Establishing a “First Nations Voice” in the constitution would lead to treaty negotiations to address “fundamental questions” about the way Australia was settled, Noel Pearson has declared.
The Cape York leader, who has championed the Voice proposal over many years, said the two were inexorably linked, and a constitutionally-protected voice to parliament would be a crucial tool for Aboriginal groups seeking agreements.
“The Uluru Statement from the Heart anticipated that following the constitutional voice, there will be a process of treaty, a process of national, regional and local agreement-making, of Makarrata, and we seek a commission to be established in Australian law to supervise that process,” Mr Pearson said.
“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.”
“I believe if the question is put to the Australian people, and we put forward a model that is supported by the First Nations of Australia, that is acceptable to the people of Australia, we will then come to a decision, in years to come, to sit down and treat with one another about the most fundamental questions.”
Speaking at Garma Festival in Arnhem Land, Mr Pearson said he believed it was almost inevitable a voice to parliament would be established in some form.
“It is not really any more a question of whether but how,” he said.
“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.
“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 said the next step would be building a bridge from the rock, meaning the Uluru Statement, to Canberra.
“There are these businesses that we need to do, and that we need to conclude and that we need to visit, that we didn’t do in 1770. We didn’t do it in 1788, and at every important milestone over these past 200-plus years, we declined to treat with one another about the fundamental question of how ancient Australia survives within the new Australia,” he said.
“We’ve got to come to terms with how ancient Australia survives in the new. We didn’t do in 1901; we didn’t do it in 1988; we didn’t do it in 2001.”
“Will we be able to do it, or at least commence the process, in 2020, the 250th anniversary of that troubling sea voyage up the east coast of Australia?”
Mr Pearson denied that the purpose of a constitutional voice would be improving service delivery.
“We have to treat with one other about some fundamental questions about the old sovereignty and the new and about their coexistence,” he said.
“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.
“We’ve got to create a bridge, and it’s got to be pinned down in the most fundamental law of the nation where power resides.
“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 hobbyhorse of Australian policy: everyone’s favourite discussion about how it is that we might lift the indigenes from their misery.”
“We need a constitutional voice for the First Nations, a position from which we can never be shifted, a position from which to negotiate with all of the moral and historical power which is ours by virtue of the possession of the land for more than 60,000 years.”
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.
“This is about self-determination, not of the individual but of the tribe. We have a grave responsibility for tribes.
“Whether the people have a chance or not is up to our wisdom or stupidity.
“I urge young people to remember what self-determination is: it is the hard work of dialogue and discussion and consensus and patience so that we come to a common decision.”
He said it was wrong to accept Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull’s rejection of initial proposals put forward by the Referendum Council.
“If the Prime Minister tells you it can’t be done, what do you do? ‘Oh, okay. That’s your view. You must be right.’ We can’t be like that; we can’t be that weak; we can’t take the word of an ordinary person,” Mr Pearson 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.”
“We are in sight of our goals if we stick together. If we value unity and we combine our energies and resolve, I think we can get there.”
“We need to build a bridge from the rock to Canberra, and the undergirding of that bridge needs to be adamantly nailed to the Australian continent.’’