Noel Pearson: A First Nations Voice and What It Means for Australia: Queensland Media Club

Noel Pearson: A First Nations Voice and What It Means for Australia: Queensland Media Club


Thank you Barton[1] and thank you to this club for your kind invitation to speak to you at this extremely important time for us. I want to acknowledge the first nations of this region, we bring greetings from Cape York Peninsula.

I want to say firstly I’m a Queenslander, educated in this town, at St Peter’s, down the road[2], best years of my life. My Queensland identity comes to the fore when Origin is on and so on. I have many identities, many layers, we all do.

Cape York is a singular identity for me, I also identify with my mother and father’s first nation the Guugu Yimidhirr people from Cooktown, the landing point of Captain James Cook in 1770, and my mother’s language Guggu Yalanji down towards the Daintree, between Cooktown and Port Douglas.

We all harbour these various identities in our breasts and some of them come to the fore, some of them we share with our family some of them we do not.

I think I’m one of Australia’s leading advocates for the greatness of the poet John Milton, none of my family share that passion.

Of course Rugby Union is a great community that I distinctly share the conviction it is the greatest of all of the games, I thought I was a contender once but I was like a Mark Ella trapped in a kind of Kim Beazley body.

Amartya Sen[3] said that it’s a problem when citizens of a nation make fundamental one aspect of their identity, be it religion or political identities or ethnic identities. Sen argued in a 2005 book identity and violence, that we should better appreciate the layers of identity that turn over in our breasts, and avoid fundamentalism in those identities. We should acknowledge the big communities and small communities that we are part of, and in my observation on Sen’s concept of layered identities, I argued that we should connect the two ideas with Rob Putnam’s idea in Bowling Alone[4] that there are bridging and bonding identities. These identities that bond us to those that are close to us, we need to create bridges with strangers. And a successful nation is one which has a whole fabric of bonds and bridges, excuse me for that metaphor, but we need lots of bridges and lots of tight bonds to create a successful multicultural society, a successful nation. We should abjure the idea that our ethnic or religious identities are somehow identities that trump everything else.

We will not succeed in a multicultural future unless we nurture bonds and bridges.

My indigenous identity is of course is extremely important to me as it is for all indigenous peoples, but it is not my only identity, as an Australian I share identity with the Lutherans I have more brotherhood with people in South Australia in the Barossa valley coming from Germany because of our religious connection, we have a certain theological view that binds us together in a history of Lutheran missions that binds us together.

So let me urge the idea of layered identities.

Two recommendations were made by the Referendum Council of which I was a member to the Prime Minister and Leader of the Opposition.

The first proposed a single change to the Australian Constitution and that change was to enshrine an Indigenous Voice to the parliament to advise the parliament in relation to laws and policies affecting Indigenous Australians.

Over the course of the past ten years, probably a dozen ideas have been floated in relation to how this question of recognition in the constitution might be put into effect.

And after all of the various enquiries and reports and public consultations, the last of which was a comprehensive process of twelve regional dialogues right across the country from the Torres Straight to Perth, from Dubbo to Broome, from Cairns to Hobart. These dozen dialogues of indigenous representatives landed on one constitutional reform, and that is to enshrine the voice. A significant degree of pragmatism was involved in proposing a single simple proposition. The Dialogues could have argued that five or six different changes should have been proposed but the course of the dialogues lead to one inexorable conclusion which was that the most important measure that needs to be taken is to give Indigenous Australians a voice in the democratic process of the country. That was recommendation number one.

The second recommendation didn’t propose any constitutional change. The second idea was for there to be a declaration with no foundation in the law, a declaration akin to the declaration of independence in the United States, which has no constitutional foundation. The idea was put forward by two young constitutional conservatives, Damien Freeman and Julian Leeser MP, where they proposed that the symbolic recognition of our history and the place of Indigenous peoples in Australia be set out, not in the preamble to the constitution, but in a declaration outside of the constitution. Their argument was that this symbolic recognition would be more handsome and fulsome as a document separate from the basic law of our constitution. We wouldn’t wrangle we wouldn’t have teams of lawyers arguing in a mille mouthed way every word in the declaration, as we would necessarily have to do, if it was in the constitution.

