02 February 2011

Bring us the specifics

Janet Albrechtsen is a little bit lost in disagreeing with Noel Pearson. No less insecure than her shrieky denunciation of Julian Burnside for being less intellectual than she (!), in this piece Albrechtsen reminds me of someone stumbling through the dark, bumping into the furniture and muttering to herself, ending up somewhere peculiar but glad to be anywhere at all.

MAINSTREAM Australia has probably never had greater levels of sympathy for constitutional recognition of Aborigines than today.

Sadly, overreaching claims and inflammatory proposals by indigenous leaders run the real risk that Aboriginal Australia will snatch a massive defeat from the very jaws of victory.

90% support in 1967 was pretty sympathetic. Those Aborigines! We try our best, but they do it to themselves you know.

Noel Pearson's proposal that any recommendation for constitutional acknowledgement of indigenous Australians be first voted on by Aborigines was expressed in Pearson's usual articulate, passionate and elegant fashion ... it is the sort of radical proposition that may lead those well disposed to a moderate, mid-course proposal to despair about the possibility of a balanced outcome on matters indigenous. And when sensible discussions are at risk of being hijacked by extremes, then sensible minds will be tempted to forget the idea for constitutional change entirely.

Have you ever seen a worse case of crocodile tears? If Aborigines want to vote, then it's best that nobody vote at all. I've known bored, pampered housewives from the eastern suburbs who are far more convincing at cleaving to moderation and the middle road than this sorry effort.

The best illustration of constitutional overreach ... split the republican movement between those radicals and those advocating more electorally palatable minimalist models.

So, are people like Pearson - insofar as he might be regarded as radical - in league with champions of the status quo, and if so why? What does the status quo have to gain from the defeat of Constitutional recognition of Aboriginal people?

Let us have no nonsense that it will be a triumph for conservatives if Gillard's proposal is defeated. Labor won two elections after the 1988 referendums* were defeated. Menzies only ever put one referendum question (on banning the communist party, 1951) - Labor lost the election that year, Evatt led Labor to defeat in the next three elections, and they lost four more after that.

It was inevitable that the idea of constitutional recognition of indigenous Australians would fuel an aggressive minority rights agenda among some within the indigenous industry, but can we please stop?

Who's "we"? Pearson has spent his life campaigning against "an aggressive minority rights agenda among some within the indigenous industry", and Albrechtsen is wrong to the point of mendacity to raise that straw man, particularly against someone she had once cited so warmly.

Preferential voting rights, no matter how articulately defended, ought to be seen right up there with proposals for a treaty with Aborigines when it comes to scaring middle Australia into thinking this is not a path we should even start on. The notion that one group of Australian has such special rights it deserves a special treaty with the rest of Australians is so insulting that its proponents set back the Aboriginal cause immeasurably.

I disagree with Pearson too, but it's just dishonest to wheel in claims Pearson hasn't made.

While Pearson's dramatic assault on our constitutional arrangements provided a splash on Australia Day ...

A free man expressing his opinion is not any sort of assault on anything. Mendacity piles on mendacity on Planet Janet.

... most Australians may have found more wisdom in the words of former High Court judge Ian Callinan. In his Australia Day message as president of the Samuel Griffith Society, Callinan spoke powerfully about the need for care when altering the Constitution.

What specious, delusionary outlook leads anyone to think that tens of millions are hanging off the every word of some flatulent, reactionary old judge?

Callinan warned that there is little use debating constitutional change in the abstract. "The actual words, clauses, and terms, must be laid out in full before any evaluation can be made." In other words, don't bother us with generalities, no matter how beautifully worded. Bring us the specifics so that we can decide whether changing our Constitution is wise or not.

You always have to start a debate in the abstract and the general, particularly when - like most Australians - you're not a lawyer. Those drafting the legal phrasing need a context to work within. If lawyers and judges really are "bothered" by non-lawyers adjusting the Constitution, then they do not understand the Constitution, their profession, or anything else.

It is possible that there is a more cunning method to Pearson's plebiscite madness. By putting any constitutional amendment to a vote of Aborigines first, the issue is effectively taken out of the hands of a much smaller and more vocal group of indigenous activists intent on drowning out those who disagree with a more radical rights agenda. Plenty of Aborigines beyond academic ivory towers and the indigenous industry reject the failed separatism of yesteryear.

We might let Aborigines vote, but only if they vote the right way. I wish I could explain how wrong that is, toying with people like that. I could talk about pearls and swine, but when the swine regard the pearls as adornment and tribute then words fail me.

Unfortunately it is not clear that Julia Gillard wants to do more than win some easy votes from Green supporters and feature in a few historical footnotes as the Prime Minister who tried to change the Constitution. Delivering an apology was much easier symbolism for her predecessor than securing even the most formal recognition of Aborigines in the Constitution.

Gillard disagrees with Pearson too. I doubt that Albrechtsen fully understands why she's snarling at someone who, in this case, actually agrees with her. As I said, I agree with Gillard and Albrechtsen against the idea of a separate voting roll, but while I'm going Albrechtsen for being crazy and dishonest she's just going after Gillard because she can't help it.

The Coalition is not exempt from preferring political advantage to principle in this field either. Ken Wyatt's recent musings that the Coalition may support substantive recognition of Aborigines in the Constitution, rather than simply formal recognition in the preamble, may merely be a lack of discipline from the new Liberal MP.

It may just be a statement of principle from a man who does more than dabble with Aboriginal issues, Janet. What an appalling person she is for not conceding the barest scrap of integrity to someone like Wyatt.

A less charitable explanation is that Wyatt, the first Aboriginal member of the House of Representatives, has been deputed to go hunting for political points by hinting at a reversal of Coalition policy.

Oh, fuck off. Given the history of the Liberal Party over the past twenty years, that's a real slur. It does prove two things, though:

  1. Albrechtsen obviously regards Wyatt's leader, Tony Abbott, as gutless and craven as we at the Politically Homeless Institute always said he was; and

  2. Moderation is a vote-winner for Liberals in the way that rock-ribbed just-say-no conservatism isn't.

Albrechten's whole article is almost a self-libel.

Recognition of the past without wrecking the future: now that would a real victory.

No Janet: recognising that Aboriginal Australia is part of our past, our present and our future - that's the victory. To build on something, rather than fearfully avoiding "wrecking" it; that will be a future worth having, worth working and debating and fighting and voting for. Pearson made a mistake, but you're just wrong all the way through.

* Yes, grammar pedants, it's one thing to import a word from another language into English but once here it becomes subject to English grammar.


  1. Excuse me - you're being a bit presumptuous about the political beliefs and intelligence of bored, pampered middle-class housewives! How sexist.

  2. I'm not being presumptuous at all. I have met people like that, and never pretended that all women, or all bored, pampered middle-class housewives, vote the same way.

  3. I've often wondered whether this delusional person has visions of herself sitting on the Australian High Court bench as a Conservative Party appointment, overturning Mabo, high-fives all round.

    So often her strident polemics decrying "judicial activists" read like a CV submission. You could almost hear her reasoning: "If Powers and Piddington could make it for no other reason than that of ideological fit with Billy Hughes, so too could I..."

  4. I reckon Callinan J was pretty damn activist!

  5. Yes, but hush, you'll frighten her horses...