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The next fight on Uluru

Nov 21, 2019 • 14m 15s

Summary: Scott Morrison’s co-design process rules out the key aspirations of the Uluru Statement from the Heart. But there are signs that a new political fight is about to begin.

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The next fight on Uluru

126 • Nov 21, 2019

The next fight on Uluru

[Theme music starts]

ELIZABETH:

From Schwartz Media, I’m Elizabeth Kulas, this is 7am.

As Scott Morrison’s co-design process gets underway, ruling out the key aspirations of the Uluru Statement from the Heart, there are signs that a new political fight is about to begin. Rick Morton on what’s next for the Voice to Parliament.

[Theme music ends]

ELIZABETH:

So Rick there are some important things that have happened around constitutional recognition in this proposal for a voice to parliament in recent weeks. Where should we start?

RICK:

I think we should start with Mark Textor, the conservative pollster who's responsible for many of John Howard's election wins throughout the 90s and early 2000s, and he's kind of a whisperer for the conservatives in Australia.

ELIZABETH:

Rick Morton is a senior reporter at The Saturday Paper.

RICK:

He's now been brought on board by Cape York Partnership. And they've just ended a contract with the high end messaging company Newgate Communications to bring Mark on board. And I think that is quite symbolic about the fight that we have ahead.

ELIZABETH:

Rick, on paper that doesn’t sound like much, but I know it is important to people who watch this closely, explain it to me.

RICK:

Yeah, so what's the big deal? The big deal is that Mark Textor is considered a numbers god and a political kind of bare-knuckle brawler. And so what we have now is Scott Morrison, the prime minister, who has explicitly ruled out doing a voice to parliament that is encoded into the constitution. And we have his associate going back years, Mark Textor, who has also not been a supporter of that model joining forces with Noel Pearson.

Now, we don't know exactly what their relationship looks like. I've been told that Mark Textor, or Tex, as he's known, has already started doing the strategy for Noel Pearson's people. I think there will be a new organisation announced. But Noel Pearson, along with other kind of key people behind the Uluru push, including constitutional law Professor Megan Davis, have never resiled from their position that there must be substantial constitutional recognition and that must include a voice to parliament in the constitution.

ELIZABETH:

And so with this appointment of Mark Textor, are things now moving on that push for constitutional recognition in a way they hadn't before?

RICK:

Yeah. So a couple of weeks ago, Ken Wyatt actually announced this kind of 19 member committee that would help co-design a voice to parliament. This is a voice to parliament done through legislation. And this is something that they have promised to do for a while. But we didn't know what that committee looked like. And we got the names. And then the very next week, which was last Wednesday, they met for the first time. The interesting fact is that they were meant to be 20 but Mark Textor declined an invitation to be involved. And I think now we know why.

And it's co chaired by Professor Marcia Langton and Tom Calma. And they're both obviously respected indigenous figures who have done much work, not only on this issue, but on many issues of social justice and access to decision making in Australia. But then to reflect the fact that this has to be bipartisan, we've got other members like the conservative columnists and TV show host Chris Kenny. We've got indigenous lawyer Josephine Cashman, who herself is a conservative, and she's friendly with both Ken Wyatt and his wife Anna, and a bunch of other figures from across the spectrum, including the chief of Rio Tinto and some other community organisations.

So this is what we've got. They had their first meeting last Wednesday. It went for several hours, essentially starting the process of going, well, what will a voice to parliament look like? Knowing full well that they don't intend to put in the constitution, but this will be the design of whatever ends up being put to the parliament for legislation. And the difference between those two things are, and why it matters, is if you don't have that in the constitution, it means that you can do it for a year or two before some government changes its mind and completely removed the legislation and axes the body, just like happened to the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission under John Howard, it was abolished and never to be seen again.

ELIZABETH:

So when this committee met last Wednesday, what were Ken Wyatt’s opening remarks like?

RICK:

Look, he was quite apologetic, if forthright.

