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July 22nd 2015 print

Frank Salter

The Pearson Factor

The leading Indigenous proponent of constitutional recognition is articulate, possessed of a legally trained mind and keen to advance a slate of what are often radical and irrational proposals. The Recognise campaign's most visible advocate may well prove to be its opponents' greatest asset

pearson julyNoel Pearson’s recently stated opinions about the goals of constitutional recognition should concern constitutional conservatives and, indeed, anyone who values truth. He was speaking on the ABC’s Lateline on July 6, 2015. The following exchange occurred towards the end of his interview with Emma Alberici.

ALBERICI: Do you really think [your children are] held back in any way whatsoever just because of a few words in the Constitution?

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 blackfellas, the whitefellas too, ’cause the whitefellas 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.

These are not off-the-cuff ideas of Pearson’s. He has expressed the same for years, from before the release of the Expert Panel 2012 Report on constitutional recognition, of which he was a contributing author. His insistence on abstruse ideological notions of race feel like non sequiturs spliced in from a different debate. They are flawed but more importantly they are irrelevant to indigenous interests, as documented in my three-part Quadrant essay on the Report which appeared in December 2013 and January and March 2014.

Brian Roberts: 25 Ideas Well Worth Recognising

The flaws are:

First, the Constitution’s reference to “race” was formulated before “ethnicity” came into use in the social sciences. “Race” is now limited in meaning to genetically caused characteristics, usually of continental-scale populations. But in 1900 the term covered other meanings as well, including ethnic populations. So, taken historically, the Constitution refers to Indigenous Australians as ethnic groups, which they are.

Second, nothing in the Constitution “infects our whole psychology”. It is a marginal influence on Australian culture. It is ridiculous to suggest that the Constitution makes people think that Indigenous peoples are ethnic groups (or races). Social psychological research indicates that by age three normally developing children distinguish races as descent groups.[1] Not many children are familiar with the Australian Constitution. Humans are well equipped to distinguish races and ethnicities. They don’t need to be told by anthropologists or sociologists or constitutions that these categories exist.

Third, race is not an “illegitimate” concept but an observational one. It can be an inadmissible distinction in some settings, for example in public administration. It is only illegitimate as a concept in the rarefied domain of cultural Marxist ideology, which unfortunately often includes the curriculum taught to university students in the humanities and “soft” social sciences. Race and ethnicity are everyday facts about humans. A person’s ethnic ancestry can be identified by genes alone, and genetic kinship within ethnic groups is typically equivalent to that of first cousins.[2] Aborigines and other Australian voters might be surprised to learn that a leader of the Recognise campaign does not believe that his ethnic family, or any ethnic family, has a racial component.

Indigenous Australians are losing their racial distinctiveness as they marry other races. Ethnic identity can continue well beyond the blurring of racial differences because it is largely based on beliefs about descent. Ethnicity is also constituted by distinctive culture, which many Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders are also losing as they assimilate to the mainstream. That process might be regretted by ethnic loyalists, such as Pearson, but it does not make race or ethnicity illegitimate ideas.

Fourth, combining the preceding points, it is not the Constitution that makes Aborigines think of themselves as a separate ethnicity. They have that belief because they do not think the way Noel Pearson says they should, and neither does he. When he refers to “blackfellas” and “whitefellas” he speaks more sense than is found in radical anthropology. Recognising Indigenous peoples in the Constitution will not prevent fellas, white or black, from thinking in terms of race and ethnicity. And it will do nothing to alter expectations while Indigenous Australians continue to experience medical, social and economic disabilities that are not at all caused by the Constitution but by historical, cultural and genetic factors.

From where did someone as astute as Pearson acquire such confused notions? The Expert Panel’s co-chair, Mark Leibler, who mentored the young Pearson’s law career, expresses similar views. Also, the politicisation of legal studies curricula has been proceeding for generations. Law professors can be as ignorant of elementary ethnography and biology as other humanities graduates. As recently as 2010 a senior Australian academic lawyer claimed that Australia’s border protection was racist because, he thought, borders were not important in traditional societies. Ideas similar to those of Pearson and Leibler are expressed in the Expert Panel Report, which based them in part on the anthropologist Ashley Montagu, an apologist for Stalin and vilifier of white culture. It would be unfortunate if communist propaganda on racial and ethnic affairs found its way into the Australian Constitution.

Noel Pearson is the leading Indigenous proponent of constitutional recognition for Indigenous Australians. Despite (or perhaps because of) his open ethnic activism, it seems his every utterance is featured by the mainstream media and not only for political reasons. He is articulate, learned in Indigenous affairs, possessed of a legally trained mind, charismatic.