So those are the two ideas, an enshrinement of an indigenous voice to the parliament, not a chamber within the parliament, but the right to advise the parliament from the outside.

So these lewd suggestions that we are proposing a third chamber of parliament debase the idea that has been put forward. It simply is not correct.

In my view these two ideas are compelling, they are modest, but they are also substantive. They would give effect to the empowerment of Aboriginal and Torres Islander people. They would advance the cause of reconciliation and closing the most egregious gap in social and economic circumstances of our people. Australia has the most egregious gap between its original people and the settlers. There is no country on the face of planet Earth that has the gap that we see in Indigenous Australia. A wealthy country blessed with so much fortune, with a splendid constitution, in every respect, except in respect of its indigenous peoples.

So, the structural change that must happen is that indigenous people must have a place in the democratic process which enables them to provide official advice to the parliament in relation to laws and policies that apply to them.

Let me say, that this whole recognition debate has almost come full circle, the question of how do we recognise indigenous people has come full circle to the idea that how do we recognise each other? Because to recognise indigenous people is like looking in the mirror, to finally recognise yourself as Australians. So the idea of the declaration that I would argue is one of mutual recognition, Australians recognising each other because we have never done so. Let me talk about three important dates.

The three most significant dates in our epic long history as Australians.

The first is 63 thousand years before Christ, that is the story of Australia and it is not the story of Australia that we currently recognise. 63 thousand years before Christ extending up to this date 25 January 1788, the eve of British colonial annexation of Australia. Imagine that stretch, 63 thousand years before Christ right up butting up against the day the first fleet claims sovereignty over the East Coast of Australia. That’s one part of Australia and we have made no provision for its recognition as a definition of who we are and what is our heritage.

The second important date is of course 26 January itself, at Port Philip with the annexation of sovereignty over Australia by the British crown and the settlers coming over on the shore and the law of emblem falling from their shoulders to become the law of the new land.

That is a part of Australia that most Australians recognise, there has long been recognition of 26 January 1788, even though at that time there was no Australia, there was only the colony of New South Wales. Australia would never actually come into the parlance until well into the nineteenth century and the first official time that the idea of Australia became law, was with federation in 1901, a Commonwealth of Australia became a legal entity in 1901 with federation. And it was an act of British parliament that gave birth to the idea of Australia.

The third important date, is March 1967 up until 1973 when the last vestiges of the white Australia policy were disbanded. The new Commonwealth of Australia was based on racial preclusion, not only were the indigenes not counted in the census and the Commonwealth parliament precluded from making laws in relation to them, but Chinese and other aliens, were also excluded. And we didn’t get rid of the white Australia policy completely until 1973 starting with the Holt government in 1967 and Whitlam in 1973.

Those three dates are to me, the most important because they define the three parts of Australia, the first part being the indigenous foundations of this country, the heritage of the country, extending back to such a distant past that it defies our imagination, it defies our imagination the idea that peoples occupied this land for 65 thousand years and made the epic journey out of Africa that long ago.

The second part of Australia is of course the arrival of the British institutions, the architecture of our democracy and the arrival of all of the bane and the benefit that England had to offer, and the British isle had to offer our nation.

Those institutions today of course inure for the benefit of all of us, not the least the Chinese and the indigenes, those institutions are a great privilege, they form part of the privilege of being Australian.

The third part of our story is of course the great migrant triumph, the great triumph of multiculturalism. We have made as good on our migrant bounty as any nation as ever done.

