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Put recognition back on radar: Pearson

07:00am May 17 2018

Cape York leader, Noel Pearson, remains positive about finding an “alternative pathway” to Indigenous constitutional reform. (Emma Foster)

Prominent Indigenous leader, Noel Pearson, has called on Australian leaders to “act with a sense of urgency” to get Indigenous constitutional recognition back onto the social radar, eyeing an opening following the resolution of the same sex marriage plebiscite.

Speaking ahead of the deadline for submissions to the recently appointed Joint Select Committee on Constitutional Recognition, Mr Pearson told Westpac Wire that despite the government’s October dismissal of the Referendum Council’s recommendations, alternative pathways could gain support from the Prime Minister but only if the community comes behind the council’s centrepiece call for the Uluru Statement from the Heart.  

He reflected that “the wind was knocked out of our sails” as public debate swelled around the government’s decision to hold the ultimately successful same sex marriage plebiscite earlier this year, referring to momentum that had been building in support of reform to recognise Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in Australia’s constitution. He pointed out that polls showed the same level of support for the Indigenous “Voice to Parliament” – a key tenet of the Uluru Statement from the Heart – as for same sex marriage.

“We were put on the backburner. I think we need to put this back on the front burner and take advantage of the fact that the majority of the Australian people would back us on this,” he said, adding that the “Voice to the Parliament” concept was a “modest, but also profound” proposition.

“The constitution says that the parliament has a special power to make laws about Indigenous people. The crucial idea behind the Voice to the Parliament is that when you make those laws, we should have a right to have an advisory say over the exercise of that power, to have a voice in our own affairs,” Mr Pearson said.

“We want that to be a constitutional voice and not just legislated, because previous voices have been silenced through the repeal of legislation.”  

In its response to the concept, the government said it “did not believe such an addition to our national representative institutions is either desirable or capable of winning acceptance in a referendum”.

Mr Pearson remains firmly in disagreement, arguing the idea of having a voice is “part and parcel” of the process of empowerment for Indigenous people. He added that the Referendum Council didn’t recommend how the Voice to Parliament should be designed, which would be a decision for the parliament, and argued that an alternative pathway to achieve this could be found.

“The goal that everybody’s seeking here – all Australians of goodwill – is to close the gap on disadvantage,” he said. “Part of the process … is Indigenous people needing to have a say in relation to the laws and policies that apply to them. We'll end up with better laws, better policies and better programs if there's a dialogue between government and the people affected by it.”  

Another key tenet of the Uluru Statement from the Heart is the formation of a “Makarrata Commission” to oversee the agreement between governments and First Nations of the “truth-telling about our history”.

Mr Pearson said makarrata is a Yolngu word which means “the coming together and shaking of hands after a conflict or struggle”, a notion he believed could be key to “breaking through into the national consciousness”.

“It was actually part of the language we were using back in the 70s and early 80s, as a way of capturing the idea of a treaty, or a national agreement or compact, so we picked up that idea again,” he said. “This traditional notion of people who have been in conflict with one another, then come to terms with one another could be quite powerful.”

Amid heightened discussion about whether corporates should get involved in social and political causes, Mr Pearson said support from corporate Australia was “crucial” to help create a “movement” behind the Uluru Statement from the Heart.

“We need to help build a groundswell of people who read the statement and say ‘Yeah, what’s wrong with this? This is supportable’,” he said, adding he remained “really optimistic” of positive changes.

Westpac has supported the work of Noel Pearson’s Cape York Institute through its long term partnership with Jawun Indigenous Corporate Partnerships.

Emma Foster is a freelance writer. Previously, she led Westpac Wire and was a key contributor until December 2022. Prior to joining Westpac in 2013, she spent almost 20 years in corporate affairs and investor relations, primarily in large financial services and consultancy firms, in Australia, UK and Europe. She is also a photographer and podcaster.

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