In a wide-ranging interview on NITV’s Living Black, Cape York leader Noel Pearson has said that it was the failure of the conservatives and internal dynamics of the federal government that led to the rejection of the Uluru Statement last year.
Speaking with presenter Karla Grant, Mr Pearson reflected on the Turnbull government’s rejection of the Uluru Statement saying that an unknown hurdle in the statements acceptance was that it had to be accepted by a government that was wracked with internal conflict.
“I think had we not had that terrible conflict between the conservatives under Tony Abbott versus Turnbull’s progressive faction; If that wasn’t playing out in the government, we would have had a much more rational response.”
Mr Pearson added: “I had hoped that Tony Abbott would not use this issue; our issue of constitutional recognition as a stalking horse in his campaign against the Prime Minister. But he did not exempt us. I had long banked on the idea that perhaps Abbott would step up as the leading conservative in the government and really champion our cause. In the end, he did not find it within himself to do that.”
Mr Pearson said he felt “betrayed” by the conservatives over the rejection of the Uluru Statement.
“I think this is a conservative cause. You know, some our best supporters are conservatives. You would think that the challenge always and ever will be that we have to bring the country with us. And that means that you can’t just be our friends on the progressive side of politics. It’s got to also be some of the most difficult constituencies led by the conservatives.”
However, Mr Pearson also went on to speak in his interview about two other issues affecting Australia’s First Nations Peoples: the continuing battle for Native Title and the push for a Treaty in Australia.
Wik vs Queensland
Mr Pearson recently took part in a new documentary titled ‘Wik vs Queensland’, a film which traverses the journey of the Wik people as they fight for their Native Title land rights. When asked about the importance of the film, Mr Pearson said that Australia has come a long way in terms of recognition of title across the country, but he added that since the Wik decision, First Nations People have still been missing out.
“Since that time, we had two decades of the greatest mining and natural resources industry that has ever been witnessed over the planet. The world has never seen the riches that have been yielded from the mining boom in the past, in those two decades. And of course, the native title holders of Australia should have been in the prime position to be lifted out of poverty as a result of that boom, and that never happened.”
Mr Pearson lays the blame squarely on former prime minister John Howard.
“People need to be reminded of the dastardly deeds of the Howard government with the Wik ten-point plan. They were terrible years between the [Wik] case and the ten-point plan being enacted. It was one of the lowest points in our modern history. Just the sheer unfairness of the Wik ten-point plan that Howard passed. I think it paints a terrible picture of the legacy of John Howard. Some people might celebrate John Howard’s dastardly actions with the Wik ten-point plan, but I don’t think history will celebrate it.”
However, Mr Pearson says that progress around Native Title can’t really be advanced until the structural conditions of First Nations Peoples are properly addressed.
“Until we have a rightful place in the country, and we have rightful power; the power of self-determination; we’re not gonna see that misery turn around. There’s got to be empowerment. Empowerment is a structural challenge. We’ve got to create the structures, and our relationship with government has got to be such that we’re sitting on an even keel with [the] government. At the moment, we’re not.”
When asked if Australia should enter into a treaty with its First Nations Peoples and if it should be at a state or a federal level, Mr Pearson said: “The prospect of a treaty offers the chance for us to do the power deal, and capture the power deal in a way that is binding on everybody.”
“We live in a federation; national and provincial. There’s got to be agreements at both levels. What the Victorians did was important in terms of picking up the treaty concept, and bringing it to public attention. I think the process down there is helpful. I would say to other groups around the country, other jurisdictions, including Queensland and so on, that our main focus has got to be a national treaty. State and territory treaties cascade out of a national treaty. They’re kind of second phase in my view. The most important challenge we have is to set the national principals.”
Mr Pearson went on to say: “Treaty is fundamental. It has to deal with a proper settlement of Indigenous grievances, and Indigenous rights. We won rights in the High Court in 1996, and yet, subsequent Queensland governments have been taking away those rights. So if that government now wants to do a treaty with us, we’re gonna revisit that issue. We have to revisit the issue of governments derogating from our rights… so if they want to talk treaty, well, one of the agenda items in that talk will be the restoration of our land rights.”
But Mr Pearson is philosophical. He believes that the last step toward having a successful implementation of Indigenous policies, including a referendum on constitutional recognition, is good leadership.
“We need a prime minister, a government, and a parliament to take this forward. If they do, and if Turnbull does this, I believe the Australian people will follow. In fact, the Australian people in my view, at the moment, are ahead of the prime minister. They’re leading. But if the prime minister finds a way through in his own mind that this is not a third chamber of parliament, this is a just solution. It’s a conservative solution. It is a right solution. Once he comes to that position, then I think we’re on a winner.”
Mr Pearson feels that success is possible. “There’s a really good chance for us here. Cluttering the agenda is not good. Let’s focus on voice, treaty, truth. Let’s focus on it as a staged thing. We can’t do it all at once. I think we’ve got a way forward here, but as I say, it requires leadership.”