Yes, I know I’m obsessed with Chris Kenny. And I know that as a Voice advocate he is pretty much irrelevant, other than as a straight man to Anthony Albanese channeling Hannah Gadsby. He gets a handful of supportive comments to his Australian articles, but I’m betting very few whol watch his Sky News program agree with him about the Voice. But please bear with me one more time, as I need to get this off my chest. I am a Sky News viewer and appreciate the channel presents a plurality of views. However, I cannot let Kenny’s nonsense go unchallenged. He has effectively accused his Sky News colleagues of acting in bad faith by labelling them “fearmongers”. So, I’ll do the talking. After this I’ll go cold turkey, I promise.
In an article in the Weekend Australian on August 5, Kenny made these claims (emphasis added):
Imperilling reconciliation for partisan advantage is hardcore. Yet this week the opposition led question time with scares about the voice and attempted to censure the Prime Minister, accusing him of running a secret agenda to undermine the nation’s future.
Peter Dutton labelled Albanese “duplicitous” and accused him of “deliberately and willingly withholding information” from voters and “seeking to divide his nation” with the voice. As policy attacks go, this is barking mad.
We are talking about a government putting a referendum to the people to enact a reform designed to unify the nation … Yet now the Coalition scare campaign seeks to decry this as a secretive plot to rend asunder the nation.
Here Kenny claims that the Coalition is accusing the government of a conspiracy. The following Monday on Sky News he continued the attack claiming:
…mostly the No campaign has dropped the logical arguments and instead, all we hear are the wild scare campaigns and the exaggeration. And one of those is portraying this as some sort of secret plan by Labor to undermine this very country. To upend the way government works in Australia. Now this is just silly. Accusing a PM of secretly having a plan to wreck his own country. And when I wrote that in the Australian on the weekend, it seems the PM agreed, quoting it in parliament today. But the point about this absurd attack, that this is a secret plan to undermine the nation is that the coalition knows all about this. More than it pretends. The Voice referendum is the culmination of decades of work … under Labor and Coalition governments.
He kept it going on Tuesday:
I’ve supported this idea since long before it was even called the Voice. Long before the meeting at Uluru. And anyway, I don’t think I’d change anything I said last night because I really focussed on the furphys being put around by the No case. And one of them is this claim that the Uluru Statement is 26 pages long. That Labor’s signed up to all 26 pages secretly and that there is a conspiracy to hide all this from voters. This is simply untrue …
… those 26 pages people are talking about and now 18 pages apparently mentioned by Megan Davis. In fact there’s actually hundreds of pages, maybe thousands of ideas etc as you expect from a long consultative process. And the very documents Credlin has been highlighting, has been claiming are secret have been public all along
Let’s pause right here for a second to set straight what Credlin actually said. Rather than describing them as “secret”, her gripe is that the government has not promulgated them. There’s a difference. Now back to Kenny
… there it all is — not new, not hidden, not a secret statement. And not proof of some bizarre conspiracy to keep the full Uluru Statement secret from the nation. And the PM addressed these claims today … Albanese went on to describe these conspiracy claims as just that, a conspiracy. … Yeah now the idea that Albanese has committed to a bunch of background papers that he probably hasn’t even seen, well it’s just not a serious proposition.
And on Wednesday:
Now tonight let me formally bury the voice conspiracy theory that’s been running for a week now, sparking heated debate here and in Canberra. The Coalition has tried to claim that the Uluru Statement is not the one page 400 word statement we’ve all been focussed on for years but that there was a secret conspiracy to hide another 26 pages of it…
Not only is it absurd that the Coalition would have kept this secret for five years under two PMs and two indigenous affairs ministers with the secret kept also by Labor for the past year but the fact is the documents in question have been freely available in a public report and available online all day every day all along. Yet we were told this was a secret plan to undermine the nation. It is absurd …
And Just to clarify this further the CEO of the NIAA, she today wrote to the Coalition and informed it directly. The Uluru Statement is one page signed by the delegates at Uluru and goes on to say that the other pages are background and excerpts drawn from regional dialogues. That’s it. End of story. Yet today in Parliament the Coalition still tried to run with their conspiracy theory. And the PM hit back …
Let’s not waste our time and create division by pretending it’s all a secret conspiracy to destroy the country.
