate language and misrepresentation have painted the Prime Minister into a corner. And it’s where Indigenous recognition of any kind will die for now.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief
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