I’ve decided that media criticism is one of the world’s easiest jobs. The media never change their ways, so you can just keep repeating the same criticisms over and over – they never go out of date.
This week’s example: yesterday, on national Sorry Day, there were a bunch of events to try to relaunch the campaign to amend the Australian constitution to recognise in some fashion the special place of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. How did the media report this?
Well, you could turn to the Age, which has two pieces by Michael Gordon on the subject. Both convey a feel-good atmosphere, suggesting that this is a matter with consensus support. But there’s no information at all on what “recognition” would actually mean or on why, if no-one disagrees with it, it hasn’t happened already.
I doubt that it’s his fault; more likely his editors have told him not to bother the readers with such difficult things as facts.
But SBS’s report last night was much worse. The Age was just uninformative, but World News Australia was positively misleading:
Federal parliament passed an act of recognition this year, paving the way for a referendum. But Labor has delayed holding a vote because of a lack of public awareness.
I’ll wager no government has ever delayed a referendum because of lack of public awareness – public awareness is a referendum’s worst enemy. The usual strategy is to try to slip them through before anyone has worked out what’s going on.
The Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples Recognition Act, passed in March, doesn’t pave the way for anything. It sidesteps the whole issue; the only commitment it makes is to a review on whether (and in what form) a referendum might get public support. There is no commitment to holding a referendum or indeed to doing anything else at all.
So (and here comes the easy bit) if you want to know the actual condition of the debate, go back and read what I wrote on it three months ago. Nothing substantive has changed; there is still no prospect of agreement between Labor and the Coalition to support a specific constitutional change:
[C]onstitutional change is about specifics. You can’t pass a fuzzy notion into law, you can only pass actual words. They may be fuzzy words, but there has to be agreement on one actual set of words rather than another. If it’s not possible to find words that meet the competing demands of different interests, then no amount of “agreement in principle” will change that situation.
Gordon (twice) quotes Tony Abbott saying that “It’s too important to get wrong,” as if that were a supportive comment. But in fact it’s a rationale for not supporting a referendum that has anything in it that looks like a bill of rights, which will disqualify any proposal that the supporters of reconciliation are likely to come up with.
Nor is Abbott just playing politics on the subject: from his point of view (which I happen to disagree with) his position makes perfect sense. He’d be happy to have some sort of constitutional recognition of indigenous Australians, but not at the expense of his general constitutional vision.
It’s possible that under an Abbott government things would play out differently and the Coalition would arrive at a compromise in order to get the issue off the table. But I think it’s more likely that the controversy would go away of its own accord because those who are interested in indigenous rights would have much bigger things to worry about.