Warren Mundine
Warren Mundine and Scott Morrison at a press conference in Nowra this week (Image: AAP/Mick Tsikas/Crikey)

Whatever the flaws in Scott Morrison’s judgment in imposing Warren Mundine on the Liberal branch in Gilmore — and there are plenty — Mundine’s candidacy there is likely to again expose how difficult the path of Indigenous conservatives can be.

Right-wing commentators often — and correctly — call out the bigotry of the left toward Indigenous leaders and activists who dare to step outside progressive orthodoxy, and the ready resort to epithets such as “Uncle Tom” by both Indigenous and white progressives. Mundine himself has been — and still is, even now on Twitter — the target of such racist name-calling. It’s a not-so-subtle way of telling Indigenous people that their ideological and political choices will be policed in a way that non-Indigenous Australians rarely face. It’s also another example of the hypocrisy of progressives who are ever-ready to hold conservatives to a higher standard than the one they apply to themselves.

But, inconveniently for the right, Indigenous conservatives rarely conform with their ideological expectations either.

Yesterday Warren Mundine stood next to Scott Morrison and declared that, while there were more important issues, he strongly supported abandoning January 26 as Australia Day. He could hardly do any different — it was the anniversary of his Daily Telegraph op-ed calling for the date of “Invasion Day” to be changed.

Problematically, however, January 26 is his adopted party’s new front in the culture wars, with right-wingers determined not merely to reject the idea that the current date is profoundly offensive to Indigenous people (and anyone with a basic understanding of white Australia’s history of occupation and mass murder) but to actually cement in what is an arbitrarily selected date. This isn’t something new — Malcolm Turnbull tried this Mandatory Patriotism shtick as well, when going after local councils that understood just how wildly inappropriate January 26 is for celebrating this country.

What does that make Mundine for his new Liberal Party colleagues? Tony Abbott attacked proponents of changing the date as “mad lefties”; LNP Senator James McGrath called the idea “batshit” and labelled its advocates “lefty, oxygen-thieving rabble-rousers”. If Mundine is successful in Gilmore, Abbott and McGrath will have the chance to call Mundine those epithets to his face in the partyroom; he can decide whether being called “oxygen thief” is any better than “Uncle Tom”.

Noel Pearson — long the darling of the right for his consistent support for personal responsibility and welfare reform in Indigenous communities, among a host of other issues — suffered a similar fate when he drove the idea of an Indigenous voice to parliament as part of the Indigenous recognition process. Despite Pearson developing the idea in part with with conservative jurists and even Liberal MPs, the proposal was savaged by the government. Malcolm Turnbull dismissed it as “not desirable”, saying it would “become seen [sic] as a third chamber of parliament”. Then-deputy prime minister Barnaby Joyce mocked it as a second senate and Tony Abbott criticised it as divisive. Right-wing thinktank the Institute of Public Affairs — which is opposed to any Indigenous recognition of any kind — called the idea racist.

Strangely, those normally quick to dish out the “Uncle Tom” accusations from the left were thin on the ground in defending either Mundine or Pearson. Their refusal to follow the kind of straightforward ideological template found among non-Indigenous commentators and activists seems to confuse and upset both sides. The irony is that both sides have failed Indigenous Australians; refusing to reflexively follow either hardly seems to merit the derision heaped on them.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey

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