Ken Wyatt voice to parliament indigenous recognition
Indigenous Affairs Minister Ken Wyatt. (Image: AAP/ROHAN THOMSON)

After two years of inaction on Indigenous recognition, the Morrison government now intends to move forward, with Minister for Indigenous Australians Ken Wyatt announcing yesterday there would be a referendum on recognition this parliamentary term.

This is only the latest government to promise a referendum. Julia Gillard committed to one in 2010 but later abandoned the idea. In 2014 Tony Abbott — the man most likely to have delivered a successful referendum — suggested one be held in 2017, fifty years on from 1967, but we know what happened to him. 2017 instead became the year Malcolm Turnbull and a coterie of denialists within the Coalition derailed the process by rejecting out of hand the Uluru Statement from the Heart and its core proposal of an Indigenous voice to parliament.

A voice to parliament has strong support across the ideological spectrum (and is also opposed by some Indigenous people), with conservative lawyers and politicians having contributed to debate around the proposal and advocating for it after the Uluru Statement. It’s an unusual constitutional reform that is backed by conservative academics like Greg Craven, progressive lawyers like Julian Burnside, Liberal elders like Jeff Kennett and right-wing media figures like Chris Kenny. But it has been seized on by opponents of Indigenous recognition as an opportunity to wilfully misrepresent, or perhaps more accurately demonise, the recognition process. That includes the mining company-funded Institute of Public Affairs, which has consistently maintained a blanket opposition to any kind of Indigenous recognition.

There is thus a real possibility that a rump of denialists and racists within the Coalition could derail a reform proposal with widespread cross-party and cross-spectrum support — either by withholding support for a referendum at all, or campaigning to defeat the referendum if it proceeds. Sound familiar? 

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Wyatt was, understandably, cagey about the role a voice to parliament would play in the referendum, if it ever happens, and chose his words with care:

The concept of the ‘Voice’ in the Uluru Statement from the Heart is not a singular voice and what I perceive is that it is a cry to all tiers of Government to stop and listen to the voices of Indigenous Australians at all levels … They are asking the three tiers of Government to stop and take the time to listen to their voices. The development of a local, regional and national voice will be achieved. It is my intention to work with the State and Territory Ministers to develop an approach — underpinned with existing jurisdictional Indigenous organisations and advisory structures established to provide advice to State and Territory Governments. Indigenous Australian leaders are integral to the process and will be equally involved.”

The focus on voices, and across all three levels of government, instead of a single voice to the Commonwealth parliament is an attempt to avoid the focus on what some have been demonising as a “third chamber of parliament”. But Wyatt also noted it is “likely there will be a legislative structure as we work through the co-design process”. That could mean anything, though under Bill Shorten, Labor had suggested establishing an Indigenous advisory body to work as a trial run before a referendum to establish a proper voice mechanism in the constitution.

Wyatt’s deliberate vagueness didn’t stop the same line-up of denialists within the Coalition from denouncing him. Far right LNP senator Amanda Stoker immediately used the “third chamber” line. Barnaby Joyce, whose misrepresentation of the Uluru Statement as deputy prime minister was particularly appalling, wants to hijack the idea and turn it into an expanded number of rural MPs. Eric Abetz attacked “anything that would seek to incorporate identity politics in our formal structures” (Abetz also supports new religious freedom laws, so one man’s identity politics is another’s right to homophobia, it seems). And the IPA and its parliamentary progeny again peddled the spurious claim that Indigenous recognition in and of itself was innately racist.

Concerns about a “third chamber”, identity politics or any other line peddled by opponents are a cover for the real agenda of defeating Indigenous recognition altogether, or confining it to a meaningless, and insulting, constitutional footnote that Indigenous Australians will rightly reject.

But as the climate and energy debates have illustrated, even a small number of denialists within the Coalition can stymie action by threatening mayhem. Another lost decade on another crucial issue looms unless Wyatt, backed by his prime minister, can find a route around the denialists.