Noel Pearson (above) is an accomplished speaker. The measured delivery, the rather engaging drawl reinforce the impression that here is a man of great intellect. And also of charm – when he wants to exercise it, as he did in a recent interview with Chris Kenny. As a major and influential figure in this Voice debate, his comments warrant scrutiny. Here is a transcript of that interview with my comments interposed.
Kenny: I’m talking to indigenous leader and chief voice architect Noel Pearson, and I want to pick up here in the discussion where we’re talking about how partisan the debate has become, especially given that he [Pearson] started this process almost 20 years ago by engaging with then Prime Minister John Howard.
Pearson: I felt that we could have got common ground with him. And at the 2004 election we were slow. We were slow to step up to the Prime Minister at that time. But in those three years, from ‘04 to ’07, I continued to make representations to him about, you know, this. This is a legacy issue, Mr Howard for you. And it’s going to be so important. That is why he gave the commitment to constitutional recognition at the 2007 eve of the federal election.
Kenny: And he’s a vocal opponent of the Voice.
Pearson: And that’s such a pity. Because the legacy of this success – and there is going to be success because I’m absolutely sure of it. We are going to succeed in this. That legacy is in large part his, because he kicked the ball off in 2007. It’s just an act of political history that finally the Conservatives lost office last May. Albanese. He came in. Absolutely convicted about moving on that agenda. And it wasn’t, it wasn’t a new agenda. This was the agenda of the Morrison government, and it’s such a pity bipartisanship has fallen apart.
Whatever the Morrison government intended, or might have delivered, it is highly unlikely it would have been anything like Anthony Albanese’s Voice. As far as I am aware, the furthest the Morrison government were prepared to go was with a legislated Voice.
Kenny next tries throwing Dr Megan Davis under a bus.
Kenny: Now there have been some furphys and some toxic rhetoric on both sides of this debate leading up to the campaign. On the yes case, you must have been very disappointed about Megan Davis and her extra pages in the Uluru statement. It is a furphy, but she’s used some pretty loose language that’s allowed for this confusion, hasn’t she?
But Pearson’s having none of it.
Pearson: Well, and so have I right? I’ve been, you know, I’ve been driven by anxiety and urgency and so on. And six weeks ago, I realised I realised no. That we’ve got to offer Australians a vision of positivity. Of reconciliation. If we’re going to talk reconciliation, then our actions have got to show reconciliation. I think I’ve learned the big lesson from this. Certainly, my advocacy has always been in favour of reconciliation. I made a commitment to myself that in in the advocacy of this referendum, I am going to appeal to the better angels of our nature including my own.
In other words, he worked out the stick wasn’t working, so now it’s time for the soft-soap. But Kenny’s not letting Davis off the hook that easily.
Kenny: Yeah, that deals with some of the rhetoric and some of the aggression in the debate and you making those statements about your own recognition and the way you want to go forward. But what about Meghan Davis and talking about 26 pages of the Uluru statement. Now I know think she went on to say that there’s the statement at the front, then all the background material, but it’s created a hell of a distraction, hasn’t it?
He can’t let it go, can he? I’ve covered what I call the Battle of the Uluru Statement here.
Pearson: Well, the no campaign has certainly attempted to exploit that. I think it’s important to focus on the provision. The statement was the invitation, but we’re actually not voting on the Uluru statement. We are voting on those 92 words that have been passed by the Parliament to amend the Australian Constitution and those words are very simple. They’re very straightforward. I urge every Australian to read them. They’re in plain English and they start with the words ‘in recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people as the first peoples of Australia’. I think those are the most important words.
So, we are not only to forget all about Document 14 but also the one-page Statement as well. Just concentrate on the vaguely worded referendum question, the fatal flaws of which I have addressed here. Just accept the “gracious invitation”.
As to the graciousness of the Statement, there is nothing gracious about it whatsoever. For example, it offers no recognition of the fact that Aborigines now live in probably the most successful multi-cultural nation on earth, a nation in which they have full rights along with everybody else, and that the vast majority of people who identify as indigenous are vastly better off than they would be had the Australian continent not been colonised or colonised by some European power other than Britain. And finally, they weren’t the first peoples of Australia. The concept of ‘Australia’, and the Constitution that defines it, only came into existence, embryonically in 1788, and effectively in 1901. Captain Arthur Phillip’s shipload of convicts and Marines are just as much ‘first peoples of Australia’ as Pearson’s ancestors.
