The Farce At Kirribilli: Abbott, Shorten Put The Con Back Into Constitutional Reform


The artist Richard Bell once famously proclaimed in an award-winning painting ‘Aboriginal art – it’s a white thing’. His Bell’s Theorem, as told in an interview to the Sydney Morning Herald basically said about Aboriginal art, that "White people say what's good. White people say what's bad. White people buy it. White people sell it."

It’s easy to come away with a similar impression of the current movement towards constitutional reform, as illustrated in the almost comical meeting at Kirribilli House yesterday. 

Blackfellas can be seen to have a say, they can be ‘consulted’ with, but in the end, the process ends in white hands, and the hands of the majority non-Indigenous populace, if a referendum ever happens in the near future. 

When you sum it all up, it will be white people who say what’s good. It will be white people who will say what’s bad. It will be white people who will buy it.  The only difference is, blackfellas are the ones forced to sell it. And those who refuse to do so, are pushed to the margins of public debate, even overshadowed by the voices of irrational right-wingers like Andrew Bolt, who plead for a no case for all the wrong reasons.

Forty Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander leaders, narrowly selected from fields like health and law, along with a number of representatives who were simply plucked from Recognise’s own office, were assembled to give their respective positions on the next phase in the stagnated process of constitutional reform.

The four-hour talkfest with Bill Shorten and Prime Minister Tony Abbott comes five years after an expert panel delivered its report following a series of community consultations. And were then roundly ignored.

There has never really been an official position on the report provided by either Labor or Liberal, despite the rhetoric that comes from the mouths of their leaders.

Yesterday’s meeting was hailed as ‘historic’, which could work as long as you include the word ‘dud’ at the end of it. What emerged was a pre-determined commitment by Shorten and Abbott for a “referendum council” and a series of community conferences, held by Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people alike, to kick off in September. There was no talk of a model, but the meeting simply charted what the next stage is in a movement that has largely been forced to a halt.

The guest list of the 40 attendees was shrouded in secrecy, driving an already growing cynicism around the process of constitutional reform, and ingraining the feeling amongst many in communities that it’s a process far removed from their own aspirations.

That feeling manifested in a protest outside Kirribilli yesterday, where about 50 to 60 Aboriginal protesters assembled in the midst of a riot squad to make their feelings known. The images of their cries were subsequently, but predictably, missing from news broadcasts that night, instead focusing on the select group of 40.

Why and how the group of 40 were chosen, is still unknown. Cape York lawyer Noel Pearson, who was an invitee, told 98.9 FM Let’s Talk programme this morning that the list had been decided by both the Prime Minister’s Office and Recognise, the leadership of which is jointly shared by the non-Indigenous former ALP National Secretary Tim Gartrell and Torres Strait Islander woman Tanya Hosch.

Even Pearson, known for having the ears of national leaders from all sides of the political spectrum, didn’t know the full list of attendees.

“I didn’t know who my colleagues were, it was only through networking. It was literally on the day (that we found out),” he said.

“We didn’t know who the other members were, and I think… how necessary was that?”

If you wanted any indication of how unrepresentative the hand-picked list was consider the fact the largest elected member-based Aboriginal organisation in the country, and one of the richest – the NSW Aboriginal Land Council – was excluded. Meanwhile the PM and organisers at Recognise found room to fit in Aboriginal filmmaker Rachel Perkins.

According to Pearson, the whole exercise was stage-managed, and pre-determined before the meeting took place. The idea for a Referendum Council, agreed to by Abbott and Shorten, with no further detail about what it would look like, was mentioned as talks were slowing, driving this perception, Pearson said.

“It’s quite astounding. I’ve been on the edges of this kind of political process for a couple of decades now,” Pearson said.

“I’m quite used to how governments manage events and so on, but the processes now are very sophisticated, this is the way public policy is done. You give people opportunity to vent, say their bit, and then your team at the backroom have already drafted the press release and the parameters of what you’re going to announce are already predetermined.

“And also you wonder why this group of people, why you’ve invited them at all, except for them to legitimise what you’ve pre-determined.”

He says the danger now could come in the form of the Recognise movement.

“It raises in my mind this whole question of Recognise’s role. Are they are a public relations amplifier or are they the strategists for Indigenous Australia? And yesterday my alarm bells really went off… is Tim Gartrell going to negotiate this thing on our behalf? Is a pollster going to determine what the outcome is here?”

Earlier this month Recognise co-director Tanya Hosch wrote a piece in The Guardian claiming that there were “two reasons” why Australians should support her movement.

One was the need to remove racially discriminatory provisions from the constitution, and the other was to simply achieve recognition. But that sort of simplistic, black and white language, overshadows the reasons why many Aboriginal people are feeling severely disenfranchised by her movement.

For one, although the majority of those supportive of constitutional reform, are also concrete in their calls for a non-discriminatory provision in the constitution, the political reality seems almost like a pipe dream.

The joint parliamentary report into constitutional reform, chaired by Ken Wyatt and Nova Peris, recommended three options for this provision, but already Mr Wyatt is seeking to distance himself from it.

Meanwhile, Pearson, is supportive of an alternative. Rather than a non-discriminatory provision, there would be a constitutional provision ensuring an Indigenous advisory body who would scrutinise legislation. But whether that non-binding body would have any real say, or power, over parliament to stop racially discriminatory policies, is another matter altogether.

We’ve seen just how useless the current embodiment of this idea – the Indigenous Advisory Council, headed by Warren Mundine – has been, while the elected representative body the National Congress of Australia’s First Peoples has consistently struggled for membership and legitimacy in the eyes of black communities.

As we consider the fact we may be on the road to symbolism, we may be on the road to fluffy words in a preamble, where will that leave other aspirations for treaty, and sovereignty? What will Aboriginal Australia do to make up for all that wasted time?

Constitutional reform may sound like a great thing, beautifully packaged like an Aboriginal dot painting placed in the houses of the privileged across the country. But with input from only a select Aboriginal elite, who were largely ignored anyway, it continues, like Aboriginal art, to be a white thing.

And meanwhile, Aboriginal people, like those on the streets outside Kirribilli yesterday will continue to protest the intergenerational effects of their losses – of their stolen children, stolen lands, stolen remains and stolen wages – all scandals which stretch into the current day.

How will the great white dream of constitutional reform sit with this reality?  

A Darumbul woman from central Queensland, Amy McQuire is the former editor of the National Indigenous Times and Tracker magazine.