Noel Pearson’s stories from the heart of Australia
June 2, 2018
Three stories that “make Australia” are the centrepiece of a historic declaration drafted by Noel Pearson that he believes should stand alongside the nation’s Constitution to provide recognition of indigenous peoples for the first time.
The indigenous leader’s proposed declaration is specific in recognising “ancient indigenous heritage” as the foundation of Australia, followed by “British institutions” that built upon it and the “gift of multicultural migration”.
Referring to “frontier wars” between Aborigines and settlers, and arguments about British “settlement” versus “invasion”, he contends the best way to transcend debates about history is to set out both perspectives “as honestly as we can” in a declaration.
Mr Pearson says he accepts the position of Liberal MP Julian Leeser and Cambridge philosopher Damien Freeman that the declaration should have “no legal footing” and exist rather for its moral, social and cultural power, similar to the US Declaration of Independence.
But he remains emphatic that a declaration would be insufficient by itself and must be accompanied by a constitutional amendment, passed by referendum, to set out the “substance” of recognition for indigenous Australians.
“A declaration outside of the Constitution would be an appropriate place for symbolic language — the better place for poetry — as long as it was in addition to substantive constitutional reform,” Mr Pearson writes in The Weekend Australian, which has published his draft in full with personal annotations. Mr Pearson’s insistence on indigenous constitutional recognition — as proposed by the Uluru Statement from the Heart, the consensus document published a year ago of which Mr Pearson was a co-author — puts him at odds with Malcolm Turnbull.
The Prime Minister might support a non-legal recognition document but has so far stood firm in rejecting the option — based on the Uluru statement’s recommendation — of a constitutional referendum to give indigenous Australians an advisory voice to parliament.
The Cape York indigenous leader says his draft declaration, for which he provided seven terms of reference this week during an oration in Adelaide in honour of Lowitja O’Donoghue, is offered in the spirit of generating ideas. “The draft is for the purpose of illustrating what could be possible if 300 to 500 apposite words could afford mutual recognition of all Australians and make for a more unified and reconciled nation,” he says.
The “three stories” detailed in the draft declaration were first proposed by Mr Pearson when he delivered his dinner address to mark the 50th anniversary of The Australian in July 2014.
He begins the declaration with a definitive statement that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander tribes were the “First Nations of the Australian continent and its islands, possessed under ancient laws and customs, according to the reckoning of culture, from the Creation, according to the common law, from time immemorial, and according to science for more than 65 millennia”.
Calling it a spiritual notion, Mr Pearson speaks of the ancestral tie between land, or mother nature, and indigenous peoples who remain attached to the land and “must one day return thither to be united with their ancestors”.
He completes the declaration’s first section with the words, “We recognise and honour the First Nations who discovered Australia as their sovereign possession, the oldest continuing civilisation in the world.”