SUBJECT/S: Royal Commission into Northern Territory juvenile justice system; Indigenous recognition; One Nation

KRISTINA KENEALLY: We are now joined by Michelle Rowland, she's here in the Sydney studio. Michelle, congratulations on two things. One, becoming the Shadow Minister for Communications and two, a tweet last week told me you're expecting another baby. Congratulations.


KENEALLY: All right, so a little brother or sister for your oldest child Octavia. Congratulations to you and Michael. We've got a nice photo on the screen of your lovely family. Yeah, lovely. All right, so you've got a big year coming up, of course with Communications but you've also been quite outspoken - probably reflecting your former multicultural portfolio on the issue of reconciliation. Last week you also said that reconciliation recognition of Indigenous people didn't have to be exclusive to the idea of an agreement or some type of practical action. Do you think that is a possibility in the context in which we're now at, to be able to advance the conversation in that direction?

ROWLAND: Kristina, I'm hoping we do advance the conversation and that we do it in a way that recognises not only constitutional recognition as being imperative, but also flowing from that we need to have very practical solutions and very practical responses to what has been unfortunately a growing gap in many areas between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians. I think we need to, as a starting point, we need to say 'well, what do we want to achieve' if it is simply to insert some words about Australia's first peoples in the Constitution, then we can do that. But I do think that we need, and Australians would like to see, something much more substantive and I take heart from the wisdom of Senator Dodson. Senator Dodson who said both symbolic and practical recognition are not mutually exclusive. I think this has only been heightened in the last week by the incidences that we've seen in the Northern Territory juvenile justice system which I fear, and I know many people hold very grave doubts, that this is nothing more than the tip of the iceberg in demonstrating the level of incarceration, but also needing to go to the root of a lot of these problems; whether it be dysfunctional families, in many cases a huge socio economic displacement, and how long have we been talking about this. We've been talking about this a very long time and I think Australians want this to happen, and I think Australians want to be bold on this. I know on one hand there's a school of thought that says referenda are doomed to fail if you don't get the public support and bipartisanship. That's very true but I don't think there's any reason why we shouldn't have confidence that the Australian people believe that it's time to do something very significant in this area.

KENEALLY: Of course you mentioned there Senator Dodson, he was the chair previously of the Referendum Council, I should just acknowledge that I'm a member of that Council. During the election campaign Bill Shorten talked about treaty and Malcolm Turnbull really decried that idea and almost criticised him, well, did criticise him for taking a more partisan approach, breaking non-partisanship, seeming to move the conversation to somewhere where we hadn't quite agreed as a nation it should go. But if we look at that context now and you mention the Northern Territory there, do you think now that without practical action that the constitutional recognition, if it was just those words, those changes in the Constitution, do you think that's likely to be acceptable to Aboriginal people and more importantly, and I say more importantly because there's going to be a vote to the rest of Australia who are 97 per cent of the population.

ROWLAND: I think you've nailed it there, Kristina. I think Australians don't want to see mere symbolism. If you start talking about mere symbolism they will ask a very valid question and say “how is this going to stop the images that we see happening in the juvenile justice system”, for example. How are we going to stop preventable diseases still being some of the major causes for death for Indigenous Australians. And look, I take issue with Malcolm Turnbull's comments here. A lot of Indigenous people do believe that we need to move towards something much more practical and a treaty has been put forward as one of the options for the Reconciliation Council. And I think just by dissing that it just looks like Malcolm Turnbull, another white politician, telling Indigenous people how to live. Now I'm very happy to take advice from anyone who is in this area who's been involved in it and who understands those issues. But I think to dismiss it out of hand when clearly this is one of the options that the Reconciliation Council is looking at at the moment, I think just demonstrates ignorance. The last point I'll make here is that in my past life I did a bit of probono work with some Indigenous issues including, there was a series of cases you might remember, about people dating back many years not being paid, so basically it was the unpaid work cases. And there were some cases where there just wasn't enough evidence to have any remedy. To have to tell an Indigenous person who went for decades without justice, 'I'm sorry, there is no remedy for you', is one of the most heartbreaking things to experience. You can't remedy everything, you can't remedy more than a century of what's been going on since Australia became a nation more than 200 years since Europeans arrived in Australia. But I think recognition is important, but also where do we go from here, what do we actually want to achieve, and if we all want to have the objective of closing the gap, we need to really examine what practical measures can be taken to do that. Reconciliation and recognition in the Constitution is a starting point.

PETER VAN ONSELEN: Can I ask you something specifically in the area of Mick Gooda's appointment to the royal commission up in the Northern Territory. I think it's a great thing that there's an Indigenous representative, as a co-commissioner, that is something that the Labor Party had pushed for, I think Mick Gooda is a great candidate at so many levels and offers so much with his experience. One of the challenges, very understandable challenges Michelle Rowland, is trying to find a senior Indigenous representative who hasn't been critical of what has gone on at some point in time in relation to juvenile justice, or treatment of Indigenous people in the Northern Territory more generally, and of course as we know from yesterday Mick Gooda had put out that tweet which he said if he'd had a bit more thought he perhaps wouldn't have done when he was as horrified as the rest of us, if not more so, in relation to what happened on that Four Corners story. My question is this, I suppose, it's great to have an Indigenous person on there but it's risky no matter who that co-commissioner is, isn't it, for them to have pre-conceived ideas or notions that they've expressed. Is it a case of lesser of evils, better to have Indigenous representation for all the advantages of that, even if like it or not, that person is going to have expressed some strong views at some point?

