After a meeting between Indigenous and political leaders on constitutional recognition, Noel Pearson tells Lateline’s Emma Alberici he wants to see a constitutional body set up to represent Aboriginal Australians in Federal Parliament.
EMMA ALBERICI, PRESENTER: It was a day that started out with much promise: an historic summit of Indigenous and political leaders plotting a roadmap to a referendum that could finally recognise Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders as the country’s first people, to end what Tony Abbott describes as an echoing silence in the Constitution.
Both the Prime Minister and the Opposition Leader say the time is right for change.
TONY ABBOTT, PRIME MINISTER: I think that there is an abundance of good will. I think we are good enough, big enough and brave enough to do this, but it is important that we get it right and that’s what today’s process is all about.
BILL SHORTEN, OPPOSITION LEADER: Today was a special day. There was trust, there was unity, and dare I say it, there was some momentum in constitutional recognition.
EMMA ALBERICI: But the reality is the road to recognition will be long and hard-fought with many more meetings ahead before all Australians get to vote potentially in 2017. There’ll be a series of community conferences to discuss a possible question, a referendum council will oversee those public forums, a national convention is also likely from the end of next year.
ALAN TUDGE, PARL. SEC., INDIGENOUS AFFAIRS: Listen, today wasn’t about ruling proposals in or out. Today was about discussing some of the various options and outlining a process which we can move forward with.
EMMA ALBERICI: And it seems public sentiment is now overwhelmingly in favour of recognition. A new Fairfax-IPSOS poll shows 85 per cent of Australians support the idea of recognising Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders as the first Australians in the Constitution.
Queensland Indigenous leader and lawyer Noel Pearson, who was among those who attended the summit today, is our guest tonight. He’s put forward his own model for recognition and he wants a constitutional body elected by Indigenous people to advise the Federal Parliament when they’re drafting laws that affect Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. Noel Pearson joined me here in the studio.
Noel Pearson, welcome back to Lateline.
NOEL PEARSON, QLD INDIGENOUS LEADER & LAWYER: Thank you.
EMMA ALBERICI: How did it all go today?
NOEL PEARSON: Well, everybody gave speeches around the table and the Prime Minister allowed everyone to speak and speak twice in my case and other people’s cases who can’t stop talking. But largely the process had been predetermined between the Opposition Leader and the Prime Minister. The establishment of some kind of referendum council, I gather, was a matter of discussion between the two of them prior to the meeting. So, you know, in terms of input to the process going forward, the exercise was largely redundant, but it was a good chance to hear everybody make commentaries around where they stood in relation to recognition.
EMMA ALBERICI: What did you say?
NOEL PEARSON: Oh, I urged Indigenous conferences in every corner of the continent, in the centre and in the Torres Strait and Tasmania. I think it’s very essential that Indigenous people get their head around these issues. The Prime Minister and Opposition Leader support the idea of conferences, but also involving non-Indigenous people in towns and cities and suburbs around the place, which, you know, is a great idea as well. Town hall meetings, I think, are going to be a big feature of the recognition process over the next year or so. But my anxiety is that in terms of refining the model, we need to have Indigenous communities get their head around the questions because there’s a kind of flux of models floating around and we haven’t landed on a – and hopefully this will come out of the process going forward that because meetings are gonna need a firm idea to talk about and react to if they’re gonna be successful.
EMMA ALBERICI: What do you think the question should be that is put to the Australian people in a referendum?
NOEL PEARSON: The question should be about including Indigenous people in the democratic process of this country, to include them as participants in our robust democratic debate and policy development and law development.
EMMA ALBERICI: Aren’t they already there, and pardon my naivety, we have Ken Wyatt, we have Nova Peris.
NOEL PEARSON: And certainly the progress that’s been made with Indigenous representation in Parliament. But at the end of the day, if I ever had chosen a political path, you’d represent your seat. That’s your duty as an Australian politician. Ken has the people of Hasluck as his first concern and Nova has the people of the Northern Territory, black and white, as her constituents. And any Indigenous person or Greek or Italian person in Parliament they – of course they bring their own ethnic priorities to the table, but at the starting point, they are representatives of a seat. The question we’re concerned about is this whole thing of Indigenous people’s representation on Indigenous issues and that’s why I’ve been pushing the idea of a constitutional body that would enable us as Indigenous people to talk about our heritage, our communities, our native title and our languages and culture in a way that Parliament can hear us. So, I continue to make that argument that recognition must involve that.
EMMA ALBERICI: Isn’t that what ATSIC was, the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission, was that was abolished by John Howard in 2004?
NOEL PEARSON: In a way it was. And ATSIC was one of about more than half a dozen such structures over the last 40 years. Going back into the 1970s there was advisory councils and the like. There’ve been several permutations of them. I – Father Frank Brennan has suggested, you know, that my concept here of a constitutional body should get a trial run first, you know, we should see how it goes first before we constitutionalise it. The problem with that argument is that all of those trial runs never last because they don’t have the gravitas, they don’t have the recognition, because in order to have a real voice with Parliament, particularly when your advice can be ignored – that’s the basis of my proposition: it is an advisory body. But in order to have impact, the fact that you are a constitutional body advising the Parliament I think will add to the efficacy of the organisation and the power of the organisation. And that’s what the concept’s based in, that if it’s in our Constitution, then the prime minister of the day and the government of the day and the parliament of the day will really pay heed to an eminent body like that that’s mandated by our Constitution, but under a set of legislation that is determined by Parliament. So, how people are elected to it, on what terms, how long they sit – all those things can be determined by Parliament.
