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Langton v Price boxing pantomime

[by Professor Gracelyn Smallwood]


“Sister, you want to join the No-campaign committee,” a well-connected political friend asked me a while back. “No, that doesn’t sound like something I’d like to join,” I said.


Being a little curious, I asked my acquaintance for the names of those on the committee and the logical follow-up question, “Why me?” “Mundine and Price and a couple of countrymen from central Australia,” began the response.


“They asked around but can’t seem to get commitments from any creditable women from our mob to join them.”


The conversation went on for half an hour or more on the genesis of the official No-campaign team driven by the sole non-Indigenous committee man, Gary Johns, a former minister in the Keating government.


Within a month of being asked, I’d chosen between Yes or No as I travelled nationwide, speaking with other government-sanctioned luminaries at town hall gatherings on the merit of ticking the Yes box at the polling booth later in the year.


“Hey sister … what ya doing jumping the fence,” asked good friend and fellow activist Wayne ‘Coco’ Wharton when he heard of my inclination. It was a difficult phone call to manage from the renowned activist and celebrated Aussie flag burner at the time and to later process the complexities of the inference.


And so commenced the parade of eminent activists calling my mobile number and asking the same question as Coco – with varying ambiguous rationale – on lending support to what they called the ‘black elite’ Yes camp.


I am fortunate in many ways to have had those frank conversations without losing face with activists who have changed the status quo of white hegemony in this country. Mutual respect goes a long way in this grassroots activism business, and maintaining that standing in the volatility of black politics speaks volumes about the then and the now. They all know of my unwavering allegiance to the black cause over the past six decades, following in the footsteps of my staunch, charismatic parents, mother, Grace and father, Archie.


However, I am conflicted as I sit in my Townsville home today, reflecting on myriad contentions on Yes or No that have gained saturation news coverage for months, culminating in the Langton and Price debacle in the last couple of days that we, as a nation, could all have done without.


The political landscape has gone from the robust debate – as expected in any democratic country – to a seismic language and tone shift that could potentially see soft Yes and soft No voters, cementing ill-informed positions.


The protagonists featured prominently in news headlines, Melbourne University Professor Marcia Langton and Northern Territorian Senator Jacinta Nampijinpa Price, were spoken of by pundits as heavyweight boxing contenders determined to win at all costs. The winner, it was speculated, would walk away with the much sought-after Referendum belt after the 14 October showdown.


Langton, 71 and the older contender featuring in the black, red and yellow colours, started aggressively with right uppercuts and mouthing uncouth ‘racist’ and ‘stupid’ banter that left Price - 29 years her junior at 42 and wearing the NT Country Liberal party colour orange - with blood streaming down her left cheek. Price countered with a heavy left roundhouse punch that struck Langton firmly on the right ear, deafening her sense of direction and space, with follow-up repartee ‘Colonialism is great’ and ‘look, we’ve got running water and readily available food’ that got under her guard. The farcical boxing pantomime ends in a draw with a sizable Aussie crowd baying for blood and more banter.


In the real world, the public received saturation referendum coverage on the protagonists, considering competing news interests of the bloody war in Ukraine, the devastating earthquake in Morocco and catastrophic flooding in Libya, which were all moved rearwards in paper reporting. However, there had to be a clear winner in the media landscape.


Langton sadly became the symbolic sacrificial lamb and watched enviously at populace love being showered on the new Senator from the right of politics. The media went hard on Langton with intense scrutiny of past indiscretions, most notably for disparaging comments of Jacinta Price and her mother Bess. They struck gold when they found the story in The Saturday Paper published in 2018 of Langton speaking about Jacinta Price and her mother as “useful coloured help in rescuing the racist image of these conservative outfits”.


When the media questioned Price on her mentor Gary Johns’ comments in his 2022 book The Burden of Culture: How to Dismantle the Aboriginal Industry and Give Hope to its Victims when referring to ‘measuring’ blood and DNA testing of welfare recipients, she condoned his views.


Jacinta Price is like the Teflon lady; nothing sticks. However, Prices’ casual ultra-right-leaning commentary will and has left her open to litigation. A couple of years ago, I rang my close friend, Dr. Stephen Hagan and asked if he was watching The Outsiders on Sky TV. He told me he didn’t watch those shows and had no intention of starting now. I asked him to quickly watch a replay of what Jacinta Price said about his media company, First Nations Telegraph, and he did. Sometime later, after their respective high-profile legal teams challenged the veracity of his claim of defamation against Price and Sky TV, an out-of-court settlement was arrived at, and a public apology by Price was made: In a 12 July 2020 broadcast, Outsiders’ guest Jacinta Price referred to the approach of the Australian media to reporting accurately incidents of domestic violence among Aboriginal communities and its effect on the victims. Neither Sky News nor Ms Price intended to suggest during those comments that First Nations Telegraph deceives Aboriginal communities by glorifying perpetrators of domestic violence. Sky News and Ms Price apologise to Dr Stephen Hagan, Mrs Rhonda Hagan and First Nations Telegraph Pty Ltd.


This was not the first time another First Nations person was successful in legal action against Price. In January 2019, Price implied on a Studio 10 TV segment that Olympic gold medallist Nova Peris turned a blind eye to and promoted Aboriginal men known as perpetrators of sexual violence against women. Price settled and publicly apologised: “I accept that what I said was wrong and was liable to damage your reputation. “I also accept that my comment caused hurt and distress to you and your family. I sincerely apologise to you.”


To many on my side of politics, Price resembles the 34-year-old African-American republican Candace Owens with each passing day. Owens famously said, “Sixty years black people have been voting the same. What have we gotten back?


“We do the work, we make sure you (Democrats) get elected every four years.


“You get the power, and we get absolutely nothing back.”


Candice Owens ventured a little too far right when she was suspended from YouTube for hate speech against the LGBTQ community in America recently.


I would encourage Senator Price to heed the inspirational words of Frederick Douglass, African American abolitionist, orator, newspaper publisher and author who once said, “You are not judged by the height you have risen, but from the depth you have climbed”. Senator Price has risen rapidly in the political world in a short period. Let’s see how long she lasts with her propensity to embrace all the right side of politics offers.


On the principal issue of this opinion piece, I advise undecided voters to do their research and make an informed decision at the referendum polling booth on 14 October. Although activists say this Voice to Parliament is gammin as it has no power, no control of finance … it’s just a toothless advisory group. They say we already have plenty of advisory groups for health, housing, legal, native title, education, etc.


My answer is more long-term as to why we should vote Yes. I’m not worried about it being an advisory group for this parliament. I’m talking about getting it into the constitution so politicians can’t do a John Howard and abolish it like he did with ATSIC.


I’m confident that sometime in the future, a more enlightened majority membership of parliament – could be Labor or Coalition - will use reference to it in the constitution and extend the terms to include financial control. And Yes, you already know my position.


Professor Gracelyn Smallwood AM is a Bindal, Birrigubba, Kalkadoon and South Sea Islander woman and First Nations health and human rights advocate. She is a published author, an internationally renowned health and human rights advocate and a former consultant for the World Health Organisation. Professor Smallwood has been awarded with several accolades including Queensland Aboriginal of the Year in 1986; Member of the Order of Australia in 1992, and National NAIDOC Person of the Year in 2014.


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