ROWLAND: My short answer is yes. I think it is the lesser of two evils but I think you need to go back and understand that given not only the history but also the current situation that we have with the gap not being closed in so many areas, I would be astounded if there weren't just about every prominent Indigenous person in the country who has been critical of the government at some stage. So I heard Mick Gooda's comments on that, I think he was sincere in them. I don't think that he has received a lot of credible criticism from that because I think he was upfront and authentic about why he made that comment in the first place.

KENEALLY: Of course this is all happening in the context of One Nation storming its way into public awareness and certainly into the Senate we see today One Nation seems to have achieved another spot in WA, giving them now two before all the Senate spots are being counted across the country. They may get another one. Bill Shorten said today that Labor has heard loud and clear the message that the public is sending in relation to One Nation and support for One Nation, what do you think that message is?

ROWLAND: I think there's two things. Firstly we need to acknowledge that even if you look at everyone who voted for One Nation and you say all right, half of them, maybe even three-quarters of them - I don't know, I haven't done an exit poll on these people - but some of these people were really waiting for Pauline Hanson to come back. I saw people on the polling booths asking, no-one was handing out for her that I could see in my electorate, but people were asking how they vote for her. Those people that were glad that she was coming back, who ascribe to her views and they were always going to vote for her. You've got another group of people, and again I don't know what the percentage is of them, but these are people for whom the major parties are not offering solutions to what they see are very grievous ills that are happening in their areas. Be it the old economies in which they live transitioning to the new economy and being felt left behind, whether it be fear over free trade and what that will mean for their economies, so I think that sort of economic exclusion I think has been a factor in a lot of people turning towards One Nation. But the Labor Party needs to respond and I think this is part of what Bill was saying. The Labor Party needs to respond to these people in a genuine way and listen to them actively, actively listen to them. We need to understand what their concerns are. A lot of their concerns are pretty fundamental: they're about not holding a stable job, being concerned about whether their kids will ever hold a job, being concerned about whether there are actually going to be local economies in their areas. And I did a bit of an exercise comparing some of the highest One Nation votes to some of the areas where GDP has been strongly declining, no surprises these are in some of the most oppressed areas of Queensland. And you'll remember Kristina, in 2011 the highest One Nation vote for any seat from memory I believe it was in Blacktown which had one of the highest if not the highest One Nation vote. So I think while on one level we need to understand that yes, Pauline Hanson, we need to deal with this person and her team who are coming in as Senators, we will have no truck with any bigotry or racism that they want to espouse, but at the same time we need to understand why these people chose to vote for her.

PVO: But just on that -

ROWLAND: We need to effectively I think in some ways bypass and go to them, sorry -

PVO: Just on that, I wanted to ask about that process because it's a process that John Howard tried to grapple with as well after '96 when Pauline Hanson first entered the Parliament. You don't want to endorse some of the rhetoric which is deliberately inflammatory, misleading, wrong, all the rest of it. And there are obviously debates about the extent to which John Howard did or didn't adequately condemn that. But for every element of condemnation accurate as it might be on that front, you risk alienating those voters even if you're also trying to reach out to them. Often, as you say Michelle Rowland, their one nation vote is not for the hate, if I could put it that way, they're One Nation voters for the sense of disempowerment from the system or whatever it might be.

ROWLAND: I think you've accurately articulated the challenge for us there, PVO. It's whether or not we are able to get these people to want to engage in a conversation with us. And I think we can, I think we can do that and I would be very disappointed if we had a situation where not only Labor but good minded people who want to do the best in their local areas, they don't want to actually have that honest dialogue with these voters. The question is whether they will want to have a dialogue with anyone. If you don't try you won't know, and if there's one thing I'll say about Bill Shorten during the campaign, essentially the exercise that he went through of having the town hall meetings, not being afraid and in fact embracing - this guy actually enjoyed the election campaign, he looks like he's still enjoying an election campaign and good on him - but he's still getting out there and willing to engage with people. Kristina, you would have seen it, sometimes you walk down the main street of a town and you'll be greeted, very welcomed by people, sometimes you'll cop a bit but that's the nature of politics, that's the nature of being a leader and saying I'm here to listen and I'm here to formulate policies and address your concerns and Bill Shorten is willing to do that. So I give us a really good chance of being able to meet that challenge.

KENEALLY: All right, Michelle Rowland. Unfortunately we're out of time but I'm sure we'll have you back on the program to talk about your portfolio, the NBN. I have no doubt we'll have a lot of debate in the coming years. Thanks for coming on To the Point this afternoon.

ROWLAND: My pleasure.