This prominence means that the success of the Recognise project rests disproportionately on Pearson’s shoulders. Should he present a powerful case to voters, they are more likely to vote for recognition. But if he commits a major blunder the overall project could suffer. Symbols and symbolic leaders mean a lot in politics.

Over the last few years Pearson has accumulated a backlog of radical proposals, without attracting much criticism from media commentators or politicians. For example, recently he upped the Recognise ante by demanding more than recognition in the Constitution. In his view a body elected by Indigenous people – an ethnic parliament – should be empowered to review all legislation affecting them and make recommendations to the government. This proposal is meant to appeal to conservatives, yet it is one of the most radical ideas put forward. An Aboriginal parliament would necessarily be supported by a dedicated bureaucracy and have a voice in public affairs much greater than the existing Indigenous claims industry. It would further separate Aboriginal peoples from the rest of society and advance the apparent goal of reversing the British conquest of the continent upon which the Australian nation is based.

Professor Marcia Langton recently warned that, should a No campaign receive funding, the Recognise referendum will be defeated.[3] Pearson’s irrationality and radicalism on the subject of race and Indigenous privilege are likely to be main targets of that campaign. Recognise’s most visible advocate could become the No campaign’s greatest asset.

Frank Salter is an urban anthropologist and ethologist who studies organisations and society using the methods and concepts of behavioural biology. His books include On Genetic Interests and Emotions in Command



[1] Hirschfeld, L. A. (1996). Race in the making. Cognition, culture, and the child’s construction of human kinds. Cambridge, MA, MIT Press.

[2] Salter, F. K. (2007). On genetic interests : Family, ethnicity, and humanity in an age of mass migration. New Brunswick, N.J., Transaction Publishers.

[3] Sarah Martin (2015). “Referendum ‘in danger’ of no campaign”, The Australian, 5 June, p. 8. http://www.theaustralian.com.au/national-affairs/indigenous/indigenous-referendum-in-danger-of-no-campaign/story-fn9hm1pm-1227383572838

Comments [3]

  1. Bill Martin says:

    It is most ironic that while the political Left – ever faithful to its Marxist heritage – enthusiastically advocates Internationalism, frowns on all nationalist sentiments; it is in favour of “recognising” indigenous Australians in the constitution. What a blatant contradiction. Apparently, only the unrestricted, international brotherhood of all peoples, united in love, tolerance and understanding, is the only way to avoid the violent conflicts like those that occurred over past centuries and millinea. Yet it is not only fair but morally essential to differentiate between ethnic groups within one nation in order to atone for past wrongs. It boggles the mind.

    As to Pearson at al, one of the most important motivation for them is the preservation of their culture. We know of a number of great cultures which thrived in different parts of the world at different times but all but disappeared. Almost certainly there were others which we have never even heard of. Is the culture of the Australian aborigines so extraordinary compared to all those that went before that it must be preserved at any cost? Is it, in fact, at all possible to preserve a culture? Or is the process of rising and declining of cultures a natural, anthropological process? It would seem utterly reasonable to assume that if that natural process were allowed to run its course, without all the well-intended interference, aborigines of Australia would gradually meld into the general population of the country. The fact is that thousands of them are already well advanced along this path but we don’t hear much about them because “good news is no news”. It is difficult to escape the conclusion that the “Aboriginal problems” will persist as long as there are people insisting on being Aboriginal instead simply Australian.

    One further thought. The campaign surrounding the “Recognise” issue will leave an extremely bitter taste, regardless which way the referendum goes

    Bill Martin.

  2. Jody says:

    Bill, you ask whether “the culture of Australian aborigines (is) so extraordinary compared to all those that went before that it must be preserved at any cost”? I think the answer to that is that we are a comparatively small nation here in Australia and the ‘aboriginal question’ is in the hands of a very shrill, articulate and persistent minority who speak into a never-silent megaphone. But, of course, these same people are not intelligent enough to know or understand about the medical mantra of “do no harm”.

  3. gardner.peter.d says:

    I read the Australian Constitution when the question of its recognition of Aborigines became a matter of public debate. I struggled to find anything in it that discriminated against Aborigines. Granted it permitted state laws to discriminate against Aborigines. perhaps someone can point out which clauses do discriminate.

    I also have trouble with ‘terra nulius’ which is claimed to mean that the British regarded the Aborigines as inhuman, as animals. My understanding is that it simply meant there was no recognisable government by a state. Therefore the British were unable to amke any sort of treaty with a government of Australia. This was perfectly true.