The real ‘risk’ of Turnbull’s support for changing 18C

22 Mar 2017

It was very telling that among all of the discussions on changing 18C there was only one ‘risk’ mentioned: that was the risk of losing votes in marginal seats.

PM Turnbull in parliament announcing his bill for changes to the RDA 18C

Image: PM Turnbull in parliament announcing his bill for changes to 18C of the Racial Discrimination ACt. Photo: SBS

It was very telling that among all of the discussions on changing 18C there was only one ‘risk’ mentioned: that was the risk of losing votes in marginal seats.

For Turnbull, the bigger risk seemed to be losing the ultra-right faction of his own party and, in turn, losing power. The idea of his MPs losing votes in certain seats is obviously less of a concern to the PM than remaining Liberal Party leader: a “power” now in title only.

He has not been able to wield any real power as PM, least of all over his own party, and certainly not on a national or international level (poor President Trumble. Sad).

The other risks, made all too obvious by Benjamin Law’s Twitter hashtag #FreedomOfSpeech, did not rate a mention from the Liberal Party whatsoever. These include the very real risk of increased incidents of personal racism – incidents which have already increased in number, in no small part due to the campaign against 18C that has been waged by some media and certain political figures. This campaign itself has aimed to further slander Indigenous people and other ethnic groups as being thin-skinned, as choosing to take offence, as having a victim complex and creating a culture of taking offence too easily.

It has been a campaign that has effectively argued that words cannot ever hurt people, except of course if that word is ‘racist’ and it is used against white people.

It was inferred that this word “racist”– the only taboo word there is, or should ever be– is what really killed Bill Leak. It was in his honour that these changes needed to be made to allow white people to use whatever racial slurs they wanted, while also ensuring that white people would never again be allowed to be called racist for using them. Of course the changes to 18C would not have that effect, but that was the implication for those gullible enough to believe it.

Even though the changes to 18C will likely not make it through parliament, Turnbull’s support for them has guaranteed an upsurge in the already horrific levels of racism many of us experience on a daily basis. And when the changes eventually fail, this too will embolden racists to exercise their ‘right to be bigots’.

There are other risks as well, which did not enter into the discussion. The issue of trust – not that too many Indigenous people have much trust for the government as it is – is worth noting. Turnbull’s hopes for getting Aboriginal people to believe his hype of “doing things with us and not to us” was already nearly impossible to believe, given his inaction on Closing the Gap. And what of his hopes for Aboriginal support for a referendum that will supposedly “right the wrong of history” and acknowledge Aboriginal people as the first Australians (something very few people actually deny to begin with)?

If Turnbull can stare us in the face and tell us that we should look at his changes to 18C as being of benefit to Aboriginal people, how can we be expected to believe him on the next thing he says will be of benefit to Aboriginal people?

Turnbull having a gentle cry

PM Turnbull tears up over a Ngunnawal lullaby on Stan Grant’s show The Point in March 2016

Are we to believe that further watering down already weak native title legislation to protect mining interests will be of benefit to Aboriginal people? Are we to believe that the hundreds of millions of dollars taken from Indigenous funding will benefit Aboriginal people? How are we to believe that our benefit is even remotely on his radar? Tears for Stan Grant’s show The Point aside, what other gesture has he made that could inspire any remote level of hope and trust?

It is well known that the only meaningful benefits to Aboriginal people since invasion have come about through our activism and our involvement. Turnbull’s recent decisions to preference the extreme side of his own party over the welfare of our ethnic communities, and over his own better judgment, is not a move that will inspire any emotion other than disdain.

It has become clear through the ongoing community consultations into constitutional change that Indigenous people are not “on board” for anything less than substantial change – no feel good preamble or other meaningless words is going to cut it. Even then it will be an uphill battle. The word that is echoing throughout Indigenous communities, is: Treaty! And it has been echoing for decades already. Constitutional changes that do not get us closer to that outcome are unlikely to ‘pass the pub test’ for Indigenous people. But the Liberal Party has already indicated that only unenforceable symbolism is likely to pass any referendum (I doubt this to be true, but I think they find it a more palatable statement than openly admitting that they themselves wont agree to any alternative).

So where does this leave us? If there was any trust whatsoever for Turnbull we may have had some wiggle room, some motivation to see if compromise was possible, but I fear that his cowardly support for changing 18C may have just been the final nail in the coffin for hope of meaningful discussions about Indigenous rights in any form – be it in the constitution, a treaty, or any other meaningful compact.

Labor is unlikely to deliver any of this either, seeing as they often capitulate to the extreme right within their party on Indigenous issues as well. But unless Turnbull can quickly pull a rabbit out of his hat and then dispel the ghost of Abbott, I think we will have to wait until the current PM is out of the picture and the Liberal regime out of office before we will have any real hope of… well, hope.

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