Archival tape -- Ken Wyatt:

“I understand that many in this room and across the country have expressed disappointment that enshrines the voice of the constitution is off the table. I also acknowledge and respect the fact that many of you will not reconcile from that view. I'm not here to change that mind of thinking.”

RICK:

He's not backing away from that position. And, you know, he was very specific. He wants them to do the work that would allow all 800,000 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians to have direct access to decision making. And the way they're now looking at designing this voice is so all of these people can plug in to local, regional and national decision making bodies that will feed a voice to parliament, whether that's constitutionally enshrined or not.

ELIZABETH:

So Rick, where does this view that this co-design process could be the first step towards a constitutionally enshrined voice, where does this view sit alongside the Prime Minister saying, that’s off the table?

RICK:

So I think this is kind of the realpolitik. They've acknowledged that they need to go through the back channels, do the work behind the scenes to get a consensus on this that will still work for all of these parties and that can still deliver them the reform they have long pushed for. That has included consultation with thousands of indigenous Australians around the country.

And Marcia Langton, before the meeting started, she gave Ken Wyatt a copy of Thomas Mayor's book and she wanted to give it to him as a gift. But it's quite a symbolic gift in its own way, because the closing sentences of that book essentially say that if you are reading this book now and we do not have a constitutionally enshrined voice to parliament, then this book remains a live political document. And this remains a call to action. So it is kind of a hint-hint, wink-wink, nudge-nudge, kind of gift.

ELIZABETH:

We'll be right back.

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ELIZABETH:

So Rick let's go back a step. Tell me about what was happening for the Uluru Statement after Scott Morrison won the leadership.

RICK:

It was the great unknown, really, because we had 100 percent certainty from Malcolm Turnbull when he was prime minister. He rejected constitutional voice out of hand. He said absolutely not. Done, dusted. Scott Morrison is always harder to pin down and deliberately so.

And, you know, at first there were kind of whispers that, no, this wasn't going to happen. And then that kind later turned into whispers that maybe there's something here that he could be open to.

RICK:

And then in the budget this year, nobody knew that this was coming And then after the budget lock up, there was a $7.3 million dollar line item that was meant to fund the the co-design process for the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander voice to parliament and went on to say in the same budget line item, that once a model has been selected, we will go to a constitutional referendum. So it linked the two proposals, it linked voice to parliament with the constitution referendum.

And there was a kind of a streak of excitement that went through all of the people who have been following this because they were like, what? Where did this come from? A line item that appears to contradict the position of the government.

So there were all these kind of excitements, and then not long after the election, Ken Wyatt gave his first landmark address to the National Press Club as the Minister for Indigenous Australians. And he left the door wide open for this co-design process to analyse, assess and recommend all options for the voice of Parliament, including constitutionally enshrined voice to parliament.

Archival tape -- Ken Wyatt:

“...but I want to focus on co-designing so I get the best possible model and the best possible set of words for the constitution that makes that long lasting difference…”

RICK:

But it wasn't to be because not long after he left the stage, the prime minister's office was already briefing journalists and they were saying this is resolutely off the table. In fact, a day later on the front page of The Australian, Scott Morrison was quoted saying absolutely not. There will be no voice in the Constitution.

And 37 days later, Ken Wyatt gave another keystone address, The Lingiari Address at Charles Darwin University, where he explicitly ruled it out.

Archival tape -- Ken Wyatt:

“I want to be very clear, the question we put to the Australian people will not result in what some desire and that is an enshrined voice to the parliament. On these two matters whilst related, they needed to be treated separately…”

RICK:

So something changed in those 37 days.

ELIZABETH:

So in around a month, Wyatt has gone from having a stated position, all the options on the table, we’re going to find the best possible set of words for the constitution and then, I mean, just over a month later, we see he is no longer taking that public position.

RICK:

We now have a position: the Scott Morrison government will go to referendum in this parliament, according to what they've said publicly. They will get a referendum to include constitutional recognition for indigenous Australians. But that will not include an option for the voice. So there are now two issues. And they quite often get confused by people who go, oh, well, we're still having a referendum. So we must be doing the voice as it currently stands, that is not the case.

