As an Indigenous man in a senior government role, Ken Wyatt is ambitious but pragmatic, as he struggles to bridge the gap between Indigenous expectations and political realities.
Wyatt, minister for Indigenous Australians, aspires to deliver constitutional recognition of Australia’s Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders in this term, though he must know the odds are against it. The government is committed to a referendum only if there is bipartisan support on the question and a good prospect of success.
He also wants to land a legislated “voice” for Indigenous people, and on Wednesday he unveiled a process.
Achieving even this will be hard. Wyatt is caught between those Indigenous figures who see the idea as now much watered down from their preferred model, and those on the right of politics who cast it as an exercise in separatism.
As the first Indigenous federal cabinet minister, and widely respected in first peoples’ communities, Wyatt is well placed to be listened to by Indigenous Australians. His standing gives him leverage. By the same token, the pressures on him are much more personal than they’d be on a non-Indigenous minister.
Some would say Morrison has accorded Wyatt a great opportunity. The cynics wonder if he has been set up.
To be optimistic about what can be done in terms of the voice, it is perhaps best not to remember too much history. Leaving aside the triumph of the 1967 referendum which gave the federal government power to legislate for Aborigines in the states, previous attempts to deal Indigenous Australians into the wider political process, to a limited or greater extent, have ended badly. The most ambitious, the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission (ATSIC), became the most unfortunate.
We won’t see another ATSIC, which had executive as well as representative functions.
In 2017 the Uluru Statement from the Heart, produced by a broad cross section of Indigenous delegates, called for a voice that would be enshrined in the constitution.
How much does it matter that the voice now being pursued would not be in the constitution (Morrison would never contemplate that and Wyatt says he has never favoured it) and that the language being used is for a voice to “government” rather than to “parliament”, as originally envisaged?
Of course it matters quite a lot.
Failure to bed the voice into the constitution means it would lack long-term security – it could be legislated out of existence (as ATSIC was). Being pitched to “government” rather than to “parliament” would lessen the voice’s status, although that would partly depend on the detail – whether, for example, its recommendations had to be tabled in parliament.
The government - notably the prime minister - will make sure the voice is constrained.
That doesn’t mean, however, the voice isn’t worth having. Its influence would be determined not just by its form but also by the way it operated, the quality of its advice, and what sort of relationship it struck up with the minister.
The critics of the present modest initiative are already out, including from the government’s ranks.
Queensland Liberal senator James McGrath is among those featured on a video posted by the Institute of Public Affairs. “I’m a Queensland senator. I don’t want indigenous Queenslanders being separated from non-indigenous Queenslanders on the basis of their race,” McGrath says, describing the plan as “nuts”.
Wyatt estimates there are about a dozen critics in the Coalition party room.
He likens the voice issue to that of same sex marriage, where there were some internal opponents but strong support in the community.
He is encouraged by reactions he gets as he moves around, from strangers on planes to businesses urging him to continue efforts on the voice and on recognition. “We shouldn’t underestimate the good will sitting there”.
Wyatt announced an advisory group to oversee the voice process, chaired by Indigenous leaders Tom Calma, chancellor of the University of Canberra and former race discrimination commissioner, and Marcia Langton, who has the Foundation Chair in Australian Indigenous Studies at Melbourne University.
Under this group will be two other groups, one to work on proposals for the national voice and the other to examine how Indigenous input can be better fed in at the state, territory and local government level. Models will be developed, followed by consultation with Indigenous communities.
The appointment of Langton - an outspoken and sometimes inflammatory tweeter - is under fire from the right wing commentariat. It can, however, be regarded as positive that the government has chosen her, rather than someone tamer. Wyatt has said he and Langton have long been friends and “I respect her integrity”.
Langton says she remains a strong supporter of the Statement from the Heart – which she describes as “highly metaphorical” - although she has a particular interpretation of it. She told the ABC she takes it as suggesting a minimalist amendment to the constitution to provide for a body, rather like a parliamentary committee, that would advise on legislation. Anything like a representative body would be established by legislation, she said.
Labor is somewhat conflicted. It supports the Uluru statement and sees sees the government’s position as failing that. But it doesn’t want to be the naysayer.
Indigenous Labor senator Malarndirri McCarthy said on Thursday: “We’re not going to wreck this.
"We’re not happy that they haven’t accepted [constitutional] enshrinement but we do acknowledge and respect the fact that consultations are going to occur with two esteemed leaders in professor Langton and Tom Calma and we will do our best to keep encouraging people to look at enshrinement”.
From Labor’s point of view, if an acceptable voice emerges from this process, it could always commit to putting it into the constitution later.
That’s assuming there is not referendum on recognition this term. Getting agreement among Coalition, opposition and Indigenous community on a recognition question that could pass the stringent referendum requirements would appear extraordinarily challenging. Even if there were agreement on the question, Labor might say it would only give the tick off if the referendum included the “voice”.
There is a case for scepticism about the government’s intentions on the voice, but there is a better one to see whether Wyatt can pull something potentially useful out of the process, even within the bounds that have been set.
Authors: Michelle Grattan, Professorial Fellow, University of Canberra