By Thursday, with a Bowenesque smugness, he was declaring victory:
So, I happen to be in Canberra today. I’m sitting here now in Parliament Hosue Canberra and I’ve got to say it was one of those flat days … there was something big missing. An elephant in the room that had suddenly gone quiet. There was not a single mention of what some people including in the opposition had been telling us was the big scandal of the week. Indeed, if it was true it would be the scandal of the year. You know the one. The alleged conspiracy that Labor secretly committed to implement in full a covert 26 page Uluru Statement . A secretive and radical longer document that had not only been kept under wraps by Labor for more than a year …
If the Coalition believed their conspiracy theory they would have tried to force the government onto the defensive today. The opposition would be pursuing every little angle. But they did not mention it. Not a word. They dropped it. They realise it’s nonsense. A political exploding cigar. You see the problem with the wild conspiracy theory is that the Uluru Statement is only one page long.
I have included these lengthy transcripts to clearly establish what Kenny is saying. In case you missed it, he claims the Coalition is accusing the government of a conspiracy to cover up a secret plan to destroy the nation.
And that’s not the half of it. In the space of four editorials, Kenny refers to this conspiracy, “a secret plan”, 23 times! He seems to imagine that the more he repeats the words ‘conspiracy theory’, the more credible his rhetoric becomes. Well, we all know that if you can successfully tag your opponent with the label ‘conspiracy theorist’, the more likely you are to win uncommitted people to your side. You would imagine from Kenny’s editorials that the non-Readers Digest version of the Uluru Statement (aka Document 14) was pretty much all the Coalition talked about last week.
The problem with Kenny’s proposition is that there is just no evidence for it. It’s a conspiracy theory looking for a home.
I have checked Hansard for the dates July 31 to August 10 and compiled those sections covering questions put by the Opposition on the Uluru Statement into a single document, which I have titled Document 15. Eerily, it comes to 26 pages. You can view it here.
But to summarize. In that period the Opposition asked a total of 28 questions on the issue at hand:
♦ Six go to Albanese’s contradictory claims, eg, at Garma, that treaty and truth are part of the next phase and what he told Ben Fordham on radio that they were not.
♦ Eight asked how Makarrata Commission would work.
♦ Three asked will Makarrata involve financial payments.
♦ Five asked what had been delivered for the $900,000 already spent on Makarrata.
♦ One asked if the referendum fails, will work cease on treaty and Makarrata.
♦ One asked where is the detail of the Voice.
♦ One asked why has the government allocated $21.9 million in funding in contingency reserve for the Makarrata Commission.
♦ One asked if the government would institute a treaty in this term of government.
♦ Two (yes, just two) asked if the Uluru Statement is one page or 26 pages? The first of these questions was asked on August 8 and, incidentally, this was the first time the word ‘conspiracy’ was used. This question was asked on August 8 and, incidentally, this was the first time the word ‘conspiracy’ was used. And it was Albanese who employed it, quoting, and taking his cue from, Kenny.
In not one of those questions do the words ‘conspiracy’, ‘secret’, ’plot’, ‘undermine’, ‘conceal’, ‘divide’, ‘divisive’, ‘rend’ or even ‘asunder’ appear. Only one question even mentioned the Voice. The rest were all seeking clarification on something that forms part of official government policy to implement mechanisms for treaty and truth telling. These are legitimate questions – particularly given that $900,000 has already been spent on treaty – not related to the Voice. The only reason the Voice intruded on the debate was because, in answering responding to the questions, the government’s standard tactic was to resort to the Voice and bluster. It was the government’s tactics that fostered the impression these questions were an attack on the Voice. I would imagine that many, probably most, of the Coalition MPs who are planning on voting for the Voice would not be happy with the second two planks of the Uluru Statement which the government has pledged to implement in full. They, too, would want to know the answers to these legitimate questions.
Opposition Leader Peter Dutton also moved an unsuccessful motion against the Prime Minister. That’s where you would expect accusations of a secret plot to appear. You can read the motion in Document 15. It makes no claims of a conspiracy or a secret plan to destroy the nation. The closest Dutton came to anything like this was to note in his statement in support of the motion that ‘There’s a Makarrata commission that’s being funded but is operating in secrecy, which you [the Albanese government] will not speak anything about’. That is true as the government’s responses to questions on this topic fully attest.
