Both sides agree - but will a referendum happen?
Last week we witnessed a rare sight: bipartisan agreement on a national issue. Leaders of the major parties spoke movingly in favour of a referendum on recognition of indigenous Australians in our Constitution.
Such oratory and good works rarely get the attention they deserve, let alone the votes.
President Obama’s State of the Union address last week was also a marvel. It had everything: gun reform, Burma, increasing the minimum wage - yet, the oratory that moved me left the Republicans cold.
How good a speech do you need to get bipartisanship? The answer is good speeches don’t get bipartisanship. The good deeds of Government are overshadowed when oppositions obdurate and exploit weak links. I hope this is not the case for the referendum.
In 1999, Australians had an opportunity to correct this injustice.
However, half-hearted campaigns by Labor and a divided Coalition - all bound up with the republic debate - saw this issue wane.
The former Minister for Foreign Affairs, Gareth Evans, and my office worked together to start a grassroots campaign on the preferred wording of a Preamble. In April 1998, with former Senator Bob Brown, we released draft wording which included:
...We the people of Australia
Proud of our diversity
Celebrating our unity
Loving our unique and ancient land
Recognising Indigenous Australians as the original occupants and custodians of our land
Believing in freedom and equality, and
Embracing democracy and the rule of law
Commit ourselves to this our Constitution.
The process was usurped by Prime Minister John Howard who did a deal with some in my party. I remember Gareth’s semi-jokingly saying to me that he would not forgive me, although he knew I was not involved in the deal.
Evocative and meaningful wording was replaced by ineffective words of compromise.
Hopefully, not this time. An eminent panel has provided ideas to Parliament. Talented indigenous advocates, such as Jason Glanville and Jackie Huggins, will lead this debate and cross-party support should achieve a successful result.
This is despite the fact that only eight out of 44 referenda have passed since Federation.
The 1967 referendum, which changed provisions in which indigenous Australians were mentioned in the Constitution, scored 91 per cent support, surely this one must ace it?
To hear the Prime Minister and the Opposition Leader “honour” each other seemed a nice day in the office. By lunchtime, the tone of Parliament had turned. Nonetheless, it was insight into what is possible.
Senate Estimates provided some contrast. One Senator (hello Senator Simon Birmingham) swore with frustration while another accused a colleague of being “brain dead” (hello Minister Conroy to Senator Bill Heffernan). It was not edifying.
Estimates rarely are these days (those who witnessed the Kerry Packer/former Senator Bronwyn Bishop encounters may say “‘twas ever thus”) but, increasingly, Senate Committees are a chance to attack witnesses or public servants.
I recall times when Ministers revelled in showing off what they knew, or giving as good as they got. They did not relish – as happens now – the role of good cop where they play some kind of interlocutor between the public servant and the questioner.
When Senator Birmingham swore this week, I tut-tutted, but listening to the convoluted answers he received on the issue of the NBN, I suspect a lot of Australians could not help but agree with him.
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