These questions have been bubbling away under the surface in News publications these last few months. One of its newspapers indulged its leading commentator in his opposition to recognition of Aborigines in the Constitution; another, having sponsored the Recognise campaign to do just that, assiduously avoided giving any space to its opponents.
In the last few days, the pressures became too much. They blew a hole in the milk-pudding lid The Australian newspaper had kept on dissent.
Foreign Editor Greg Sheridan, safely insulated from domestic-issue reporting, wrote a piece for the NO case. Then the paper at last ‘recognised’ the Melbourne Herald Sun’s Andrew Bolt, whose arguments it had decried without once printing them. In these days of the eclipse of printed news, and the devastating decline in standards of accuracy and ethics in most of what else passes for journalism, The Australian has stood out as a beacon of fairness, balance and openness to contrary opinion. So it was with surprise and dismay that I observed the progression of a policy of blatant promotion of the cause of constitutional amendment, unaccompanied by any dissenting views or opinions. Here’s a list of some of the articles The Australian has run in the last year (editor’s note: The Australian‘s paywall precludes access to the stories below without a subscription).
4.4.14 Recognise: This pushes for youth engagement in referendum
8.7.14 A need to formally recognise First People
13.8.14 Qantas puts wings under Recognise campaign
30.8.14 Recognise push must face the political facts
27.10.14 Remove race reference from Constitution
27.11.14 Gooda: Commit to timetable for Recognise referendum
2.12.14 Mike Baird steps up on Recognise
3.12.14 We need heroes, black and white
18.2.15 Royalists recognise need for constitution change
18.2.15 Tony Abbott, Bill Shorten to join forces over Recognise constitution, and
Recognise: The journey to recognition. Special Section
13.4.15 Noel Pearson’s shift on Recognise campaign
14.4.15 Pearson on Freeman-Leeser declaration of Indigenous Recognition
23.5.15 Governments must help Indigenous communities develop native title land
23.5.15 Pearson lays the conservatives’ demons to rest
30.5.15 Constitutional referendum: the indigenous recognition tightrope
Not until May 21 this year, when the paper could not ignore the news story, did it air a contrary voice: Cory Bernardi to spearhead No campaign on Recognise.
In its powerful editorial of August last year, Recognise push must face the political facts, The Australian declared itself a media partner of the government-funded Recognise group, providing coverage of its campaign. What it did not say was that it would assist the campaign by avoiding or downplaying contrarian arguments. The editorial traversed the history of the proposal but seemed confused. After summarising all the reports and discussions, the difficulties of racial discrimination and general public apathy, it could only conclude that the draft preamble poet Les Murray wrote for Prime Minister Howard some fifteen years ago shone out.
The editorial crucially admitted however, that there is a gulf between the principle of equality, or parity, for all Australians, and the principle of an exceptional Aboriginal status based on a prior claim to the continent and its resources. What it said was: “The second precept, with its assumption of multiple or nested identities and divisions based on race and descent-line, is much hard to put forward as a foundation plank of nationhood.”
The answer to the problem, while argument over formulation of the proposal continues, resides in the Recognise’s campaign to make people “who aren’t ready, become ready.” Or, as some might put it, commit to buying a constitutional pig in a poke.
The Australian’s commitment to cover the campaign produced a full page of discussions on the weekend of May 23-24. Catholic University Vice-Chancellor Greg Craven endorsed Noel Pearson’s latest version of a referendum proposal as ‘brilliant.’ It would, he said, fix the race provisions in the Constitution; solemnly enact a Declaration of Recognition in an act of parliament; and insert in the Constitution a provision for a body of ‘Indigenous scrutiny’ to advise government on laws affecting Aborigines.
On the same page, Pearson was given space for an astonishing demand that taxpayers fund infrastructure work in Indigenous communities. He argued this ‘historical catch-up’, as he put it, was justified by the fact that governments had paid for the property infrastructure of all Queensland towns from the 1800s.
Come the Monday morning, readers might have found it remarkable that not one comment on these provocative articles had been allowed to besmirch the :etters page. I know that at least one was suppressed, because I submitted it:
The two (Weekend Australian) articles by Noel Pearson and Greg Craven – on native title and constitutional recognition – should alert all Australians to the danger of being led, sleep-walking, into endorsing a bifurcated, racist democracy.
Aborigines having won land rights and native title claims, Pearson now wants Australian taxpayers to fund their development. He puts a specious argument that this is only fair, since governments paid for the infrastructure of all Queensland towns. This twists history.
What he calls an “historical catch-up” is an open-ended demand for public funding of a special interest group, irrespective of the economics.
