Saying What We’re All Thinking

This article originally appeared in The Australian Financial Review.

The cosy Canberra consensus on issues from terrorism to immigration erodes the public’s trust in politicians.

It took someone who’s been in the federal Parliament for just over a year to say what was obvious and what everyone was thinking, but which his colleagues, some of whom have been politicians for decades, were afraid to admit.

James Paterson, the Liberal senator for Victoria, said last week that following Indigenous representatives calling for “substantive” not merely “symbolic” constitutional changes, a referendum to symbolically acknowledge Indigenous Australians in the constitution would now probably never be held.

Indeed, in the words of Paterson, “the loose Canberra consensus” that some form of constitutional recognition was inevitable, turned out to be wrong. In truth, this reality had become apparent some time ago, but no politician wanted to puncture the convenient groupthink on the issue. Further, no one wanted to question why taxpayers were providing $30 million for a government-sponsored “Recognise” campaign, when clearly “recognition” had been over-taken by more far-reaching claims.

There’s a loose Canberra consensus on many issues. A feature of such a consensus is that the major political parties and the political class agree between themselves, while the public doesn’t get a look in. It’s not a consensus between the elected and those who elected them.

Often the things on which there’s a Canberra consensus are things politicians don’t want to talk about with the public.

Opinion polls show only 37 per cent of Australians trust politicians. The feeling is mutual. Politicians don’t trust Australians.

When trust between the ruled and the rulers breaks down, democracy corrodes.

The maintenance of trust between the politician and the public is essential if Australia is going to overcome the challenge of Islamist terrorism.

There’s no surer way for the community to lose trust in the government and in the authorities charged with fighting Islamist terrorism than for officials to treat appropriate and legitimate questions about things like the relationship between terrorism and our refugee program with contempt and disdain.

Which is exactly what ASIO director Duncan Lewis did when replying to a question from Pauline Hanson. He said: “I have absolutely no evidence to suggest there is a connection between refugees and terrorism.” One suspects if Lewis has been answering a question from someone other than Hanson, he would have given a different answer. The loose Canberra consensus on Islamist terrorism is that it’s best if politicians don’t talk about the issue with the public. In this newspaper on Wednesday it was reported that Tony Abbott’s comments about “Islamophobia” had “annoyed security officials, who believe such comments only make it harder to thwart domestic terrorist attacks”. The piece de resistance from the security agencies was the quote, Abbott “should know better”.

The implication being that Abbott “should know better” than to say what everyone was thinking.

In 2014 one of the reasons Abbott gave for reneging on his promise to repeal section 18c of the Racial Discrimination Act was that he’d received advice from the security agencies that if he did repeal the section, he’d upset the Muslim community.

Section 18c remains unchanged, and meanwhile the Islamic Council of Victoria is urging the creation of government-funded “safe spaces” where Muslim youth “could be radical”. To his credit, the Victorian Premier said yesterday: “There is no safe way to rail against the West” The Canberra consensus on immigration is in favour of a substantial immigration program. On the rare occasions when the consensus has been challenged, such as Julia Gillard did as PM in 2010, the Canberra consensus quickly prevailed.

Gillard declared she didn’t necessarily support a “big Australia”, and Tony Burke who under Kevin Rudd had been the “minister for population” had his title changed by Gillard to the ‘”minister for sustainable population”. Burke held this second title for just a few months.

The Canberra consensus on immigration has always been that politicians should only talk about its positives, not its potential negatives. Maintaining that consensus now risks damaging community support for this country’s immigration program.

When politicians are unwilling or unable to engage in an honest discussion with the public about immigration then the public’s trust in politicians is eroded even further.


This article originally appeared in The Australian Financial Review.

Indigenous Treaty Would Divide Australia Into Two Nations According To Race

All Australians are equal. This principle is the basis of our freedoms and a cornerstone of the Australian constitution.

Our nation’s founding document should unify us – not divide us.

Any proposal that seeks to enshrine division between Australians on the basis of race should therefore be rejected. And it is why any suggestion of a treaty between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians should also be rejected.

Rarely has such a powerful defence of equality and the value of the individual been expressed as on a hot afternoon in Washington DC on 28 August 1963.

At 3pm that afternoon in front of the Lincoln Memorial, Martin Luther King jnr created history when he uttered the words: “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the colour of their skin, but by the content of their character.”

These words are as real and as relevant in 2017 as they were 53 years ago.

It is this sentiment of equality that Australians should bear in mind when considering proposals to change the Australian constitution.

The most recent proposal for constitutional change is contained in the Uluru Statement, released last week.

The Uluru Statement is the culmination of three days of discussions amongst Indigenous leaders at Uluru last week. The meeting in Uluru follows six months of community consultations with Indigenous leaders held by the government-appointed Referendum Council.

The Uluru Statement is a response to the key issue these deliberations were established to address: whether Indigenous leaders support the proposal to “recognise” Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders in the Australian constitution, and if so what form the change should take.

The Statement calls for a treaty between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians, and also proposes the establishment of a new constitutional body to represent Indigenous Australians: “We call for the establishment of a First Nations Voice enshrined in the constitution.”

These are radical proposals that will divide Australians on the grounds of their racial identity. These proposals are the manifestation of radical identity politics.

Formally dividing Australians by law is a dangerous idea, doubly so when that division is done on the basis of race, skin colour, ethnicity or indigeneity.

The Commonwealth parliament represents all Australians. This is why an advisory body for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples enshrined in the constitution cannot be accepted.

A separate body, whether it is called an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples advisory body, a new chamber of the Commonwealth parliament, an Indigenous parliament, or a First Nations Voice undermines the idea that all Australians are equal under our democratic system. All policy decisions are Indigenous policy decisions, because Indigenous Australians are Australians.

Treaty, which is sometimes referred to by the Yolgnu word for treaty, “Makarrata”, would divide Australia into separate nations. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples are Australian. The idea that they are separate from Australia is dangerous, and a treaty between Indigenous and non-Indigenous would divide Australians according to race.

Australia is one of the oldest and most successful democracies because our constitution is based on the idea of the equality of all Australians.

If any constitutional changes are to be contemplated they should make the constitution truly colour-blind and remove all references to race in the document.

There are two current sections in the Australian constitution that refer to race – sections 25 and 51 (xxvi). Section 25 was intended to prevent state governments from restricting the right to vote according to a person’s race. Section 51(26) gives the Commonwealth government the power to pass race-based laws.

Section 25 is unnecessary because equal voting rights are already guaranteed under the constitution. Section 51(xxvi) is discriminatory and illiberal. Race-based laws are incompatible with the equality of all people.

Taking out these sections removes the Commonwealth government’s constitutional power to divide Australians.

If these two sections are removed, no new references to race, or skin colour, or ethnicity, or indigeneity should be added.

The Institute of Public Affairs believes there should be no references to race in the constitution. The constitution should not divide Australians according to race.

Australia’s success as a free and prosperous country is founded on the idea that all humans are of equal worth. Regardless of race or ethnic background, all Australians must be treated equally by the government and by the law.

In the constitution, all Australians should have the same rights and should share the same responsibilities.

Race has no place in the Australian constitution.