Noel Pearson: debate the substance, not the inconvenience

, - April 18, 2015

Damien Freeman, Noel Pearson and Julian Leeser launch ideas for recognition this week. Picture: Adam Yip Source: News Corp Australia
Damien Freeman, Noel Pearson and Julian Leeser launch ideas for recognition this week.
Picture: Adam Yip 
Source: News Corp Australia

The furore that has arisen this week since I launched Damien Freeman and Julian Leeser’s suggested reforms to effect indigenous recognition highlights a poverty of thinking by the key leaders of the discussion.

The greatest objection has been to the apparent inconvenience I have created for the guardians of this national conversation, rather than the substance of my argument.

I argue that symbolic recognition can happen outside the Constitution, in a declaration. And practical recognition must happen in the Constitution: I argue for an indigenous constitutional body. Not reserved seats. I propose an advisory and consultative body to empower indigenous people with a voice in the parliamentary process.

The misrepresentation of what I propose is deeply concerning and has unearthed a disconcerting rigidness, suggesting that we have already arrived at some destination. We have not. Previous reports of the Joint Select Committee on Constitutional Recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples have patently demonstrated that they themselves are undecided on the best way to move forward.

I have been accused of operating outside the processes established by the committee. Committee members such as Shayne Neumann have publicly accused Freeman, Leeser and me of weighing into the debate too late. Listening to Neumann, you would think the conversation is already closed. Yet his committee is not due to report until June 30. They are still taking submissions.

It is becoming clearer that the committee wants only miserly remnants of recommen­dations of the Expert Panel on Constitutional Recognition of Indigenous Australians to be pursued. The matter is settled, and everyone else, including myself, needs to shut up.

This suggestion comes not only from committee members. Liberal Party pollster Mark Textor stated that Freeman, Leeser and I had failed to follow the processes deemed appropriate by the all-powerful committee.

But committee members have demonstrated that they may not even read the submissions we have formally given them. Ken Wyatt, the chairman, insists this proposal is not supported because indigenous people want substantive recognition, “not tokenistic” recog-nition. I agree.

Anyone who has read my submissions, essays or speeches would see that I advocate substantive recognition. The declaration is only one element of a package. I argue for an indigenous body in the Constitution, in a handsomely drafted new Chapter 1A. This would be practical, substantive recognition of indigenous peoples in the Constitution. It would include our people in the machinery that governs the nation.

That would be better than the constitutional tokenism the committee is advocating.

The complaints of Neumann and Textor about my proposals coming too late, and accusations that I have not followed proper processes, are equally incorrect. Again, it causes me to fear that our submissions have not even been read. Yet, considering more than 200 years of non-recognition, are they really serious?

I first publicly discussed an indigenous constitutional body and a non-constitutional declaration in my Quarterly Essay, A Rightful Place, published in September last year. I sent every committee member a copy. At that time, Wyatt criticised me for failing to make a submission like everybody else. As though blackfellas can’t write an essay without permission. Did Wyatt want to proofread my essay to ensure it was aligned with his Liberal Party line?

Despite the absurdity of such comments, I took Wyatt’s advice. In October 2014, Cape York Institute submitted a detailed submission setting out our proposed reform package. Then, in November, CYI attended a public committee hearing in Cairns. The reform package was discussed with the committee at length. The transcript is on the public record.

In December, fellow Expert Panel member Marcia Langton and I met with the committee. We argued for our model and it ­appeared the committee was divided. In my observation, Bridget Mackenzie was intrigued, Nova Peris showed interest, and Rachel Siewert appeared supportive. Oddly, the meeting transcript has not been made public, despite us giving permission for publication.

Responding to the committee’s request to provide more detailed “design principles”, CYI provided a supplementary submission explaining our design principles for the constitutional chapter establishing the indigenous body.

The churlish proposition that I am entering the debate too late is not supported by the facts. That Neumann and Textor are claiming as such should alarm anyone who seeks substantive recognition. We should be debating the substance of any argument, not the inconvenience caused to the appointed stewards of this debate.

Even Freeman and Leeser submitted their declaration proposal to the committee last year. Textor must not have bothered to check this before denigrating them for failing to follow “the process”.

Freeman and Leeser are convening meetings to generate conservative support through their new organisation, Uphold and Recognise. They receive no funding. They ask for donations. They recycle name badges to save funds. If this process is about grassroots and generating real public support, that is what Freeman and Leeser are trying to do.

It seems to me they are working harder than many well-funded organisations, and yet they are publicly chided by people such as Textor, who has clearly not read any of our submissions, just because they express a different view.

If Textor checked the Uphold and Recognise website, he would see Freeman and Leeser, like myself, support a package of reforms.

My concern is that people are trying to kill off a good idea. What about getting a good outcome for indigenous people? A timely bad outcome is still a bad outcome.

There are two groups trying to destroy our proposals. One demands the recommendations of the Expert Panel and nothing else. Then there is the committee, committed to a watering down of the panel’s recommen­dations. They oppose ideas seeking to step outside their process-obsessed box.

Neumann’s unintelligent assertion that I am somehow proposing we “start all over again”, after almost five years of consultations demonstrates his short-sightedness. Indigenous people have been agitating for a voice in Australia’s parliamentary process since at least the 1920s.

We have always wanted a ­representation in our affairs. Our people have been arguing for this for decades, never mind five measly years. Our proposals are an expression of an incredibly old idea. Indigenous self-determination is an old idea. Indigenous representation is an old idea.

On the current trajectory, the committee is taking us towards a weakly qualified, if qualified at all, indigenous power with tentative pseudo-poetry in the Constitution.

If we can’t get a racial non-­discrimination clause in the Constitution, we should have a constitutionally mandated indigenous body to advise and consult with parliament on indigenous ­affairs. Our people have a right to a constitutional voice.

Wyatt’s assertion that indigenous people don’t support an indigenous body in the Constitution, together with a declaration outside it, has not been tested. In conversations I have had with blackfellas, the proposal generates more excitement than a racial non-discrimination clause did (hard for me to admit as I was a chief proponent of that clause).

There are submissions to the committee that contradict Wyatt’s suggestion from the Yothu Yindi Foundation, the Empowered Communities leaders, the Cape York Land Council, and Harold Ludwick.

My deepest concern is that the committee intends to report early. I can only conclude this is another attempt to stifle public discussion of inconvenient ideas.

It is never too late to find a path towards a good outcome. Such things take time.