There was no conspiracy to invent a conspiracy.
I HAD intended this article would only cover Kenny’s conspiracy theory and not his arguments. But, having waded through Kenny’s many specious arguments, I feel I can beg a trifle more indulgence from patient Quadrant readers. Let me deal with Document 14 first.
Kenny effectively dismisses it as just a bunch of background papers that, although they contributed to the formulation of the Uluru Statement, now have absolutely no relevance to it. This has been his standard response: that someone bundled a bunch of papers with the Statement and handed them over with no structure to this release. But that simply isn’t true. As we know, the entirety of Document 14 was titled “The Uluru Statement from the Heart”. The whole 26 pages were annotated “Document 14” and numbered sequentially. The National Indigenous Australians Agency, which had custody of it, originally said Document 14, in its entirety, was the Uluru Statement. Peta Credlin showed video footage of Professor Megan Davis saying it was “18 pages” and urging that everyone should read it.
When this became an issue for the government, both the NIAA and Davis suddenlt recanted. Kenny’s response:
And just to clarify this further the CEO of the NIAA, she today wrote to the Coalition and confirmed it directly. The Uluru Statement is one page signed by the delegates at Uluru and goes on to say that the other pages are background and excerpts drawn from regional dialogues. That’s it. End of story.
That a journalist with Kenny’s intellect and experience could draw any satisfaction from such an obviously politically-motivated about-face simply beggars belief.
Document 14 has three elements. The opening statement on page one, a second section titled Our Story and a third section titled Guiding Principles. Kenny doesn’t tell you about the third. These sections are fully annotated to the various discussion papers. They are not themselves discussions papers but the distillation of all the discussions that underpin the Statement. ‘Guiding Principles’ tells you all you need to know. ‘Our Story’ can stand alone. ‘Guiding Principles’ cannot. It must refer to something. Perhaps it’s the ‘one pager’ which precedes it.
Indulge me here to invoke my military past and pursue a martial analogy. Military tactical orders comprise five sections: Situation, Mission, Execution, Command and Signals, and Administration and Logistics. If I were to draw up a set of orders for a platoon attack, for example, and only issued the Mission, I could hardly complain if things screwed up badly. The one-pager, the Readers Digest version of the Uluru Statement, is the equivalent of that Mission. The Our Story section equates to Situation, and Guiding Principles to Execution.
In implementing the mission of the Uluru Statement, the government is not going to start from a blank page. It will be guided by the principles outlined in Document 14, which it has never publicised or cited. Kenny runs the line that, what he calls the background papers, have always been available, even during the time of the Turnbull and Morrison governments and if the Albanese government has been keeping them secret then so must previous governments also have done.
Again, it’s not that Document 14 has been kept secret. It’s just that Coalition governments never felt the need to draw any particular attention to it because it was not part of their policy platform. It is part of Labor’s policy platform, and they should have been up front with the Australian people as to what the motherhood Readers Digest version of the Statement means in practice. It should not have been necessary for the No Campaign to bring it to public attention. Why did it not appear on a government website promoting the Uluru Statement commitment as an essential piece of background information, information the Australian people needed in order to understand just what this commitment entails. It should not have to be up to the Australian voter to seek out this information and get details of what is actually underpinning Labor’s commitment to implement the Uluru Statement ‘in full’.
One of those details goes to the heart of Kenny’s fall-back position in defence of the Voice. He repeatedly says the Voice will only be able to give advice, which will not be binding on the government. So, it has always puzzled me why there is no such caveat in the referendum wording. Why, even the words ‘advice’ or ‘advisory’ do not appear! Page 17 of Document 14 tells us why:
There was a concern that the proposed body would have insufficient power if its constitutional function was ‘advisory’ only, and there was support in many Dialogues for it to be given stronger powers so that it could be a mechanism for providing ‘free, prior and informed consent’.
Is Albanese asking us to believe that the Referendum Working Group wasn’t cognisant of the above when they devised the wording. That they did not deliberately choose the word ‘representations’ rather than ‘advice’ in order that it provide a mechanism for that ‘free, prior and informed consent’, as demanded by Article 19 of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which Labor signed under Kevin Rudd.
