Symbolic indigenous recognition for all of us

, - June 4, 2018

The Australian
Noel Pearson

In my address to the 50th anniversary dinner of this newspaper in July 2014, I first proposed the concept of the three stories of Australia as follows:

Our nation is in three parts. There is our ancient heritage, written in the continent and the original culture painted on its land and seascapes. There is our British inheritance, the structures of government and society transported from the United Kingdom fixing its foundations in the ancient soil. There is our multicultural achievement: a triumph of immigration that brought together the gifts of peoples and cultures from all over the globe — forming one indissoluble commonwealth.

We stand on the cusp of bringing these three parts of our national story together … with constitutional recognition of indigenous Australians. This reconciliation will make a more complete commonwealth.

The following year, Julian Leeser, now Liberal MP and co-chairman of the Joint Select Committee on Constitutional Recog­nition Relating to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples, together with Cambridge philosopher Damien Freeman, proposed that the recognition of indigenous Australians could be achieved via a declaration outside of the Constitution. Their paper was published by Uphold & Recognise, the organisation they founded of constitutional conservatives committed to recognition. The declaration would set out symbolism, with an accompanying constitutional amendment by referendum setting out the substance.

Leeser and Freeman’s concept was that such a declaration would have no legal footing but it would have moral, social and cultural power akin to the US Declaration of Independence. I was taken by their idea and came to think that a declaration outside of the Constitution would be an appropriate place for symbolic recognition — the better place for poetry — as long as it was in addition to substantive constitutional reform.

The Referendum Council’s report last year recommended constitutional reform establishing a voice, as well as a declaration outside of the Constitution.

I agree with Leeser and Freeman that the Constitution is not the place for symbolic language. As Australia’s basic law, it is our rule book, establishing procedures, institutions and the distribution of power. This is why I support an institutional voice for indigenous Australians within the Constitution and a stand-alone declaration outside of it.

Leeser and Freeman propose a national competition to develop the wording of a declaration. In my oration in Adelaide this week in honour of Lowitja O’Donoghue, I proposed seven terms of reference for a declaration.

First, it should bring together each of the three parts of Australia: its indigenous heritage, its British institutions and its multicultural migration.

Second, it should honour each of these three parts as fully as possible.

Third, it must deal with the events at Sydney Cove in 1788 from two perspectives, from the perspective of invasion and from the perspective of settlement.

Fourth, it must honestly deal with the bad and the good of history in as straightforward a way as we can muster.

Fifth, it should commit us to the stewardship of our land for future generations.

Sixth, it should commit us to making good on the Uluru Statement from the Heart.

Seventh, it should set out our most characteristic values as Australians.

Liberal MP Tim Wilson has produced a draft and broadcaster Stan Grant produced a draft in an essay in the book Shireen Morris and I edited last year, A Rightful Place.

In the spirit of generating ideas for a declaration I have produced a draft, which I presented in my Lowitja Oration, which you can read here. It 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.