Why an adversarial approach to political debate is failing us

Last night the ABC screened a program entitled Recognition: Yes or No.

It featured conservative commentator and News Corp columnist Andrew Bolt for the No side.  Bolt is a political journalist, championing all manner of conservative causes, from the failed leadership of Tony Abbott, opposition to same sex marriage, opposition to the safe schools program, opposition to constitutional recognition, opposition to carbon abatement.

Despite being found guilty of breaching the Racial Discrimination Act in 2011, Bolt finds it difficult to see that he might be considered a racist: “There wouldn’t be many Australians more against racism than me,” he says to the camera.

For the Yes side was Wiradjuri woman and Labor MP Linda Burney.


Burney, by comparison, has spent a lifetime immersed in this issue. She is the first Aboriginal person to serve in the New South Wales Parliament and the Australian House of Representatives. She has been the New South Wales Deputy Leader of the Opposition and the Shadow Minister for Education and Shadow Minister for Aboriginal Affairs and the Minister for the State Plan and Minister for Community Services and the National President of the Australian Labor Party. (source: Wikipedia)

It was a rather unequal debate.

 The Guardian reports that: “Ms Burney has long been a prominent voice for substantive change – removing and replacing the constitution’s “race power” and recognising the history of Indigenous people in Australia – while Bolt prefers either the status quo or strictly the elimination of any racial references.

Burney rejects Bolt’s central argument, that constitutional recognition would divide people, maintaining that the nation’s founding document has been used to the detriment of Indigenous people and ignores their continuous occupation of Australia for thousands of years before European colonisation.

“For me it’s a no brainer,” she said. “Where is the downside in recognising Aboriginal people in the Australian constitution? Every first world nation with a colonial history has done it – bar Australia.”

On face value, it looks as if the ABC is  “fulfilling its charter” by contributing to public debate on important issues et cetera et cetera.

But in fact, it’s probably not quite that simple. Presenting this particular issue in terms of the dialectic of a TV debate that frames the issue as a Yes/No debate is probably not particularly helpful. And it’s unhelpful precisely because it gives Andrew Bolt and Cory Benardi a chance to express opposition to the idea of recognition in their particularly negative and destructive fashion.

It gives the conservative side of politics, those opposed to any kind of change, another opportunity to oppose. These are the people from whom we hear opposition to any change that will lead us to becoming a more civilised society: same-sex marriage, constitutional recognition, equal pay for women, safe school programs, carbon abatement.

The real issue about constitutional recognition is not whether we have it or not but how we find a way to achieve it. The most illuminating part program was the interview where Dr Shireen Morris a senior policy adviser and constitutional reform research fellow at Cape York Institute, explained the legal and constitutional issues.


She also explained clearly and concisely the legal and technical definitions and reasons why Andrew Bolt could not call himself “indigenous”. Bolt’s response: “I’m changing the definition,” he says, casually dismissing Morris’ points of law.

And this is so typical of the man. When faced with a categorical, logical and reasoned refutation of his argument, he shifts the ground. “I’m changing the definition.” So you wind up in an argument about whether he can change the definition of indigenous and the debate has gone nowhere.

And that is precisely the problem with allowing people like Andrew Bolt into a discussion/debate on constitutional recognition. You never make any progress.

But the whole thing was disingenuous. At the beginning of the program, Bolt was proudly and loudly proclaiming his Dutch ancestry, clogs and all. By the middle of the program he was indigenous.

There is a  telling  scene, in one of many visits, in this case to the home of conservative politician Cory Bernardi, who has an Australian flag hanging in his living room.


Bernardi argues that the constitution has served “us” well and that Burney owes her seat in Parliament to the Constitution.

Burney deftly reminds him that her seat only came thanks to constitutional reform – the referendum of 1967, when Australians voted to count Indigenous people as part of the population. Bernardi admits she has a point. Clearly he doesn’t understand the role of that referendum. A surprising omission for a politician opposed to the present one.

A final exchange neatly summed up the dilemma presented by the program.

Bolt denies the existence of First Australians and insists his bond with Australia is equal in depth of emotion to any felt by Burney or other Indigenous Australians.


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