Noel Pearson: Brisbane Writers Festival

Good evening and thank you very much, Jane and Jonathan, for your kind invitation for me to talk this evening. I’d like to acknowledge the traditional owners and the Indigenous people of Brisbane. I think I set some kind of record tonight. I must be one of the few opening addresses that generated a crowd out the front.

I’ve broken a record before, one that I never intended to, but one that I’m surreptitiously very proud of. I wrote an essay in memory of Charles Perkins, on the occasion of the inaugural address at Sydney University, and it was published by Quadrant and Arena. And um…Guy Rundle was severely apoplectic about that and has never forgiven me. One thing the crowd out the front are absolutely correct about, is that you have invited a philistine amongst you tonight.

There’s a heap of thoughts going through my mind that I want to share with you and I might just indulge myself, by taking the opportunity to go through these thoughts.

One thing that I think is particular to our view of the future of Indigenous people and our thinking about policy from Cape York Peninsula, is that we apprehend the world of the whitefellas, in a way that I think illustrates a bit of a distance that we have, a perspective on the way non-Aboriginal people and people outside of our community conduct politics and think about politics.

My own view is that the great schools of political thinking – conservatism, socialism and liberalism – we came to view those three great traditions as really, they’re each necessary in defining a good society.

The only reason these three traditions are at each other’s throats, is because whitefellas at large, have interests in emphasising one of those traditions. People are animated by their interests in either emphasising conservatism or socialism or liberalism. The kind of driving metaphor for our development plans in the Cape York Peninsula is a metaphor that arose out of our thinking about the question of how it is that disadvantaged people might rise up in the world, how the most miserable people might take a decent place in society.

And we understood from the outset, that we no longer live in the splendid isolation of our classical culture. We live in a pyramid and we occupy the very bottom place within that pyramid. We live down in a very miserable trench, at the bottom of a relentless pyramid, where all good things go upwards and there’s a huge force of gravity keeping people where they are. And once you’re down in the trenches, it’s very hard to get up.

So we began thinking about what are the rules for progress in the pyramid. How do people rise up in the world? And our basic metaphor was the staircase. A world dominated by liberal capitalism is a world where the rules are run by a staircase. And our three-part metaphor asked the question, “What are the essential elements of this staircase?”

Well, firstly, good stairs need strong foundations. People who prosper in the world are people who have strong norms, culturally and socially. People who rise up in the world have very strong communities. They bring up their children and they respect themselves and their neighbours according to accepted norms. So that was the first part of our metaphor – the strong foundations upon which peoples or communities rely.

The second part of our metaphor consisted of the infrastructure underneath the stairs, the things that support the staircase. And we were taken with Amartya Sen’s definition of capabilities. People need capabilities to rise up in the world. Good health, good education, housing, infrastructure, opportunity. The important thing about Amartya Sen’s insight about capabilities, was that it exposed the liberal conceit that rising up in the world is just about good choices and good positions and people acting in their own interests for a better life. What Amartya Sen’s insight exposed was that in fact, in order to have choice and in order to engage the power of choice, you need capabilities. Capable people make good choices and those capabilities at a fundamental level, is the capability brought about by good health, good education and so on. A community that invests in the capabilities of its members provides good supporting infrastructure under the stairs. Of course, the agenda of investing in capabilities is largely resonant with socialist tradition – redistribution of opportunity. So Social Democrats very much identify with that part of our metaphor on how society works.

The third part, though, is a more ephemeral aspect of our metaphor. It is the stairs and the rational reasons why people choose to climb upwards. People are motivated by incentives. People climb stairs, because they see better prospects higher up and they make rational decisions in their own self-interest, to improve their lives. So the liberals are right about the importance of choice and how much of a power it is for progress.

