Without a doubt Barnaby Joyce is a strong contender for our most colourful federal politician. Sure, he has stiff competition from the likes of Bob Katter, but like the maverick Queenslander, he is hard to ignore. Even more so when the former Deputy Prime Minister admits he got something wrong and apologises.
Cape York Aboriginal leader Noel Pearson says he had a “long yarn with Barnaby in Cairns” a couple of weeks back. He said the politician, often seen as an influential spear carrier for the conservative right, “was truly regretful” for condemning the push to enshrine in the Constitution a Voice To The Parliament for Indigenous Australians. Three years ago, Joyce rejected it as “a third chamber of the parliament” – a description taken up without hesitation by then Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull.
Pearson can’t believe that Turnbull, who had been a successful barrister, took up this false characterisation of “The Voice” from Joyce, “a country accountant”. The Aboriginal leader told ABC radio that for the then Prime Minister to “traduce the earnest plea from Indigenous Australians for constitutional recognition with a false line has been very damaging for us”.
But the Joyce rethink is indeed a welcome sign for those hoping that achieving national reconciliation with the First Peoples is not beyond us all. The other highly significant development is the recent contributions by two former Chief Justices of the High Court, Murray Gleeson and Robert French. They both reject the claim the Voice is a third chamber. Instead it is an advisory body where Aborigines would be given a say on issues that directly affect them.
Pearson says “only lies will defeat us”. Himself a lawyer, Pearson says he doesn’t know what other explanations can be given that are better than the two eminent judges have given. Already the Constitution gives the parliament special powers to make laws for Aboriginal Australians; justice demands that they are consulted when these laws are being made in a way that gives their voice the weight it deserves. It is a consequence, too, of the High Court’s acceptance that traditional owners in many parts of the continent have not lost the “native title” that comes with their 60,000-year-old connection to the land.
At the Garma Festival in the Northern Territory last weekend, Labor leader Anthony Albanese gave strong support for the voice and for the role Morrison’s Minister for Indigenous Australians, Ken Wyatt, has been given in trying to realise it, despite the Prime Minister’s reluctance. Pearson thinks “we are still a show if we patiently work” with the parliament. Unspoken is the hope that if Barnaby Joyce can come to see the Voice not as a threat to the parliament but as a long overdue addressing of old wrongs, Prime Minister Morrison will too.
Pearson says “screw-driving a fake bronze plaque to the top of the Constitution” that merely acknowledges the traditional owners is not going to do it. The recognition also needs a substantial impact.