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Scott Morrison tiptoes forward on Indigenous issues

The reason for the announcement was obviously recognition of the fact that Indigenous Australians have been here for many thousands of years – “we are young” suggests a very particular version of “we”. This was the reason the proposed change first shot to prominence, before Morrison adopted it. So it was interesting that this was not, in Morrison’s description, obviously the main reason. That seemed to be COVID. The change was “for all Australians”, he said. It was a reflection of the “united effort” that always enabled us to prevail and which we had showed again this past year. Indigenous Australians didn’t get a mention in his column until halfway through.

Together, these facts give two impressions. First, that Morrison believed the change was significant, or at the very least likely to be seen as such. Second, that he was nervous, worried that this might scare the hell out of his “quiet Australians”. It therefore needed to be explained in a way that minimised this risk. Defensively, he told us it “takes nothing away”. With a jarringly political tone, he positioned the change as part of the battle against “identity politics” which “concentrates on our differences”, in what seemed a pre-emptive sop to critics on the right.

The anthem was changed from “we are young” to "we are one".

The anthem was changed from “we are young” to “we are one”.Credit:Getty

On both counts, Morrison was wrong. Few people, either in politics or outside it, seemed very exercised. And why would they have been? It was a good change, but it was also change of the most minimal sort. Indigenous people are not actually mentioned; it’s just that we no longer actively deny their existence. All that was on offer was a different kind of invisibility.

Some Indigenous figures praised the move. Others, though, were angered by it, believing it insultingly trivial. Noel Pearson wrote, “in the sweep of history its embarrassment will soon become apparent”.

That is because, right now, there is something far more important going on in Indigenous affairs. Some say that Morrison’s change was a way of preparing the ground for this greater shift. Others saw it as an unworthy distraction.

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That is because of a significant shift in Indigenous politics, one many non-Indigenous people have missed. Almost four years ago, after a long period of discussion with Indigenous people across the country, the Uluru Statement from the Heart was read aloud. Lucid, plain, and powerful, it is one of the most beautifully written documents in our nation’s history. If you have not read it – and too many Australians have not – I recommend taking two minutes to do so. With an economy of words to rival the Gettysburg Address, it makes the case that at the heart of the material problems facing Indigenous people lies “the torment of our powerlessness”. To remedy this, they must be given a Voice, and that Voice must be entrenched within the constitution.

Noel Pearson signs the canvas for the Uluru Statement from the Heart.

Noel Pearson signs the canvas for the Uluru Statement from the Heart.Credit:Alex Ellinghausen

This was a decisive shift away from a focus on symbolism. Curiously, there is some convergence here with the political right, who have for years argued that symbolism is pointless without concrete changes. The Uluru Statement said, in effect, here is a concrete change: a guarantee, embedded in this country’s most powerful legal document, that our voice will be heard. To all those who say, let’s fix the real problems, the authors of the Uluru Statement say: our lack of power is at the root of the real problems. Many Australians, having very vaguely followed this process over many years, hear “constitutional recognition” and think of some poetic reference to our ancient history in the preamble. The constitutional recognition that is being asked for now is very different.

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Last Saturday, options for the design of the Indigenous Voice were released. The government had had the options since October, but chose to release them the day after Morrison farewelled the press – he would soon depart for holidays. The minister, Ken Wyatt, didn’t hold a press
conference. The two Indigenous leaders of the options design process gave interviews, and it might be argued this was appropriate. Still, a chance was missed to make clear this was a priority for the government.

Perhaps that’s because it’s not. For a while there has been some confusion about what, exactly, the government intends to do. At the start of his prime ministership, Morrison rejected the idea of enshrining the Voice in the Constitution. Later, the government’s election policy seemed to reverse this position. In early 2020, Morrison kept his options open, saying that a constitutional Voice was still a possibility. But the Minister, Ken Wyatt, has made clear he wants only to legislate the Voice, not put it in the Constitution, and the Prime Minister’s Office has confirmed that is the government’s position.

Indigenous Australians Minister Ken Wyatt.

Indigenous Australians Minister Ken Wyatt.Credit:Alex Ellinghausen

This is now the crucial divide in the debate. Some in the Indigenous community believe that putting in place a Voice through legislation is a useful first step; a way of reassuring conservative MPs and voters before a referendum is held. Others believe that legislation will effectively end the hopes of constitutional change. The air will go out of the discussion, momentum will die. There is also the danger that any small controversy will be blown up by a racist press and derail a true Voice forever.

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For these opponents of merely legislating, the models put forward last weekend were worrying. There were concerns that this was a voice to government, not Parliament – that any advice from the Voice would be mediated through the minister, much as it is now. And did any of the proposals ensure that MPs would have to listen? (This is part of the problem with legislation – it can always be overridden by other legislation.) In other words, there was a sense that the proposals really would not change very much; that all they did was formalise the current bureaucratic arrangements.

Which makes sense, if your aim is to pacify those who might be worried about a Voice. If you are being forced, in the words of Indigenous lawyer and academic Gemma McKinnon, to “audition” for your place at the table, then of course the result will be a structure that does not change that much. But the whole point of the Voice, as articulated in the Uluru Statement, was to change things.

This is now the crucial divide in the debate.

This is now the crucial divide in the debate.Credit:Alex Ellinghausen

Of course, these are only proposals. There will be a period of consultation, and they may shift.

One of the great difficulties in getting a handle on where this debate is going is the great difficulty in getting a handle on this Prime Minister. There is some belief that in this area he means well; and that he may be edging his way towards a constitutional Voice, perhaps after the next election. In this reading, his quietness is strategic.

If this argument sounds familiar, it is because it is the same argument often made about Morrison and climate change. Yes, he is moving slowly, but he is managing his troops, and after all he is still moving – away from coal, at least – and so we should wait to see what he does next. This is plausible. But it can also lead to a kind of eternal hoping, in which you are always on the lookout for signs of a plan just out of your line of sight, refusing to examine the more obvious signs in front of you. Certainly, his glib comments about the Black Lives Matter protests last year suggested that he does not listen to the Indigenous community as closely as he should. Confirmation that he has no intention to implement a constitutional Voice makes this conclusion harder to resist.

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I have thought for some time that Morrison is the best placed, of all our recent prime ministers, to achieve social change. His persona, and the fact he is a Liberal, means that a proposal he embraced – whether it is a Voice, or a republic, say – would almost immediately lose any sense that it was radical. But, so far, Morrison is also the most timid of our recent leaders. In politics, you have to want to change things; then you have to be willing to fight for that change. Is either true of Morrison?

And so perhaps the Prime Minister’s change to the anthem was his way of warming up for the challenge ahead. Or perhaps his abject nervousness about even that small thing suggests that taking on the cause of restoring power to Indigenous Australians will always frighten him too much. If, that is, it interests him at all.

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