Kenny: There’s a bit of history there isn’t there?
The much-heard “60,000 years of Aboriginal history” is another of those myths people like Albanese trumpet loudly and most people accept without thinking. A collection of myths that have evolved over time is not history.
Pearson: Yeah, absolutely. When we make that acknowledgement, I think we take a mighty leap forward and we have that in our Constitution of all places. I mean it’ll be a great achievement and it will send a signal through the ages. It’ll be in the Constitution in 200 year’s time. Our children, our descendants will read it and they’ll understand that in 2023 the nation came together in a referendum and they decided to insert these words in our national Constitution.
But it won’t just be those words, Noel. It will also be the Voice. Will we still need the Voice in 200 years’ time? Will there still be a gap that can only be addressed by a constitutionally entrenched body? Will we have another referendum so that we can remove the Voice and then re-insert recognition into the preamble? I will suggest an answer to that question in my conclusion.
Kenny: The main No argument is that a voice would be racially divisive. If there is an advisory body that’s only open to people of Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander descent. Why is that not racially divisive?
Pearson: Well, firstly, the actual democracy doesn’t change. Our democracy is based on Parliament. We elect people into Parliament and nobody, other than the Parliament, has the power to make laws for us because we elected them. None of that changes. Parliament is Supreme. Parliament has legislative responsibility for defining the voice or regulating the voice. This is a Voice from the outside into the Parliament. It doesn’t affect our democracy in any way. We all have an equal opportunity to make representations to Parliament. It’s just that we don’t have a mechanism for a collective view on the part of the first peoples to be gathered together and put to the executive government.
Parliament is not supreme. The doctrine of the supremacy of parliament refers to the relationship between parliament and the Crown. There are checks and balances in our system. The Crown, in the person of the Governor-General, has a degree of power that may be exercised in defiance of parliament in certain circumstances. But more importantly, in this context, the judiciary, in the form of the High Court, also has the power to overturn executive government decisions. Pearson is quite wrong to say none other than the parliament has the power to make laws for us. The High Court makes common law, as it did with Mabo, and the more recent Love and Thoms cases. The High Court has the power to interpret the Constitution and this is where the Voice expects to flex its muscles. The Voice architects have based their entire campaign on the fact that parliament is not supreme.
Kenny: What about some of these very sensitive issues, like treaty, like reparations, like truth telling, even? These debates will go on regardless of whether or not there’s a Voice. If there is a Voice, surely the Voice will deal with these issues, make recommendations on these issues?
This is the first time I can recall Kenny actually broaching these ‘sensitive issues. You know, the ones outlined in Document 14. The ones that are allegedly “irrelevant” to the Voice debate.
Pearson: There’s any number of issues that the Voice will make representations about, but remember what the actual clause says. On matters relating to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. I mean that that’s the real subject of representations and the Voice will talk about various subjects in order to be influential. It can’t be silly. It will destroy its credibility if it comes out with outlandish advice. You know, Parliaments and governments will ignore outlandish advice and any sensible proposal that comes from the Voice will have to be considered. The government in Parliament of the day will have to consider the ramifications and what those proposals are and make the decisions accordingly.
So, what would you consider “silly” or “outlandish”, Noel? A treaty or treaties? Reparations? A truth-telling commission? Changing the date of Australia Day? Reserved seats in Parliament? Some form of ‘sovereignty’? Are these out of the question? Many Australians, if current polling is any guide, already consider these outlandish.
Kenny: On October the 15th, if the referendum successful, we know there’ll be a lot of work to do to design the legislation. Put it through Parliament and move on with that agenda. What will it be like, what will happen on October the 15th, if the referendum fails?
Pearson: We’re going to have to, the country will have to take stock of the meaning of No. Because, No will mean no movement. It will mean the status quo. But it will also mean that we will have tried a path forward. And we will have failed. I think the cost will come with that. Certainly, leaders like me, who proposed a moderate path through the centre, well you know we will be in a situation where we proposed a moderate path and we failed. And what more do we have to contribute? I really think that it’s a scenario that will be so disappointing for the country.