But the other thing our metaphor told us, was that it’s individuals who climb stairs. Entire communities don’t walk upstairs all at once. That’s not how the world works. Stairs are climbed by individuals clutching their children to them and taking them a few rungs up the stairs. And the people in this room are people whose great-grandparents climbed those first few miserable rungs out of the potato bog in Ireland or the coal mine in England. And they set Grandfather up, to climb a few more stairs. And Father had the opportunity to go to university in the 1950s. And we are all now at university and our kids are heading there too. So we’ve climbed the stairs of opportunity and we’ve done so out of our own interest. We’ve utilised the power of choice to make our lives better.

One thing I woke up about, very midway through this consideration, was the fact that aside from the truth that only individuals climb, I woke up to the fact that there is no social justice forklift yet invented, to lift entire communities up to a better life. Liberal capitalism in this globe does not work via mass elevators. People progress in the world because individuals are animated in their own interest, to seek something better for themselves and for their children and it is a power of an engine. Let me try and stand between Jane and her daughter’s interest. It is a jealous interest and it is a power for good. The liberals are correct about that.

You want social progress? Well, social progress is the sum total of many thousands of individual progress. You have lots of individual progress, you have social progress. You have social progress, you have social justice. But stop dreaming that social justice is about one day, some beautiful person in government is going to invent the forklift that has hitherto not arrived. And yet we from the Liberal left, have long harboured, long harboured vague hopes that one day we’re going to hear the diesel engine kick over and a suitably, and a suitably sympathetic government is going to mobilise the means of mass uplift.

Conservatives cling. When they look at the stairs, they have a prejudicial perspective, that largely focuses on the conservative dimension of this picture. They do so out of their own interests. But the thing about our view, is that we’re highly resonant with the conservative parts of the picture. We’re not going to rise up in the world until there are norms restored in our community, where people take personal responsibility. Because you can’t build capabilities, unless you take personal responsibility.

You see, the Social Democrats got it wrong when they said, “It’s just about redistributing opportunity.” Nah. You want capabilities, the equation is this – “Opportunity plus personal responsibility equals capability.” You can have a school, but if your mother does not take responsibility for sending you there, you’re not going to develop a capability. Somebody has to take responsibility.

The Social Democrats have a view on progress that is prejudicially slanted on the infrastructure that needs to support progress – the provisioning of opportunity. And it’s an important part of the equation that resonates with us, as well. But what we would say is that you can’t just chuck social investment and social distribution willy-nilly. You’ve got to have regard. You’ve got to have regard to the fact that it doesn’t just happen through social investment. The social investment has got to support individuals making their own choices, because that’s the engine of progress. It’s the self-interest of individuals that is the starting point.

So I wanted to first say that in our view of political economy and the three great schools of political philosophy, we are completely promiscuous. We think that the three traditions have got important things to say. The second thought I wanted to share with you guys this evening, is I’m absolutely…I’m very taken with the discussion about self-interest and its relationship with altruism. You know, Adam Smith’s discussion about self-regard and other regard and the relationship between the two and our capacity as human beings to have regard for things other than ourselves and our own interests. I want to make two observations about this. The problem with a lot of contemporary thinking about the whole question of self-interest and altruism, is that too many left liberals think that we can somehow abandon our self-interest, that we can be completely altruistic. And we forget David Hume’s point that self-interest is present at all times. We never for a minute, abandon our own self-interest. It figures in all of our calculations, it is the starting point when we get up in the morning. And yet we carry on with a conceit that somehow we are singular in our capacity to transcend our self-interest, in favour of the interest of other members of society, in favour of the environment, in favour of a whole lot of important causes. But as the old leftist would say, we engage in false consciousness. We’re kidding ourselves, when we think that we are singular in our ability to cut a link with our self-interest.

Yes, we are human and we have that extraordinary human capacity to transcend our interests. But we are never cut off from them. And my great truculence in relation to the whole environmental debate and people’s concerns about the state of the planet and its…the destruction of biodiversity and climate change and so on, is that too much of this discussion takes place as if we are uniquely capable of putting aside our self-interests. We are not. We engage in conceit when we think we can. The minute our interests start getting affected with the changes that are sought, is the minute we will buck up.

