Jacinta Price talks about the Voice, a royal commission, and why she’s not ready for the top job yet
Jacinta Nampijinpa Price has a message for the people who want her to be prime minister: Calm down, she’s still learning the job.
Five days after Australians voted in the Voice referendum, she is still reeling from the sudden change from obscure first-term senator for the Northern Territory to someone whose campaign appearances saw her getting rock star-like receptions around the country.
Admitting she is “looking exhausted” and ready for a holiday to visit in her in-laws in Scotland, Price took time this week to sit down in her Parliament House office to reflect on the whirlwind past few months, why people have responded to her, her relationship with the ALP, and what made her give “that answer” at the National Press Club.
“I’m still getting my head around it,” she says of the demands on her.
“My family are like: ‘Everybody wants you – we just want you back. We just want you to ourselves, everyone else has had the opportunity to have you’.”
“It’s quite — like, don’t get me wrong, it’s wonderful and it’s humbling and it’s incredible — but there is a sense of at times getting pulled. Some people want to shake my hand then pull me toward them and want to hug me.”
There is an openness about Price that is unsettling to a journalist used to politicians who consider their answers carefully.
In a second she can switch from joking about herself to talking with a deadly seriousness about what drives her.
Price, 42, understands that the chord she has struck with many Australians is partly about her but also about relief that someone can’t be shut down and is finally saying the things people think.
“I think I’m a particular passionate person. I’m led by reality, I think,” she says.
“Woke culture and identity politics and all of these constructs have been thrust upon us as Australian people when our nature is to be straightforward and not bullshitters.
“I think Australians will have been hungry for that, looking for that again.
“A lot people want what’s best for us all and they don’t like called racist when they’re not. They don’t like being bullied and I think a lot of people have felt that way, and to hear someone who’s resonating with them and see that person at such a time when they were needing it most … I think that’s why there’s been that sort of reaction.”
Inside the conservative political ecosystem it had been predicted long before she arrived in Canberra that Price was going to shake things up.
But without the referendum campaign she wouldn’t have become a household name in the short time she has been in the Senate.
One senses that Price understands that her time has arrived before she is fully ready.
Her next step, she says, will be working with South Australian Liberal Senator Kerrynne Liddle to fight for a royal commission into the sexual abuse of Indigenous children.
“We have been voted into federal parliament to do our job and to do our job effectively, and that for me is what my focus is and I’m in a prime position to do that,” she says.
“The whole leadership thing? I’m not here to try to climb a ladder, I’m here to fight to bring about real change away from what we’ve been regurgitating over the last three decades.”
“The whole country seems to be saying: ‘Jacinta for Prime Minister! Jacinta for Prime Minister!’ but I’m like: ‘Actually you know what, I still need to learn the job’!”
More seriously, when Julian Leeser resigned from Peter Dutton’s frontbench to support the Voice, Price wasn’t sure she was ready for the job of opposition spokeswoman for Indigenous affairs.
“I’m always respectful of understanding there are those who been here longer than me and who have worked hard and have ambition and that sort of thing, so I took a long time to consider that,” she said.
Indeed, so unlikely did her elevation seem to Price she even rang up Dutton to ask: “Am I being considered for this” before being persuaded it needed to happen now, as “in this particular environment right now with the referendum coming” it “would put me in a stronger position to argue my case”.
Price was under no illusions about the difficulty about getting her message out in a media she believes is hostile to her and her message.
“I know they’re still out to get me, which is why I think Warren Mundine was so pissed off at the end of the press conference — because I’ve been fighting to highlight the needs of our most marginalised and yet the shallowness of some of the press … they’re far more interested in gotcha moments. It’s like they’re all: ‘I want to be the person who brings down Jacinta Price’. That’s how it feels.”
That hostility between Price and the media was on full display in September when she addressed the National Press Club in Canberra.
Asked about ongoing negative effects of colonisation on Indigenous people, Price seemed to reflect for a minute before answering that as far she was concerned there were none.
The answer triggered days of coverage. Why had she done that?
“Part of it was that frustration that: ‘Here we go again, they want to paint us as victims’. This is the narrative that they’ve pushed on us as Aboriginal Australians and I wanted to be completely honest and to say ‘well, actually, there’s a hell of lot that colonisation has brought that has improved our lives and in general terms. What we don’t appreciate enough is the efforts that are put in to improving the lives of Indigenous Australians despite what has occurred in our country’s history’.
“No one is out to bring Aboriginal people down and to use colonisation to do that.
“That’s the nonsense that is fed to Australians and so I just had to tell the truth really.”
Her views haven’t endeared her to some Labor senators, especially Foreign Minister Penny Wong.
“There’s couple that are nice and respectful obviously. There are some that just wouldn’t give you the time of day basically. I’ve had very little to do with Penny Wong. She didn’t bother shaking my hand. She split from the chamber once I had finished my speech.”
Five days after the referendum vote, she says Labor still hasn’t got the message: “They have been unwilling to accept the outcome. They’re still not reading the room, to their detriment, and not accepting responsibility for their failure throughout this process.”
As for the Indigenous leaders who went to ground after issuing a statement on Saturday in which they called themselves the “true owners of the country” and announcing a week of silence, Price thinks they should get over themselves.
“I just feel like, for those of us who are doing all right for ourselves, we should be putting our focus — and understanding there is always someone worse off than us — we should be placing our focus on improving their lives and not making it about us,” she says.