No wonder he is crowing that Tim Wilson’s role as a “freedom commissioner” may neutralise conservative opinion while legitimising development as a “freedom.”
Greg Craven also sought to wedge public opinion by his condescending patronage of conservatives.
He endorses the Pearson proposal for an amendment to the constitution to provide for a special body to advise Parliament on laws affecting Indigenous people.
This directly contradicts his stance on removing the existing race provisions of Section 51(26) allowing the national parliament to make special laws for the people of any race.
Are Aborigines Australian citizens or are they a special race exploiting colonial guilt?
Craven may believe his Jeffersonian prose about achieving maximum moral impact will disguise the danger of incorporating a Declaration of Recognition in an act of parliament.
When they come to understand the consequences of legislating for a special privileges category of citizens, Australians will not be so foolish as to support his proposals.
All this while, Andrew Bolt had been thundering in Melbourne and on his Channel 10 programme against proposals which created a special class of citizenship that enshrined racial division. In response, but without ever having published his views, The Australian wheeled out its emeritus editor, Paul Kelly. “Bolt’s consistent position is calculated to sink this referendum on principle without engagement with the issues”, he wrote.
Next, the newspaper’s legal affairs correspondent, Chris Merritt, normally a clear-thinking liberal-minded commentator, to do a hatchet job on Bolt. First, he quoted constitutional lawyer Anne Twomey’s assertions that the Pearson proposal for an advisory body was hunky-dory. The body would provide no services, enact no laws, administer no revenue and raise no taxes. In fact, she insisted, it was just like any other advisory body, such as the Productivity Commission. As far as its potential for mischief, it would be more like the Human Rights Commission.
So what could be behind Bolt’s ‘exaggerations’, Merritt wondered. Aboriginal academic and activist Marcia Langton supplied the answer: “Bolt is still hurting from his searing experience in the Federal Court.” Langton believes, Merritt continued, that Bolt may not even be aware the lingering impact of that case may have hampered his ability to reach an objective, impartial assessment of the plan for national recognition.
Thus Australia’s national newspaper descended to playing dirty pool.
The Australian returned to the campaign on Wednesday, June 3, with a front-page attack on democracy by Langton, who was attempting to frighten-off government funding of the No case. She dismissed arguments by Bolt, Gary Johns (who has blogged regularly against the Pearson proposals) and Cory Bernardi as “weak”.
Under the Referendum Act, the arguments for and against may be put to the public in pamphlets. Bernardi’s determination to vote against the proposal legitimises their issue. But once the proposal is formulated and the campaign proper begins, the Act forbids any further public funding for either side. This would leave the officially-supported Recognise movement well ahead.
The breaking of the dam came on June 4 with Greg Sheridan’s thoughtful article. He could have been talking to his own editors. Fingering the debating trick well used by those who would censor debate, he observed that because no specific proposal had yet been finalised, anyone who opposed it now could be categorized as displaying narrow-mindedness – because they might agree later! Sheridan was unequivocal about the referendum. If it could not sustain scrutiny and debate, it did not deserve to succeed.
Sheridan observed that countries most inclined to obsess about identity and symbolism were those least likely to be successful, going on to warn, “This referendum would not complete the Constitution but open the way to a world of division. Those activists who want to challenge undivided Australian sovereignty, and ultimately have a treaty between the Australian nation and the Aboriginal nation…are being sold this referendum on the basis that it is waystation that brings divided sovereignty closer.”
That did it! The Letters editor could no longer withstand the pressure, and ran six letters the next day under the heading “A road to disaster paved with good intentions.” Four endorsed Sheridan’s view that constitutional recognition of Aborigines is potentially a dangerous and destructive road. Two went back a week and took Merritt to task.
Andrew Bolt’s arguments have never been ventilated in the pages of The Australian. But he finally was recognised, if only to be slapped across the face with a wet fish in the Cut & Paste column. “We run ‘genuine debate’, Andrew”, it said, piling dishonesty on disgrace.
So far, the argument has been about argument; the real debate cannot begin until an agreed wording of a referendum proposal is decided. Why has The Australian backed a horse that was still in the stables? Its endorsement of the Recognise campaign may have seemed an opportunity for national leadership in reconciliation, but it was premature.
Is campaigning the principal function of a newspaper? Or reporting? It may of course do both but not at the expense of its prime role. In pre-judging a national issue, The Australian has demeaned its journalism and betrayed its readers. In the long road to the voting booth, it would be well advised to mend its fences.
Geoffrey Luck was an ABC Journalist from 1950 until 1976