Enshrining an indigenous advisory body in the constitution was a “real chance” and “not really any more a question of whether but how”, Cape York leader Noel Pearson has declared.
Mr Pearson said last week’s parliamentary committee report into the idea of an indigenous voice to parliament, nine months after the proposal was rejected by prime minister Malcolm Turnbull, had exceeded “all of my expectations”.
“From a situation of desperate disappointment, we’ve come to a position of some real chance and some real hope that we might get to the destination we seek,” Mr Pearson told the Garma Festival in Arnhem land on Saturday.
He urged “everyone to see this as a real chance”, saying people should not “take the word” of the prime minister that the proposal would not pass in a referendum.
“I have always believed that the Australian people will go with us when the question is put to them. The real uncertainty lay in whether the parliament and the political parties would allow the question to be put,” he said.
“We can’t be intimidated. We can’t be told that the Australian people are so racist or redneck or opposed. We are in the business of fanning the better angels within people notwithstanding those realities.”
A body enshrined in the constitution to advise parliament on laws and policies that affect indigenous people was recommended by the Referendum Council in June last year, after two years of talks with communities across the country.
The prime minister rejected the idea in October saying it would in effect create a “third chamber” of Parliament. A joint parliamentary inquiry, led by Julian Leeser and Pat Dodson, is now examining the idea and found broad support in an interim report on July 31.
Mr Pearson said constitutional recognition had to come before treaty negotiations at state or regional levels. (South Australia and Victoria have embarked on treaty-making processes with aboriginal groups in their states.
“Those of us that have come late to this strategy need to wake up. Treaty door is the second door. The first door is constitutional enshrinement.”
“We need a constitutional voice because the subject matter of discussion that we need to have is heavy business. This is not some kind of service-delivery discussion about health and education and housing. This is about treating with each other in relation to the most profoundly foundational questions.”
‘Without it, we will get pushed around’
Without constitutional change, treaty making would get bogged down in a mundane discussion about service delivery.
“Without it, we will get pushed around. Without it, the question will be deferred once again. Without it, we will enter into some prosaic discussions about what’s always called that one-eyed hobby horse of Australian policy: everyone’s favourite discussion about how it is that we might lift the indigenes from their misery.”
“We have to treat with one other about some fundamental questions about the old sovereignty and the new and about their coexistence,” he said.
Mr Pearson said the struggle for constitutional recognition was “life and death” for some communities.
“For our young people, I urge you, for the First Nations fighting to retain their culture and identity, to sustain their communities and build a future for their children, this is a life and death matter. This is no muck about on Twitter. This is more serious than social media. This is about the existence of people in the future,” he said.
The Business Council’s submission to the parliamentary committee backs a constitutional voice, with no veto over legislation, and calls for a referendum within a year of the next federal election, a timeframe that could deliver change before July 2020, the 250th anniversary of James Cook’s landing at Botany Bay.
“It is almost universally agreed by politicians, businesses and the community sector that the solution to so many of the challenges faced by Indigenous communities depends upon Indigenous peoples having greater empowerment and responsibility in the decision-making process,” the BCA submission last week says.
The committee’s final report is due by November 29.