ELIZABETH:

So what kind of alteration to the constitution would we go to a referendum over if it weren’t to include a voice to parliament?

RICK:

We don’t know, of course, because that will have to be developed and that will be dependent on the question we put to the people, but essentially it would just be a line or two that said something along the lines of we acknowledge that first Australians were here 80,000 years before British rule and settlement, they are the first people.

It won't have any enacting principles. It won't have any force. And it won't require the parliament to do things like create a voice.

ELIZABETH:

So Rick, what is going to happen next? Is it realistic that further down the line Scott Morrison might consider again having a voice to parliament enshrined in the constitution?

RICK:

Look, it could go either way. I mean, Scott Morrison is pragmatic. But as we both know, pragmatism can be helpful or hurtful, and if he considers it pragmatic to side with Australians who don't want a voice in the constitution, then that's an issue. But if there is a groundswell of support, I think there is this optimism that they can still use the channel forced on them by the government, this co-design process of a voice, that the government doesn't want in the constitution, but it does want legislated.

I think they think they can use this model to build support, to put the flesh on the bones of the proposal that has always been there. And then after a year, which is about how long this process has been given by the government. After that year is done, I think they're hoping, in fact, I've been told this, they are hoping that the detail will be there to convince not just Australia, but Scott Morrison, that going one step further and putting the enabling clause in the Constitution won't be a bridge too far.

And that's what the original proposal from the Uluru statement of the Heart was. It wasn't a big flashy proposal. All they were asking for was to insert an enabling clause in a certain section of the constitution that said, and literally this was essentially it: there will be a voice to parliament.

The leaders involved in this process think that this can happen and they are pragmatic themselves, so they're not out here saying, how dare you, Scott Morrison. How dare you, Ken Wyatt. They are working within the parameters that have been given. We may not like those parameters, but they are there, and they are going to exhaust this process as best they can and persuade. Persuade, persuade, persuade.

ELIZABETH:

Rick, thank you so much.

RICK:

Thank you, Elizabeth.

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[Theme music starts]

ELIZABETH:

Elsewhere the news:

Australia’s anti money-laundering regulator, Austrac, has filed a statement with the Federal Court, alleging that Westpac contravened anti-money laundering and counter-terrorism laws more than 23 million times, involving more than $11b in transactions. The regulator also claims that Westpac’s oversight was deficient and that the bank failed to properly monitor and report transactions where customers sent money to the Philippines or South-East Asia for known child exploitation risks. On Wednesday, Westpac Group’s Chief Executive Officer, Brian Hartzer said, “these issues should never have occurred and should have been identified and rectified sooner.”

And in a speech to the National Press Club on Wednesday, Attorney-General Christian Porter said that all social media platforms should be treated the same as traditional media publishers under defamation law. He said that “reasonable, sensible” measures for how to do that would need to be found. He also said that the current legal environment was unfair to traditional media companies, and that updates to defamation law would feature as part of a national review.

This is 7am. I’m Elizabeth Kulas. See you Friday.

[Theme music ends]

As Scott Morrison’s co-design process gets underway, ruling out the key aspirations of the Uluru Statement from the Heart, there are signs that a new political fight is about to begin. Rick Morton on what’s next for the Voice to Parliament.

Guest: Senior reporter for The Saturday Paper Rick Morton.

Background reading:

Co-designing the Voice to Parliament in The Saturday Paper
The Saturday Paper
The Monthly

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7am is hosted by Elizabeth Kulas. The show is produced by Emile Klein, Ruby Schwartz, Atticus Bastow and Elle Marsh. Our editor is Erik Jensen. Our theme music is by Ned Beckley and Josh Hogan of Envelope Audio.

This episode was produced in part by Elle Marsh, features and field producer, in a position supported by a grant from the Judith Neilson Institute for Journalism and Ideas.

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indigenous uluru morrison auspol wyatt pearson




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126: The next fight on Uluru