Bennelong Papers

Poignancy, Pathos & Constitutional Piffle

aborigine familyBuried in the text of Noel Pearson’s opinion piece in The Weekend Australian — “Indigenous people need a lot more than just symbolism” — are some poignant personal disclosures. However, ironically and probably unintentionally, Pearson’s story-telling, his identification with his ancestral past and hopes for the future, illustrate the reasons symbolic amendment of the Constitution is a waste of time. Here’s Pearson:

“I have been musing this week how far we have come and how far we have yet to go in respect of the people who crossed the Torres Strait Island land bridge more than 53,000 years ago, travelling down Cape York Peninsula to occupy all corners of this continent.

Last year I said the stars and planets were lining up for constitutional recognition.”


“My half-century turned up last week. I went to Binirrigu where the Cape Bedford mission once stood. I told my children stories of the ancient history written in the country where my father’s father’s fathers walked the country. I look at the Guugu Yimidhirr children playing on the beach and hunting in the mangroves and wonder where they will be in another half century.”

Now I admire Pearson. He is a clever man and by far the best and most effective advocate for Aboriginal people. And it’s not as though he hasn’t outlined sensible and practical approaches to remedying Aboriginal disadvantage. Indeed, his might be the most incisive and realistic voice on this matter. But there he is in The Australian  in all his splendid ordinariness, a man in the second half of his life, wondering about the future of people who are important to him (and many others he doesn’t even know) when he will be long gone. His imagery is evocative, including his invocation of expanses of time that would dazzle anyone other than paleontologists and cosmologists.

He sets the scene rather well – telling family stories and writing of watching children play and hunt in the mangroves. Nice stuff that I’m sure he wants to continue. But the nation doesn’t owe him his dreaming. He has also spoken of other scenes – poverty, drug addiction and violence — that I’m sure he doesn’t want to continue. This is the bit we can all agree on. But this also is an argument to be had with modernity, or not at all.

Here’s something really racist but profoundly modern. While those Aboriginal kiddies were hunting and playing in the mangroves (school holidays?), other kiddies were studying to be dentists and doctors, finding their feet in the modern world in which we all must live.  Pearson’s fantasies that things just might stay enough the same — that modernity will not overtake and destroy traditional culture, that stories will be retold, even in the same languages — are understandable. But for all that, he has less chance and no more right to see his personal vision fulfilled than do the rest of us, regardless of colour and/or race.

Pearson’s imagined vista is symbolically richer and grander than most. However, in the great sprawling suburbs of modern Australia we also hope to live long enough to see our children have children of their own. There is nothing peculiarly Indigenous about this desire; it is a universal given. Will our kids’ children live nearby? Will they even speak the same language as their grandparents? They won’t ask our permission, that’s for sure.

Pearson’s connection to all those people (and their present-day descendants) who crossed the northern land bridge manifests a popular collective fantasy. He can no more ‘own’ those ancestors than he can hold all those years in the palm of his hand.  This mysterious evocation of oldness and connectedness, though probably not entirely a modern creation, is not dissimilar in its naiveté and sophistry to the way naturopaths misappropriate modern physiology to explain their witch’s brews. “We make remedies from the roots and berries of the ancient forests to increase the production of the serotonin re-uptake transporter in the neuronal membranes” or something like that. Sounds nice, but such concoctions don’t work unless you have a disease caused by having more money than sense (a genuine epidemic, come to think of it). In Pearson’s skillful crafting of words and themes these ideas are appealing, but his recourse to pathos shouldn’t be one of the arguments underwriting constitutional change. Simply put, cloying sentiments and appeals to emotion cannot be a backstage pass to get active in the wings and re-work the Constitution.

And please, no more of the ‘voices’ thing. No more ‘talking’ and ‘listening’. No more ‘same again, but this time with feeling’.  When we start mixing anomic idioms like ‘first peoples’ and the ‘voices’ thing, we get exactly what we should expect from a cocktail of myth and nonsense. The ‘voices’ coming out of this first people’s club do them no credit. On Monday, Mick Dodson, the maestro himself, wasted yet another radio interview with more drivel about ‘racism’.  Is it racist to expect more from a movement’s leaders than incoherence about racism?

The world is in real trouble, beset by people who should know better than to confuse symbolic thinking with reality. Islamic primitivism is the latest and most egregious example of this. Sure, Pearson is entitled to his deep sense of personal meaning, and I hope it sustains him into old age. Still, that’s up to him.

As to the rest of us, the last thing we need is more of other people’s symbolic aspirations written across our lives.

Murray Walters is a Brisbane psychiatrist

2 thoughts on “Poignancy, Pathos & Constitutional Piffle

  • says:

    The Recognise campaign is a potentially disastrous affair for Australia as a nation and for indigenous people in particular. So far we have heard very little opposition to any form of recognition but such opposition exists in spades and more of its voice is sure to be heard along the way. Whichever way the proposed referendum goes, the processes leading up to it is bound to generate much acrimonious debate, the bitter residue of which will linger for a long time. It is extremely disappointing of Tony Abbot – good intent notwithstanding – to be one of its chief instigators and proponents.

    Regarding Pearson, in a recent ABC interview he repeatedly emphasised that an effective form of recognition would finally enable his people to “fully participate” in modern Australian society. How can a usually rather sensible indineous leader utter such absolute nonsense?

    Bill Martin.

  • Jody says:

    This is a beautifully written and coherent piece. Congratulations for adding a piquant flavour to a debate being forced upon a sated populace; sated in the sense described here – pictureque, naive, motherhood statements which should be the province of a poet or a cook – not an intellectual.

    It seems to me the aboriginal people haven’t been through the Grief cycle and are sadly still trapped in the “Bargaining” phase:


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