I think this is a path we need to seize. This is the moment we need to seize. It’s going to be good for indigenous people, but it’s going to be, more importantly, good for Australia that we do this. This is a moderate proposal, but it is a very profound proposal that I think we have everything as Australians to gain from – black and white, Indigenous and non-indigenous. We have everything to gain from this. And nothing to lose. I really believe that.
Let me quote from my book The Indigenous Voice to Parliament – the No Case:
Prime Minister Albanese is trivialising this complex proposal when he describes it as ‘only good manners’, ‘a hand outstretched in friendship’ and a ‘generous invitation on the part of our first nations people’. He is treating you as a simpleton. Albanese is playing with fire here. By treating this as a moral issue – selling it as a simple proposition and just good manners – rather than what it really is if it gets up – a significant change to our Constitution and a major concession to Aborigines – he is failing in his duty to manage expectations. He has said ‘a defeated referendum would be devastating to Indigenous communities’. They will see a defeat as a rejection of Aboriginal people. As nothing more than racism. They will also be angry, but not at Albanese. If it fails – as it should – and if, as I predicted earlier, violence breaks out, Albanese will bear much of the responsibility for this. If this referendum succeeds it will not unite us closer than we already are and if it fails, Albanese is making sure that it drives us further apart. It is hard to imagine a more irresponsible way to prosecute such a major change to our Constitution.
Are Pearson’s words a veiled threat? He also made a comment which I have decided to address last. He said:
Pearson: We all have an equal opportunity to make representations to Parliament. It’s just that we don’t have a mechanism for a collective view on the part of the first peoples, to be gathered together and put to the executive government.
In an article in the September issue of Quadrant Chris Battle and Keith Windschuttle note:
We should be mindful that Aboriginal activism had its genesis in the Communist Party, as revealed in Geoff McDonald’s Red over Black (1982) and The Evidence (1983), and so we should be fully aware that the activism behind the Voice still holds to the old party-line doctrine of liberating the oppressed victims of colonialism and capitalistic imperialism. Nor should we forget the radicalism of the Aboriginal Tent Embassy in Canberra (which still exists) and its communications with Gaddafi’s Libya, Mao’s China and the Black Power/Black Panther movement in the US …
However, it is not difficult to perceive that it may well become a de jure version of the Tent Embassy, and therefore concern itself with making representations at the various foreign embassies, and assembling delegations bound for the United Nations and the World Court in regard to their grievances as per their standing as oppressed Indigenous First Nations Peoples. The new “recognition” in the Constitution will verify their acknowledged status as being the culturally, politically and racially separate nations who pre-existed and survived European colonisation.
Pearson’s use of the word ‘collective’ is a dead giveaway. It totally contradicts the lie put around that this is all about getting targeted advice from the grass roots. In fact, Pearson’s own experience – of raising almost $500 million to foster the Cape York Peninsula communities numbering some 3,500 people – shows that intervention at the grass roots level, even by a well-qualified and well-intentioned Aboriginal community leader is an uphill battle and can only be expected to yield results over generations rather than decades. The ‘gap’ exists despite massive efforts on the part of well-intentioned governments across the country, and because of a policy of encouraging or tolerating mindless adulation of a culture that reached its use by date in 1788.
This is not about encouraging the development of individual agency among disadvantaged Aboriginal people and bringing them into the wider Australian community.
What Pearson means by a ‘collective view’ is an Aboriginal population dragooned into an identity-based polity, all singing to the same discordant anthem of treaty, truth-telling and a separate form of sovereignty.
This Voice is a political organisation, and it will be populated by politicians intent on pushing their own vision. Their vision is something that never existed – a unified Aboriginal nation. Aboriginal communities will be pressured – subject to emotional blackmail – to conform to this vision. The Voice will dictate to them what their grassroots advice to Parliament and government should be. The fact that most, if not all, members will be selected rather than elected further points in this direction. You can bet that only those who conform to the vision will be chosen.
Look no further than the Northern Land Council experience under Yunupingu, as exposed by Keith Windschuttle, to get a feel for how this ‘collective view’ might play out.
Warren Mundine, more than anyone, has made it clear that remote Aborigines, as opposed to the urban elites, do not see themselves as part of a collective and they do not share the same interests.