Indigenous constitutional recognition will remain “unresolved” unless the proposed advisory voice to parliament is taken to a referendum, Noel Pearson has warned, setting up a new battle with Malcolm Turnbull over the Prime Minister’s rejection of this option.
Speaking ahead of today’s anniversary of the Uluru Statement from the Heart — the historic consensus document containing the proposal and of which Mr Pearson was a co-author — the Cape York leader said there was a “narrow window” for a breakthrough.
He also spoke of a “tremendous opportunity” for the joint parliamentary committee charged with finding a solution, led by Liberal MP Julian Leeser, “a highly principled constitutional lawyer who is like the ‘guard dog’ of the Australian Constitution” but who was also an originator of the voice proposal, and Labor senator Pat Dodson, “the most experienced politician on the subject of indigenous reconciliation”.
“At the end of the day, a voice can be legislated and will be legislated — but that’s not constitutional recognition,” Mr Pearson said, citing the last such body created in law but not in the Constitution, the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission, and the fact it could be abolished by the Howard government without any difficulty.
Should the parliamentary committee recommend another legislation-only approach, he said, “this recognition issue will be unresolved, and I daresay that advocacy for a fair deal to be made to accommodate the rights, interests and place of indigenous Australians in their own country will remain an outstanding issue”.
He said comparisons between the new body and ATSIC, disbanded in 2005 amid allegations of corruption at the top, would be a challenge if the current proposal were to win acceptance. And while discussion of the advisory body’s composition had focused on traditional owner groups, ATSIC had demonstrated regional communities would also have a role to play.
“My whole recollection of the ATSIC experience was that as bad as ATSIC was at a national level, it was very functional at the regional level,” he said. “All our reform agendas came out of the regional ATSIC process 25 years ago, and what we call the Cape York Reform Agenda has its genesis back in the Peninsula Regional Council. I think regionalism is the way to go — regions like Cape York, far north Queensland, Gulf of Carpentaria, northeast Arnhem Land, east and west Kimberley, Shepparton, the central coast of NSW, all of these regions around the country as the units of empowerment .
“ATSIC was a pyramid, and we’re talking about flipping the pyramid, putting the regions at the forefront rather than the national structure.
“If we’re going to learn from our ATSIC experience, there’s the right of each region to insist on their own view and to stand on their own position. We need a structure that enables each region to decide their own destiny.”
The pressing task for the Leeser-Dodson committee, to report by year’s end, was to come up with a model for the voice that “answers the government’s objections articulated last year after the Referendum Council’s report was provided. I don’t think that is beyond the wit of the committee to come up with a tangible voice proposal, enshrined in the Constitution, that would nevertheless answer the objections that Turnbull’s made,” he said.
The regional “interface” model allowing communities such as his in Cape York to work directly with governments, making local decisions about programs, was something Indigenous Affairs Minister Nigel Scullion was “highly engaged in” and it could become the “footprint of the voice”, he said. “I really think that’s something this committee’s got to grapple with.”