Last week it was announced the 43-year-old former SAS soldier and barrister, Keith Wolahan, will replace conservative Liberal party stalwart Kevin Andrews after winning a long-running preselection battle to represent the Victorian electorate of Menzies, which covers the north-eastern suburbs of Melbourne.
The Liberal Party currently holds the seat by a seven-point margin, making it a stronghold for the Coalition and a sure thing at the next election.
While party leadership has framed the coup as a “changing of the guard”, conservatives have been left wondering what their new representative stands for. And on the subject of constitutional recognition of Indigenous people at least, Wolahan certainly is no moderate.
Wolahan on Indigenous issues.
In a video recording of a talk given to the Samuel Griffith Society in 2017, Wolahan lays out his opposition to calls for an Indigenous Voice to Parliament and calls instead for “minimalist” reforms that “removes race from the Constitution”.
The speech begins with Wolahan recounting his time at Melbourne University when he experienced “abuse” for arguing that John Howard should not apologise to Indigenous Australians.
“I had just left a politics tutorial at Melbourne University and was feeling bruised at the abuse hurled at me because I dared not agree with the proposal for the Prime Minister to say 'sorry' to Indigenous Australians," he said.
"I was the only one in the class with that view."
He then briefly refers to the white supremacist rally that took place in August 2017 in the US city of Charlottesville, which saw a white nationalist deliberately drive his car into counter-protesters, injuring 19 and tragically killing a 32-year-old paralegal.
After quoting an article describing the violence in Charlottesville as “the logical consequence of the politics of identity”, Wolahan delivers a stark warning.
“Identity politics is more than just unfair and counter to our Western values and traditions of liberty and individualism,” he said. “It opens a Pandora’s box. And it is capable of being shockingly destructive to our democracy and to our society.”
During the rest of the talk, Wolahan goes on to rubbish the official endorsement given to the Uluru Statement From The Heart as “wrong” and an extension of divisive identity politics.
“The substantive radical reforms proposed by the Recognition Council in effect seek to give identity politics a dangerous shot of status and legitimacy. They seek to insert race into the heart of our most important democratic document, the Constitution,” he said.
Later he adds, “The Recognition Council’s decision was wrong and should be rejected for several reasons.”
Elsewhere, Wolahan describes calls to establish The Voice — a constitutionally-protected representative body for Indigenous people in federal parliament — as “a sharp departure from the trajectory of Indigenous Constitutional recognition”, warning that it “enables future activism.”
“This body would form a representative function to parliament based on the sole criteria; criteria of Indigeneity — whatever that means — and the corollary issue of how that is to be defined. Is a court to define that? And how could that possibly occur? And where would the boundary be drawn?,” Wolahan said.
“This is important because it divides Australians into categories, into identities.”
"Abhors" racism in all its forms.
There have only been nine Indigenous MP’s elected to federal office since Federation, the first being Neville Bonner in 1972. An Indigenous Voice to Parliament would ensure Indigenous people have a say on issues that affect Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.
Without constitutional protection, however, any such a body will risk being dismantled or defunded by the government of the day.
Calls for a body similar to The Voice at state or federal level are not new. One of the earliest, just after federation came from William Cooper, an early Indigenous rights campaigner, who in September 1933 helped organise a petition calling for direct Indigenous representation in parliament.
When contacted for comment, Wolahan told NITV he “abhors racism in all its forms” and that he only supported changes to the Constitution that would “remove race”.
“I do not support inserting into the Constitution provisions for the establishment of an Indigenous representative body,” he said.
“I do support the establishment of local and regional bodies to enable Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people to have a genuine say in the design and delivery of policies, programs and services that affect them.”
Wolahan did not directly respond to NITV’s question about what he meant when he said identity politics would open a “Pandora’s box”, but did say he was concerned about events in the US.
“The form of identity politics being practised in the United States is not reducing racism. This is an indicator that Australians should look to different approaches to talking about and eliminating racism,” he said.
He also said he did not oppose an apology to Indigenous Australians.
“As a first-year university student, I thought that it was wrong to demand that John Howard apologise when he did not believe in it,” Wolahan said. “I thought the ultimate apology given by Prime Minister Rudd was sincere and a historic moment to celebrate.”
What is the Samuel Griffith Society and should Indigenous people be worried by its agenda?
The video also reveals how Wolahan’s run for pre-selection had been in the works since 2017 with the support of the Samuel Griffith Society, a group that has fiercely opposed Aboriginal Land Rights and other issues relating to and affecting First Nations' people.
Dr Dominic Kelly, an honorary research fellow in politics from Latrobe University says this is significant as the group has sought to emulate the influence of organisations like The Federalist Society in US politics, an American organisation who advocates conservative legal issues and has become powerful by supplying the Republican Party with names of candidates it endorses to be appointed to US courts.
Here in Australia, the Samuel Griffith Society is not as influential, but has long been aggressively opposed to meaningful reform in Indigenous rights issues.
Former Nationals Senator John Stone founded the organisation in 1992 to promote a states’ rights agenda, but within four months of starting up, the Mabo decision was handed down, upending the constitutional basis of the Australian legal system.
From that point, Dr Kelly says, Indigenous rights — especially demands for constitutional reform — has been a “bugbear” for the group.
“The video makes very clear there were people working away for a long time to get someone into Menzies who had a view on this issue,” Dr Kelly says. “It shows how the organisation is intent on ensuring that the Liberal Party holds the line on conservative issues.”
“But these guys are not just interested in parliament, they’re interested in the courts as well.”
- Royce Kurmelovs is an Australian freelance journalist and author of works such as The Death of Holden (2016) and Just Money (2020)