And in my view, the great function of the Western environmental movement – it will not have the function of effectively confronting and solving the problems of environmental catastrophe facing the world. I don’t believe. All that the Western environmental movement will do, is that it will try to shift the costs to those who can least bear it. The Western environmental movement will try to shift the cost and it will have, in the analysis of the old left, it has the function of attempting to shift the cost to those who can least bear it.

The minute the kinds of changes that are sought affect your interests here in this room, is the minute you will turn against those changes. And this kind of schizophrenia about us not wanting our material well-being to suffer, whilst at the same time wanting a whole lot of fundamental changes made to the way we deal with the environment, is an absolute reflection of the fact that when it comes down to it, whatever we might profess is at odds with what our actual interests are.

The other point I wanted to discuss is that in consideration of the predicament of Indigenous Australians, our analysis has not just got to take into account the horizontal division between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians – the race division. We can’t understand what is going on here, unless we also understand the vertical stratification within the Indigenous community and so on. This is not just a question of race, this is also a question of class. And this is one of the issues that I address in my quarterly essay. I am not just an Aboriginal Australian. I am, in truth, a middle-class Aboriginal. And there are many, many Indigenous people who share that class position with me. And a real challenge for us is the challenge in relation to whether many of the things we believe in, represent our interests in our class status. Or are we unique in our ability to abandon our interests in being members of a class? And it seems to me that that is another conceit that we engage in. There is a middle-class black Australia and in my quarterly essay, I seek to discuss what comes down to a real challenge to the black middle-class and to the white middle-class left.

In my view, the middle-class left is, by definition, an oxymoron. There is no true middle-class left. It is within the definition of the tradition, an impossible category. And in my quarterly essay, I seek to articulate my argument in relation to this. My own view about political economy is that the left-right divide, right-left, has swung over time. It’s polarised around this way. They’re not true left and right positions, because the original critique of liberal political economy that was advanced in the nineteenth century, which was a radical critique, is not the critique that the left advance today. So the winds of political economy have swung over the past century and a half such that yes, there is a…there is a cultural and political animus between left and right today, but it is not an animus onto the original plane. It is the left’s critique. It is not a radical critique, such as when it was first invented. The threatening radical critique that was developed in the nineteenth century, in response to liberal capitalism, is not the left’s position today. And so we get to the really curious situation, where we find ourselves in relation to the predicament of Aboriginal Australians.

I’ve been an absolutely unrelenting advocate for the land rights of my people in Cape York Peninsula. We have been relentless in insisting on the land justice and land entitlement of our people and we’ve recovered a lot of lands under state legislation and under the Mabo Decision and the Wik Decision. We’ve over the course of the past 20 years, made great gains in restoring the land rights of our people, and Mabo was extremely important in that, as was the Wik Decision. Now the agenda for our development is an agenda that embraces both land rights and reform – development reform, welfare reform, our people taking responsibility for our lives, rebuilding families, rebuilding the strength in our people and never succumbing to victimhood. And we’ve been at odds with so much of the progressive thinking around what was right for Aboriginal people.

In my quarterly essay, I discuss the kind of rule of thumb that I’ve always had. And the rule of thumb that I’ve had over the past ten years is one that says, “Whatever the progressive nostrum is in relation to a particular issue, we have got to look approximately to the opposite of it for the solution.” And it’s always borne out. In searching for the right way forward, our rule of thumb is almost always borne out. If we do almost the opposite of what is prescribed, it’s almost the right thing to do. And that’s a strange state of affairs. It is strange that on too many issues, the progressive position is regressive. The progressive position would see us further unravel and make no progress. We actually need more law and order, in order to have freedom. But the progressive position is 180 degrees away from that. And in my writings over the years, I’ve sought to articulate this issue about how it is that the sails of progressive thinking are set almost entirely in a way, that I would be able to argue, is contrary to our interests.

