Aborigines risk ‘cultural impoverishment’, says Noel Pearson

, - October 27, 2011

NOEL Pearson has warned that indigenous Australians risk becoming as “culturally impoverished” as they are economically poor, and that Australia is a “graveyard” for traditional languages.

Delivering the Griffith Lecture in Brisbane on Tuesday night, the director of the Cape York Institute for Policy and Leadership said that if indigenous languages and cultures were not saved, the “wellbeing of our people will never be achieved”.

He said that, before colonisation, more than 200 indigenous languages and 600 dialects were spoken. Now, only 100 still exist, and 90 per cent are near extinction.

“There is little action to slow this terrible decline,” Mr Pearson said.

He said a balance needed to be struck in government indigenous affairs policy, between cultural assimilation and a complete return to traditional indigenous pre-colonisation culture.

Mr Pearson, who sits on Julia Gillard’s expert panel on indigenous constitutional recognition, said constitutional reform was an opportunity to boldly address the challenges of cultural death and indigenous poverty.

“This is much more than a question of symbolism, this is a question of national wellbeing and national identity,” he said.

“It’s about coming to terms with who we are as a nation and deciding who we want to be in the future.”

He said the two most pressing problems for indigenous affairs were poverty and diminishing cultures and languages.

Mr Pearson said a secondary problem was that there was no mention of indigenous Australians in the Constitution.

He argued that indigenous Australians needed to be guaranteed equality before the law. Currently, he said, Australia was the only democracy not to enshrine such a guarantee.

He said the Constitution allowed for racial discrimination, through the race power provision.

Mr Pearson has previously stated that indigenous people should vote first on constitutional recognition, before a possible Australia-wide referendum on the subject.

The expert panel is currently leading consultation and will report to the government in December.