As the Greens flirt with a serious loss of electoral support over its policy on the Voice to Parliament the puzzling question is why they are doing it.
The easy answer is that once again – as with carbon pricing – they persist in pursuing perfection even after they have demonstrated before that the perfect is the enemy of the good.
The other perspective is that of the seven people – including Greens Senator Linda Thorpe – who walked out of the Uluru Statement from the Heart discussions and refused to ratify the Statement.
The dissident Indigenous opponents have a number of arguments. Perhaps the best formulation is by the acclaimed activist and academic Dr Gary Foley who starts with the question of what comes first – treaty, voice, constitutional recognition and many other urgent issues.
This approach proposes that the right action order is something similar to that of the South Africa’s post-apartheid commission and the current Victorian Yoorrook Commission – truth-telling and a treaty first then a voice.
Given Foley’s distinguished career from the Tent Embassy to the 1988 bicentennial protests, his pioneering role in Indigenous legal services and arts, health services, academia and a myriad of other areas he has a clear view of the number and range of the Indigenous issues Australia needs to address.
On the other hand the 250 people who stayed on at Uluru and endorsed the Uluru Statement argue that we have to start somewhere and providing an inclusive voice is a powerful process to ensure First Nations issues are raised and their implications recognised in every aspect of national governance.
The Statement was the culmination of two years of First Nations consultation and finalised over four days of discussion.
Thanks to support from the Maritime Union, Thomas Mayor an MUA official and Uluru participant, followed up the event and has visited hundreds of Australian communities and organisations informing people about the Statement. He was entrusted with the actual physical document which has been shown to thousands upon thousands of people. Having witnessed the emotional power of his recital – from memory – of the Statement it is clear his presentations are powerful and impactful.
The document itself, now much travelled, has acquired deep spiritual qualities and has also assumed an almost talismanic nature.
Only the Labour Party supported the Uluru Statement from the Heart in the last election campaign. The Liberal Party has opposed it and now the new Opposition Leader, Peter Dutton, has given muted support but within a frame which will allow him to come up with reasons for opposition later. He also has a Liberal Senator, Jacinta Price, who has opposed the Voice along with Senator Thorpe.
Significantly Malcolm Turnbull has gone from opposition to support and has said he would vote yes in a referendum. At a time when politicians such as Scott Morrison refused to budge on issues Turnbull is a welcome example of Keynes’ comment that when the facts change he changes his opinion. Keynes’ follow up question – what do you do? – could be an apposite one for many in this debate.
Australia has a poor record on referenda although all the proponents of this one hark back to the success of May 1967 referendum which removed discriminatory sections of the Australian constitution. It took 10 years of campaigning to achieve it and it was notable for being proposed by a Liberal Government under Harold Holt.
Much of the later stages of the campaign focussed on the 1966 Census which failed to count the then 40,081 Indigenous population and probably underestimated others as many non-Indigenous demonstrators camped out in major cities and refused to fill in the forms.
This latest campaign has been far more extensive than the pre-1967 ones and is directed towards an Australia which is dramatically different to 1967.
A cross-section of polling suggests this referendum would be successful, but the Greens could block it in conjunction with Peter Dutton. It is hard to believe that will happen but the Greens, as Julia Gillard can testify, have form.
If they do, however, it will be an odds on bet that the Greens will have fewer Senators and MPs after the next election.