I could give many examples of it, but one of which is say, the position in relation to welfare. My position is that we’re not entitled to welfare. We’re entitled to a fair place in the economy like you people. How is that you…you…you’ve convinced me that I have a right to $12,500 a year, per annum, average? How is that I have been convinced that I have a right to $12,500 per year, per annum? I’ve got a greater right than that. I have a right to a share in the country, like the rest of you. I have a greater right than welfare. But you see, if you condition a people to think “Jeez, we have a right to welfare and we’re going to defend it to the death,” you’re defending your right to remain at the bottom of the pyramid. (EXCLAIMS IN ABORIGINAL LANGUAGE)

With complete obedience, you accept your position down there and we in Cape York say, “No. We’ve got a better right than welfare. We have a right to take a real place in the economy, just like everybody else.” And so on numerous policy settings, we set the sails in a completely different position from the progressive prescription. And when I think about it, when I think why those sails are set in ways that could not be more calculated against our interests, against what is really in our interests, I shake my head as to how it is that a culture can produce currents that get oppressed peoples to accept their oppression, to get oppressed peoples to accept that they have a right to welfare.

And the kind of…I never thought I’d see the day. Never thought I’d see the day when Aboriginal people are protesting with young, white, middle-class greenies, that blackfellas shouldn’t have the right to say what happens to their land. Our position is that if you have a mine on Aboriginal land, you have a farm, you have a national park, the traditional ownership give consent to it. There should be an agreement about that. There’s such a thing as an Indigenous land use agreement, under the Commonwealth Native Title Act. We’ve always said that when it comes to miners, the miners shouldn’t do anything unless there’s an agreement.

And yet we come to the situation where you get Aboriginal people together with middle-class greenies who go home to their nice home with Mum and Dad, jobs, cars in the driveway, privileged good school, saying that the Aboriginal people shouldn’t be in a position to consent to an environmental arrangement, because that is self-evidently something that nobody should object to. The circle is joined in a really bizarre way, such that the Queensland Government is unilateral, without consent, in position of Wild Rivers in Cape York Peninsula, is uncritically supported by an Aboriginal rights movement that is completely disoriented as to the meaning of rights. Completely disoriented. If they were as radical and if they were as rights-principled as they claim they are, they would understand that the first thing is the Taior should give their consent.

And you know, the whole land rights movement here in Queensland, as it was all over Australia in the 1970s in particular, was all directed at trying to stop government from taking Aboriginal land. That was what the argument was over, that there was to be no repeat of what happened at Mapoon. So the Bjelke-Petersen Government finally relented in 1984 and legislation was passed that said there can be no taking of lands set aside for Aboriginal people in this state. Joh finally was brought over the line by Frank Brennan and the churches here in Brisbane, together with Aboriginal activists. They forced the National Party Government to legislate that not one square inch of Aboriginal land could be taken, unless special legislation was passed to do that.

Anna was there! Anna Bligh was there. That was what the whole argument about inalienability of Aboriginal land was all about. Inalienability. That Aboriginal people should only have land taken from them if they gave consent to it. And of course what the Wilderness Society managed to do, was that it convinced the Bligh Government that it could deliver electoral support down here in the south-east, if we were able to create on a unilateral basis, Wild Rivers in Cape York.

You guys haven’t seen a map of the Wild River areas. No-one in this room has seen a map, other than perhaps the Minister. But these are not rivers. These are not lines on the map. These are quasi national parks. They cover entire areas of land. 80% of Cape York will be covered. You see, it is because the Greens define a wild river area as a catchment. And a catchment, by definition, is anywhere where rain falls. And so, I spend ten years fighting the Conservatives for the Wik Decision, ten years calling John Howard a racist scumbag – all for Anna Bligh to take it off me in five minutes. And all because she has a sacred cause behind her. And not a word of support has been uttered by those who believe themselves to be in the cause of social justice. Not a word has been uttered.