EMMA ALBERICI: The parliamentary committee on constitutional recognition that had Ken Wyatt and Nova Peris at the helm called for an amendment to protect Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people from racial discrimination. Do you support that proposal?
NOEL PEARSON: I’m the architect of that proposal, but I have expressed real technical reservations about – well, firstly, just an awareness of the political hurdle that has to be overcome in relation to that. There’s a lot of resistance. But there’s also some technical issues that have got to be sorted out about what impact a provision like that would have. I spoke about that this morning to the groups saying, you know, there’s some questions that the expert panel never addressed and the joint parliamentary committee never addressed. But I was interested to hear that Ken Wyatt seemed to deprecate the possibility of Section 116A going forward, so I don’t know what that meant when he entered the meeting this morning, that he seemed to suggest that the very thing that the committee had recommended, the non-discrimination provision, is probably unlikely to survive. So I don’t know where the Government sits on this question. It was central to the joint parliamentary committee’s report or variations therefrom, you know. There’s three permutations of non-discrimination proposals in the committee’s report. So I was very surprised to hear of Ken’s comment in that regard. I see – I see the hurdles and I’ve been trying over the last year, really, to, in anticipation of that hurdle, search for a possible alternative to that.
EMMA ALBERICI: Because I’d imagine that if you installed some kind of prohibition against racial discrimination, against Aboriginal people in the Constitution, then strategies like the Northern Territory Intervention, income management, alcohol prohibitions and so on, they would all seem to me to be discriminatory against Aboriginal people.
NOEL PEARSON: Well, not the …
EMMA ALBERICI: The Government wouldn’t be allowed to do that sort of thing any more, would they?
NOEL PEARSON: Yeah, and there’s also implications for the Native Title Act as well.
EMMA ALBERICI: Mmm, mmm.
NOEL PEARSON: There’s – and those technical issues weren’t really canvassed in the joint parliamentary committee’s report. It is a real kind of area that needs to be properly investigated and resolved. In order for any kind of non-discrimination proposal to survive, there’s got to be work done on this. And I would have hoped that the process thus far with the joint parliamentary committee might have been starting to close the parameters of a model. I don’t think we’re there yet. We’re quite a way away from resolving all the question marks about models. But like I say, I think this next phase that – a process that was agreed beforehand, as I said, between the Prime Minister and the Opposition Leader, you know, it was all very managed, stage-managed beforehand, but I’ve got no objection to that because I think the outcome is reasonable. It’s just enabled us to have nice, little speeches around the table.
EMMA ALBERICI: But the outcome is more consultation?
NOEL PEARSON: The outcome is more consultation, and as I say, if Indigenous Australia can engage in these questions because it – you know, non-discrimination is an article of faith amongst our people. You know, there’s been too much of it in the past and people are very concerned that, well, if not protection against discrimination, then what?
EMMA ALBERICI: A lot of concern being expressed about this being tokenistic. How do you ensure that this doesn’t end up becoming just a sort of empty gesture?
NOEL PEARSON: Yeah. There’s a great Italian novel, The Leopard, where one of the protagonists says, “In order for everything to stay the same, everything must change.” And that’s the danger here, you know. We could go through a process where we change a lot of things only to keep things the same. That was partly the problem in 1967. You know, we made the big changes, but we didn’t realise that. I think Professor Megan Davis spoke this morning at the meeting and she said. We’ve got to attend to the constitutional design. We’ve got to get the design right.” We didn’t get the design right in ’67, and this time around, we have to.
EMMA ALBERICI: And what of material importance can be achieved?
NOEL PEARSON: I really think that we’re gonna – with recognition, I have this great hope that my children are gonna be Australians, they’re gonna participate in the political life of this country unrestrainedly. At the moment, we’re restrained. We’re trying to settle our Indigenous issue first. And I think the next generation are not gonna have that same restraint upon them. The Indigenous issues are going to be dealt with and then they can participate as Australians in the hustle and bustle of Australian life and so on. That’s what I think is going to be achieved.
EMMA ALBERICI: Do you really think they’re held back in any way whatsoever just because of a few words in the Constitution?
NOEL PEARSON: Um, yeah – well at the moment, for example, we’re characterised as a race. That’s what the Constitution characterises us, and it infects our whole psychology, not just the black fellas, the white fellas too, ’cause the white fellas think we’re a separate race and treat us as a race, an illegitimate idea, and we ourselves have internalised that. We think of ourselves as a separate race. I think the moment we move to recognition of Indigenous first nations, we’ll enter a phase where race will just be a concept from the 19th and 20th Century that we put behind us and we as black fellas won’t have this negative idea of race about ourselves and hopefully the wider community will stop having low expectations of us.
EMMA ALBERICI: Noel Pearson, it’s always a pleasure. Thank you very much for coming in.
NOEL PEARSON: Thank you very much, Emma.