Last Saturday, Malcolm Turnbull made the first prime ministerial visit to Tennant Creek since 1982 and announced to Indigenous leaders: “our job is to listen to you and help you achieve your dreams”. It was a classic political photo-opportunity but Turnbull really called upon a great deal of arrogance and chutzpah to make this statement, less than a year since he rejected outright the Uluru Statement from the Heart.
In October 2017, six months of consultations commissioned by the Federal Government with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people went out the window, when Turnbull erroneously claimed the Makarrata (treaty) would create a “third chamber of parliament” and, because of this, would be rejected by the Australian community in a referendum. So, he was going to reject it as well.
No further consultation with the electorate, just a slam-down from the Prime Minister without even considering different pathways to a Makarrata. On this occasion, like so many instances in the past, Indigenous leaders were listened to but whatever they came up with was dismissed by the Prime Minister and sunk without a trace.
So, what was the purpose of Turnbull’s visit to Tennant Creek, and what did he hope to achieve? Aside from a few ‘selfies’ and photographs with Indigenous children in traditional body paint – almost like King Leopold II visiting his native subjects in the Congo Free State and taking a trophy with him as evidence – all he did was tag on to a local night patrol “to see the problems first hand”. But after this, he said any child protection issues and social problems are the sole responsibility of the Northern Territory Government – coincidentally, held by the Labor Party.
In 1982, it was another Malcolm – Malcolm Fraser – that visited Tennant Creek as Prime Minister but, in contrast to Turnbull, Fraser was proactive on Indigenous affairs. He led a government that enacted the Aboriginal Land Rights Act, facing off strong opposition from the Country Liberal Party in the Northern Territory and within his own federal Liberal Party, and in Fred Chaney, he had one of few Aboriginal Affairs ministers from the Liberal Party to take the position with the intent it deserves.
It was also Malcolm Fraser that fully committed the Australian Government to support the Gleneagles Agreement to end sporting contact with South Africa during the apartheid era. Whatever the political differences that existed between Fraser and the Labor leader of the time, Gough Whitlam, both leaders were on a unity ticket to implement Aboriginal land rights and reduce racism, both in Australia and on the international arena.
How would today’s leader of the Liberal Party, compare with the Malcolm Fraser of the 1970s? Will we ever see the clenched hands of Turnbull pouring sand into the hands of an Indigenous leader, just like Gough Whitlam did with Vincent Lingiari in August 1975?
While Fraser worked hard to push Aboriginal land rights through the Liberal Party, Turnbull does the exact opposite. He speaks through both sides of the mouth when talking about Indigenous rights, by claiming that it’s his job to ‘listen in’ to what the communities want, but then humiliatingly dismissing their concerns and desires for a treaty, or any form of representation in Parliament.
Another example of Turnbull’s indifference to racism can be found in the recent debate about the Sudanese community in Melbourne and the relationship with crime and violence. There are around 21,000 people of Sudanese background living in Melbourne, with 20 per cent living in the western suburbs area in the Brimbank City Council. The community makes up around 0.1 per cent of Melbourne’s population, but is involved in around 1 per cent crime.
Turnbull recently told reporters in Melbourne that “the fact is there is a gang issue here and you are not going to make it go away by pretending it doesn’t exist. You have to be honest, there are Sudanese gangs in Melbourne,” previously attacking Victoria Premier Daniel Andrews over “growing gang violence and lawlessness”.
The Home Affairs Minister, Peter Dutton, also chipped in and claimed “African gang violence” had made Victorians “scared to go out to restaurants”. It hasn’t yet deterred Christopher Pyne, but he is not from Victoria, so perhaps South Australians have a thicker skin when it comes to gang violence.
The issue has constantly been put into context by Victoria’s Chief Police Commissioner Graham Ashton: “you’ve got a few hundred offenders engaged in offending in a city of four and a half million people. We have some young people that are engaging in … gang-related behaviours, we’re not shying away from that, but I think it’s important we keep it in perspective”… “I’ve heard people say that Victoria is not a safe place to live, that’s complete and utter garbage.”
Who should we listen to? The experts on the ground, or the politician trawling for cheap votes in a tight election campaign?
Should the prime minister of the day be focussed on 1 per cent of crime in a state in which the federal government has no responsibility or jurisdiction in? What about the other 99 per cent of crime that takes place in Melbourne by all the other communities, especially the 72 per cent committed by Australia-born people? Is that not worth mentioning or be seriously concerned about? And no mention of the overall fall in Victoria crime rates, of almost 10 per cent in the past 12 months?
Why does the Prime Minister magnify an issue completely out of proportion, when it flies in the face of all the facts and evidence?
Two reasons: Because it’s working for him in the polls, and we have a prime minister – like his Liberal Party predecessors, John Howard and Tony Abbott – who will crawl down any rathole and drainpipe to find a vote, especially when there’s a chance the Liberal Party will gain preference votes from One Nation at the next election.
Since Turnbull has been targeting ‘African gangs’, coupled with the concerted attempt by the mainstream media to create leadership problems for the federal Labor Party, the opinion polls have narrowed (the recent Fairfax/Ipsos and Newspoll polls both showing ALP 51–LNP 49 in two-party preferred voting intentions).
While there is never a direct correlation between a single event and a change in the polls, this offers encouragement to Turnbull to increase his attacks on the Sudanese community, and to continue to offer empty promises to Indigenous people. After all, it’s a strategy that doesn’t cost anything at all.
It should be remembered that Turnbull’s commentary about ‘African gangs’ in Melbourne hasn’t been a late-minute conversion, or a spur-of-the-moment thought bubble.
On New Year’s Day this year (of all days), and on the beaches of Bondi (of all locations), Turnbull appeared with Health Minister Greg Hunt and Minister for Sport, Bridget McKenzie – both MPs are from Victoria – to denounce ‘African gang’ violence in Melbourne, 880 kilometres away to the south. No solutions were offered, no additional funding support from the Australian Government. Nothing. Just taking pot shots from a far away place against a state Labor government facing an election in November.
Does the strategy have a familiar ring to it? Of course; it was the same narrative Turnbull created at the beginning of 2017 with the confected power crisis in South Australia, which resulted in the return of the Liberals to government in that state. It’s evident that he’s replicating the same agenda for Victoria – another confected outrage where a minor problem is magnified tenfold, no solutions are offered, and neatly dovetailing into negative talking points for the whole year.
And the national interest? Who cares when there’s elections to be won through concocted crime and race issues. It’s the most dishonourable form of political behaviour, but it’s working for the Liberals. And with this type of political behaviour, there’s always damage to marginalised communities.
Incidents of racial abuse have increased this year, with the Victoria’s equal opportunity and human rights commissioner, Kristen Hilton, announcing race-related inquiries have risen 34 per cent, and formal race-related complaints have risen 76 per cent, since the beginning of 2018, when compared to the previous year.
A prime minister always has choices and decisions to make. Malcolm Turnbull could have followed in the footsteps of Malcolm Fraser, and denounced the misreporting of Sudanese communities in Melbourne, and the inaccurate portrayals of ‘African gangs’ in the right-wing media, as seen in the Herald Sun, or on Channel 7.
That’s what prime ministers do. But not this one. Malcolm Turnbull is the opposite of Malcolm Fraser. No credibility, no stature. And no courage in standing up to the racist bigots in his party, just like Fraser did in the 1970s.
And why is Turnbull failing to stand up to these racist bigots within the Liberal Party? Because, contrary to the image of the sophisticated and urbane leader that keeps being promoted by the media, he’s actually one of them.