The Wild Rivers legislation. The most cutting part of it is that of all of the responsibilities that have been taken away from Aboriginal people, this is the last dignity. The dignity of being responsible for looking after their country is now taken away from them. It is sought to be given to young 16-year-olds who run around in koala suits, then go back to their parents who work for university departments and businesses and so on, in an economy fuelled by coal and everything else. The carbon footprint of the average family of a Wilderness Society campaigner is incomparable, compared to the carbon footprint of an average Cape York family, and it absolutely disgusts me. It disgusts me that the responsibility for the country is sought to be taken away from the traditional owners and given unto the hands of…of these environmentalists. And this is after we have created in Cape York Peninsula, the largest national parks estate in this entire state.

Over the course of the last 15 years, we have created…we have doubled the size of national parks in this state. Aboriginal people have, through a process of consent, been creating new national parks and this process still goes on. But the problem with the Greens is that the 50/50 deals that we’ve done and it was on that formula 50/50 – 50 for the national park, 50 for the Aboriginal land – the problem with the Greens after 15 years, is they’ve said, “We’ve got our 50. Now we want 90% of your 50. Thank you very much for the 50 you’ve given us. Now we want 90% of the remaining part.” And the offence that this causes to the traditional owners, and the obscene thing about all this – I’m conscious that I haven’t persuaded many people in this room. Let me tell you about the obscenity of this.

We’re suffering for the sins of the farmers in Central Queensland – the people who have pulled ball and chain between bulldozers. We in Cape York, where 99% of the vegetation is still intact, are suffering for the sins of what happened in the Mulga country. But now think about this. The people out in the Mulga country, who ball and chained their properties, can now participate in the new carbon economy when they replant their properties. They participated in the old economy and they’ve got an opportunity in the new economy. But the blackfellas, who have never participated in the old economy, because all the vegetation is still intact, won’t even be able to participate in the new economy and be given credit for the preservation of the environment, because they’ve got nothing to trade. All of the land is locked up already. So blackfellas lose out in the old destructive economy and they have no foothold in the new carbon economy. We’re dispossessed at both ends, from any economic participation. And yet if you destroyed your property in 1930 or 1950 or 1980, you’re completely allowed to go back, plant new trees and get green credits in the future. The lockout of Indigenous opportunity to develop any form of economic base, even to be given credit for preserving the environment, is completely obscene.

And I…I was invited in the throes of the negotiations of the Native Title Act in 1993 and then again in 1998. I was invited to Anna Bligh’s preselection. I spoke in the cause of Wik, upon her ascension to Parliament. But it’s an extraordinary change of circumstances here, where the Bligh Government in pursuit of what the Wilderness Society can deliver at the elections, has basically sold us up the river. It has been a huge torpedo in the momentum that we’ve created in Cape York Peninsula, to get on top of our problems. It has been a huge torpedo. I have been utterly, utterly preoccupied with the Wild Rivers, when there are more important causes – children to be protected, schools to be fixed up, violence to be addressed. Those are the agendas that we’d focused on. We didn’t want to be dealing with issues that we thought there was fundamental understanding about. And the Bligh Government has completely torpedoed the momentum that we had in Cape York Peninsula in addressing our problems. And we’ve had to return to the fight on land rights. We’ve received completely absolute silence from progressive people and those who consider themselves in support of the cause of Aboriginal advancement. Absolute silence.

And you know, I just want to say that…to the organisers of the festival, that this has been a completely undeserved opportunity on my part, to speak at the opening of this festival. Possibly in retrospect, you’ll feel that it was a momentous miscalculation to invite me.

But I’ve…I’ve…I feel like I’ve come home to my…the hometown of my youth here. And I wish all participants at the festival, this weekend and this week, all the very best. Thank you.



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