Those to me, are the three parts of Australia that we can now recognise in a declaration of mutual recognition. And when we recognise the other we will recognise ourselves. The declaration is not just a matter of recognising the indigenous peoples, in fact, a lot of people in the regional dialogues around the country said “why should they recognise us, shouldn’t they receive some recognition from us, aren’t we the ones that should be doing the recognising?”

So the declaration of recognition is one that tells those three stories of Australia, the indigenous foundations of the country, the British institutions, long may they survive, and our migrant triumph. That is the story of Australia.

Finally we can thread together the story of Australia, the story of Australia is not just 26th January 1788 but 26th January 1788 is of course a crucial part of that story.

One of the crucial issues in relation to the challenge ahead for us, is whether we can enjoin the Australian people in accepting a constitutional referendum that enshrines the voice to the parliament, a modest but profoundly substantive idea, and the second question is whether we can tell in new poetry our story as a people, not an exclusive story of the 26 January but a story that tells of the three parts of Australia.  My faith is in the Australian people. My faith is not in the politicians, my faith is not in the commentators, my faith is not in the political process, my faith is in the Australian people. And the challenge ahead for us, is to ensure that the political leaders have faith in the Australian people that we can make good on the opportunity, this is a real opportunity for us. This is not the time to kick the can down the road, this is not the time to bequeath to our children and grandchildren an ongoing festering grievance and alienation. Now is the time. Some generation has to step up and do that which we have not done for a hundred and ten years. So my faith is in the Australian people, the gift of constitutional change is a gift of the Australian people, which is why I have been a steadfast believer that conservative Australians are capable of leading this change.

I’ve always said, Nixon has got to go to China and I’ve worked assiduously with conservative constitutional advocates on the idea that we can uphold the Australian constitution whilst at the same time recognising indigenous Australians.  Do not be cynical about this, do not be cynical about past experience. This is not like any other constitutional change, this is a profound question about the nature of Australia and our identity as Australians.

I say that some of the commentary, sadly from some political leaders, is verballing the Australian peoples. They say the Australian people are meaner than we think they are, that they are too conservative to embrace a change, that they are too fearful of the changes that are proposed, that they will not be capable of understanding the issues that stake. Well I say to those, people who say that, that they are verballing the Australian people, that is not the Australian people I sense. Our strongest advocates in this debate of the recent years have come from the conservative end of the spectrum, those people who think about the constitution every day, they are our strongest constituency, one of the most effective organisations in disseminating some of the ideas that have finally landed not the least the idea of a declaration, is a group of a constitutional conservatives who have opposed changes to the constitution in the past. These are people who safeguard the constitution and they believe the constitution can be upheld and yet recognise indigenous Australians.

So to this club I say, you are Queenslanders, we need the people of Queensland, the media, the political leadership of this state to be at the forefront, all of the great issues in indigenous affairs, have happened in this state, Eddie Mabo not the least. All the great changes and the reforms have come from Queensland, and we need this club, and the political leadership of this state, to understand that we must lead the country, we must lead the country, this is a chance that comes around so infrequently, we are in the tenth year of our advocacy of this opportunity and I feel that within the next year, we have the real opportunity for Australians to put their hands up for this reform and as I say this is a question ultimately to be determined by the Australian people and I believe the Australian people yearn for the resolution of this issue, what is this whispering in our hearts, that the great colonial lawyer Richard Windeyer asked in Sydney town in the middle of the nineteenth century he said “what is this whispering in our heart” and so we have now a real opportunity as long as the politics can thread together, as long as we have the good will and not the cynicism from the public commentator and the media, and political leaders, I believe we can reach a genuine reconciliation of the original peoples and this great nation.

Thank you

[1] Barton Green, Three Plus

[2] The Queensland Media Club lunch was held at the Brisbane Convention Centre.

[3] Amartya Kumar Sen, CH, FBA is an Indian economist and philosopher, who since 1972 has taught and worked in the United Kingdom and the United States.

[4] Bowling Alone by Robert D. Putnam


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