Noel Pearson: recognise our place in nation

, - December 24, 2011

CAPE York leader Noel Pearson has broken his silence and backed controversial recommendations to create a new section of the Constitution for indigenous Australians, declaring that changes to the nation’s founding document are essential to address Aboriginal disadvantage.

Writing exclusively in The Weekend Australian, Mr Pearson, who champions an “Aboriginal responsibilities” agenda, says he now considers problems with the Constitution to be at the core of indigenous debility.

Mr Pearson argues in favour of removing “race as a concept from our national Constitution” but insists on the insertion of a separate clause that “properly defines the place of indigenous Australians in the nation”.

“I am convinced that the constitutional characterisation and treatment of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders as members of a race is why the national Constitution does not work as a framework for wellbeing for the country’s native peoples,” he writes.

“. . . (but) it would be historically and culturally obscurant to demand that ridding our nation of the false concept of ‘race’ means we must also erase that which is indigenous.”

Mr Pearson’s explanation is a vigorous endorsement of the recommendations of an expert panel, of which he is a member, and a challenge to others on the conservative side of the political debate who are railing against the proposed changes, including ALP indigenous leader Warren Mundine and Tony Abbott’s federal Coalition.

It is understood the expert panel on constitutional reform has recommended the nation’s guiding document be altered to recognise indigenous culture and languages, remove racist sections and create a new power to legislate for the “advancement” of Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders.

The panel is due to hand its report to Julia Gillard and the Opposition Leader in January, with a referendum to follow at or before the next election.

Former Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission chairwoman Lowitja O’Donoghue, who has been named as the gatekeeper of black opinion by Mr Pearson, yesterday warned against going “too far” and said large-scale changes would be unlikely to receive mainstream support. “I am worried that we will not get a successful referendum if we ask too much,” Ms O’Donoghue said.

“My view is we need to calm down and be moderate about it. We need to get recognition in the Constitution and leave all those issues that we’ve been on about forever for another time.”

Ms O’Donoghue said that the thought of the referendum failing “terrifies me”.

“We need recognition as the first Australians, and I think that is about as far as we should go really at this point,” she said.

“But I do support it being in the body of the Constitution, so that really is what I want. I think (the panel’s recommendation) probably goes too far. I agree with them that it should be in the body of the Constitution.”

Mr Pearson said before the panel started its deliberations that Ms O’Donoghue’s views were crucial to the success of any suggested change put to all Australians at an election.

“If any proposed reform does not meet with Lowitja O’Donoghue’s blessing, as an indigenous elder of Australia, then it will go nowhere,” he said. “At the same time, if it does not meet with John Howard’s blessing, as a conservative elder of Australia, it will be equally doomed.”

Mr Pearson’s explanation of his position in The Weekend Australian today seeks to accommodate the polarised policy positions in indigenous affairs – bringing together the “rights agenda” of left-wingers such as Larissa Behrendt with the responsibilities agenda with which has has been associated. “I have always believed that indigenous rights and responsibilities are two sides of the same coin. They must both be in place,” he says.

Mr Pearson stressed he remained devoted to his work in Cape York, which tackled indigenous disadvantage by rebuilding indigenous responsibility.

“However there are features of our condition as indigenous peoples that I believe have their ultimate explanation in the constitutional framework within which our peoples are located.”

Members of the government-appointed expert panel are furious that elements of their report are already being campaigned against, begging for calm and for the entire document to be read before people rush to judgment. The panel has decided to play a dead bat until the Prime Minister received its report despite growing opposition to some of its key recommendations.

In the strongest comments from the Labor side of politics against the changes, Mr Mundine said he thought the creation of a new section of the Constitution that said laws could only be created for the advancement of Aborigines would lead to legal disputes over what advancement was.

Mr Pearson believes the advancement clause is essential. “We need to recognise the indigenous cultures and languages of the country as part of Australia’s national heritage, whilst also affirming the country’s patently British-derived institutions, culture and language,” he writes.

“There will be a point at which the argument of conservatives who wish to eradicate race will be at odds with our argument, and that is in relation to our argument that being indigenous is a legitimate category – and it is not a racial category. To recognise indigenous or native connections of people to territories is not a racial characterisation. To equate indigenous recognition with racialism is an easy off-the-cuff argument, but it is not a sustainable one. It would be historically and culturally obscurant to demand that ridding our nation of the false concept of ‘race’ means we must also erase that which is indigenous.”