This is a political memoir of sorts, documenting seven years of intellectual hard grind and recognition lobbying efforts.
There is a three-part notion of Australian identity taking root alongside the flowering movement for indigenous constitutional recognition, one associated with Cape York lawyer Noel Pearson.
Pearson holds that there is a trio of establishing moments: the arrival of the First Australians tens of thousands of years ago via a northern land bridge; the British foothold of the late 18th century that planted the seeds of the modern state; and the end in the early 1970s of policies discriminating against non-white migration.
Indigenous foundations, British institutions, multicultural character: a “triune nation” formulation that bloomed after Tony Abbott’s 2014 fumbling stab at reigniting the never-quite-settled culture wars when, as prime minister, he declared the coming of the First Fleet in 1788 to be “the defining moment in the history of this continent”.
Clearly there was more to the story than that, and Pearson went on the front foot in response. But it was in fact several years earlier, when an Indian-Australian fledgling lawyer named Shireen Morris went to intern for Pearson at his Cape York Institute, that the legend of Aboriginal rights spotted a way forward.
Morris was on just a short placement in a voluntary policy role, in 2010, but Pearson says now that after that period “I thought, she is one we have to get back working for us”. The reason, apart from the young Melburnian’s obviously brilliant legal mind, was the value of allowing “a non-indigenous Australian, of a non-British background, to have a say about our country”.
“This is as much her country as ours,” he told a top-end-of-town crowd at a recent launch event for Radical Heart, her memoir of time spent forging ahead alongside him on the project for indigenous constitutional recognition.
“And let it not be said that this debate about constitutional recognition is just between the colonisers and the colonised,” Pearson went on.
“This is a debate for Asian Australians, for African Australians, for Malaysian Australians, for Pacific Islander Australians, for everyone — this is your country too.”
Radical Heart references Pearson’s notion of the “radical centre”, which he says he learned from observing Paul Keating and describes as “not simply a ‘third way’ position between Left and Right, but the common ground between a conservative, liberal and social position”.
This is a political memoir of sorts, documenting seven years of intellectual hard grind and lobbying efforts from 2011, though Morris is quick to point out it is far from “the full story” on progress in indigenous affairs. That, she acknowledges, “is decades of indigenous advocacy for serious constitutional reform”.
When she began at Cape York the expert panel on indigenous constitutional recognition put together by Julia Gillard the previous year was due to report by the end of 2011, and with Pearson among its appointed number, Morris was thrown straight in to the fray.
There have been twists and turns in the path over the past decade: the expert panel, a joint parliamentary committee that examined the expert panel’s findings and the Referendum Council that was charged with testing what shape indigenous constitutional recognition should take.
The other reference in Morris’s title is, of course, to last year’s Uluru Statement from the Heart, the document the Referendum Council arrived at after extensive consultation, and one of whose key authors is Pearson (the other is Aboriginal constitutional lawyer Megan Davis, pro vice-chancellor indigenous at the University of NSW).
After years of considering various possible amendments to the Constitution — removal of the so-called “race” power, insertion of a racial non-discrimination clause (a proposal that eventually died because conservatives feared its ability to give the High Court power over the parliament, which would fundamentally be anathema to our system) — Uluru came up with a single, elegant reform.
That was the so-called “voice” to parliament, the mechanism that could address what the Uluru Statement called “the torment of our powerlessness”. Importantly, it was the first significant suggestion to have the backing of those same conservatives.
Along the way in this engaging tale there is Recognise, the federal government-funded multimillion-dollar advocacy campaign advised by key John Howard pollster Mark Textor, and which Morris still feels sufficiently bruised from her dealings with that there is a separate multi-page index entry reading “Recognise — conflicts with”.
At its core her assessment of the problem is that it was a question of which would prevail: the minimalist model that she argues Recognise was pushing, with little real outcome for indigenous Australians beyond a mention in the Constitution, or more substantive options giving Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders a genuine say in matters affecting them.
After the Uluru Statement was read for the first time in the red dirt at Mutitjulu in May last year, Morris writes, Textor “sent an angry text to some indigenous leaders, suggesting that Noel had killed the recognition referendum by advocating an indigenous constitutional body … no doubt Textor was imparting his negative view on Uluru to his Liberal Party colleagues”.
The implication is clear: that Malcolm Turnbull’s sudden rejection of the proposal a few months later was informed by this view.
Since the book was launched, Textor has dismissed Morris’s characterisation and Recognise co-chairman Tim Gartrell has rejected her “minimalist model” claims, saying that “what’s now important is for everyone to unite and support the Uluru Statement and I look forward to all Australians getting behind it. It has my support.”
It might seem all a bit “inside baseball” but it matters, because indigenous constitutional recognition addresses a profound gap in the national story: the fact the First Australians were not consulted over what civic society should look like.
But imagine if they had been, Morris writes: “if indigenous heroes like Pemulwuy, Windradyne or Jandamarra had sat down with (Sir Samuel) Griffith and (Edmund) Barton … to draft the constitution. And imagine if these indigenous representatives had been viewed by their colonial counterparts not as subhuman or inferior or as members of a ‘dying race’, but as equal, empowered and worthy of fair and negotiated inclusion in this nation’s founding agreement.
“It’s likely,” she concludes, “they would have negotiated themselves a voice.”
The road continues still, with yet another parliamentary committee appointed to examine all the previous work, having advised recently that it will continue to push for the voice proposal.
Its final report, due at the end of November, must surely light the way forward to a resolution.