Kenny’s other go-to argument, which scales the heights of speciousness, is set out here:
Just think about how the opposition to the Voice has played out so far. The Coalition has long supported constitutional recognition. They’ve also long supported legislating a voice. So, they think that a legislated voice would be useful, they don’t think it would divide the nation and they don’t think a legislated voce would undermine government. But earlier this year they decided to oppose the constitutional enshrinement of the voice as the chosen form of recognition. So, lately they’ve been telling us how terrible and divisive a Voice would be. If it was legislated under a mandate in the constitution, it would be terrible and divisive, even though they tell us it would be fine if it was legislated under the existing constitutional powers. It’s a pretty thin argument.
That’s a pretty thin argument, Chris. First of all, Dutton denies he ever said the Coalition would legislate a national Voice to Parliament. I can’t vouch for the truth of that, but he has said they would only legislate regional and local bodies. That is their policy now. And the No Campaign argument argument about the Voice being divisive hinges not on the Voice itself, but on the fact that if it is entrenched in the Constitution – with all the legal status that implies – which may well acquire powers that the Australian public did not envisage because of the Albanese government’s failure to pro-actively bring Document 14 to the voting public’s attention and which now denies the Guiding Principles contained therein have anything to do with anything at all. Kenny says:
… first they generated fears over the constitutional wording. Fair enough. Good debate to have and you’ve got to be careful with these words. They are in the constitution but in the end that was settled. But the No campaign wanted more scares. The Uluru Statement wasn’t scary enough. They wanted to talk about treaty and reparations and whatever else and they seized on these public documents to want to convince us that the government secretly has committed to all of that.
Kenny refuses to talk about treaty and truth-telling, so we don’t know his views on those issues. Perhaps they are a bridge too far, even for him. I’m guessing he’d rather not talk about them because he recognises that the Voice is inextricably linked to them. But whether he likes it or not, the government has committed to treaty and truth-telling. That commitment simply must be based on more than a mere one- page document. It can only be based on Document 14 – because that is what the Indigenous authors want. Document 14 also includes reparations.
In formulating government policy, treaty, truth-telling and all they entail (including reparations) are legitimate areas for debate. The Opposition would not be doing its job if it did not pursue these matters. Money has already been committed and spent on treaty – based, apparently, on nothing more than a one-page document, if you can believe Albanese. Surely that is a matter for parliamentary scrutiny?
And Kenny’s claim that the debate over the wording was settled, is a trifle hubristic. I presume he’s basing that on his statement that:
You know I constantly say that there are some rational arguments against the Voice. I just don’t buy them.
I guess there are still a handful of dissenters with impeccable legal credentials who would disagree with you on that, Chris. The No campaign against the Voice will continue to make those arguments — arguments you so casually dismiss, presumably in order to support your contention that the Coalition had no more shots in its locker and had to resort to conspiracy.
Let me conclude with this. Kenny accuses No campaigners, including his own colleagues, of being fearmongers who are running a scare campaign. That is, they don’t really believe the arguments they are putting, but are running this line in order to disguise their real and shameful goal to defeat the Voice. The slanderous implication: they don’t want Aboriginal people to advance and they don’t care about closing the gap. In other words, they just want to keep the Aborigine in his place. If I am wrong in reading Kenny’s mind perhaps he could let us know what he thinks is No supporters’ real agenda?
It has been suggested by a number of commentators, both here and in The Spectator, that Kenny may be the designated Sky News Yes campaigner, that he is ‘taking one for the team’ so Sky News can claim to be presenting balanced coverage. That would be akin to prostituting himself journalistically and I can’t accept Kenny would do that. And if that were the case, why would he be so enthusiastic about it? His passion certainly gives the impression he’s not just lying back and thinking of Hindmarsh Island.
This is one concrete example of the referendum dividing Australians. It has caused a rift between Kenny and a great many of his audience, not because he supports the Voice but because of the way he supports the Voice.
The only scare campaign is the one being masterminded by the members of the Referendum Working Group, who are telling us what Kenny and Albanese don’t want the voting public to hear. At least they’re being honest.