Cape York lawyer Noel Pearson has warned against blindly adopting progressive ideology in indigenous affairs, questioned the value of state-based treaty discussions and unveiled a form of words for a formal “Declaration of Australia” that would tie together the nation’s tripartite threads of indigenous, British and multicultural heritage.

“In indigenous affairs, often what we believe is forward progress is in fact standing still or moving backwards,” Mr Pearson said in the annual Hal Wootten Lecture at the University of NSW. “My rule of thumb tends to be that whatever the progressives say we should do, we should do approximately the opposite. It is remarkable how often that rule of thumb works out.”

He bemoaned the “deferred … question of reparations” that accompanied Kevin Rudd’s 2008 apology to the Stolen Generations, saying “we let the country get away with it because we wanted to give way to sentiment … and yet when white Australia went through its grievances about institutional abuse, they got reparations. How smart are we?”

Mr Pearson praised South Australian Premier Steven Marshall’s analysis of now-suspended treaty talks in that state as being “completely correct when he described those negotiations as gesture politics. Every other Labor jurisdiction is engaged in gesture politics on treaty (but) the first question for a national treaty is whether we want to have treaties at the state and territorial level, or whether indigenous affairs should be an exclusively commonwealth jurisdiction.

“We’ve got to answer that first before we get misled by the (Queensland) Palaszczuk government or the (Northern Territory) Gunner government.”

And he laid out a proposed wording of a declaration of recognition intended to complement the constitutional reform of an indigenous voice to parliament.

His draft text says “with earnest and open hearts and strong desire to fill the lacuna, after more than two centuries, we make this declaration of Australia and the Australian People, to see our reflection in each other”.

It describes Australia’s history as “replete with shame and pride, failure and achievement, fear and love, conflict and comity, mistake and brilliance, folly and glory” and connects the “battles of the frontier wars” to subsequent conflicts that defined our identity.

READ: The Australian