Beyond black and white

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Rose­mary Neill

FROM land­mark art exhibitions to school text­books, it’s widely ac­knowl­edged that in­dige­nous Aus­tralians have main­tained the world’s old­est, con­tin­u­ous cul­ture for thou­sands of years. Given this, it is ex­tra­or­di­nary that the Aus­tralian Con­sti­tu­tion, the na­tion’s foun­da­tional doc­u­ment, fails to men­tion the coun­try’s orig­i­nal in­hab­i­tants.

Noel Pear­son’s care­fully cal­i­brated yet of­ten sur­pris­ing Quar­terly Es­say sets out a strat­egy for how this stun­ning over­sight can be ad­dressed, via the pro­posed ref­er­en­dum on con­sti­tu­tional recog­ni­tion of in­dige­nous peo­ple.

In his char­ac­ter­is­ti­cally elo­quent prose, Pear­son to support his case draws on ma­te­rial as di­verse as the near-ex­tinc­tion of the Tas­ma­nian Abo­rig­ines, HG Wells’s War of the Worlds, an es­say by Abo­rig­i­nal leader Galar­rwuy Yunupingu and a plea to pre­serve lin­guis­tic di­ver­sity in 1700s Europe. He per­forms a del­i­cate high­wire act, as he builds a com­pelling ar­gu­ment for sym­bolic and prac­ti­cal re­forms that will be more than su­per­fi­cial, but avoid stok­ing con­ser­va­tive anx­i­eties.

Ever the po­lit­i­cal re­al­ist, Pear­son knows that if the pro­posed ref­er­en­dum is to suc­ceed, it is not enough to ap­peal to pro­gres­sives and small-l lib­er­als. He knows that if the ref­er­en­dum (the date for which has yet to be an­nounced) is to be a uni­fy­ing ex­er­cise, con­ser­va­tives will have to be brought on board, too.

After all, it is no easy task to al­ter Aus­tralia’s Con­sti­tu­tion; a yes vote for change re­quires a majority of vot­ers na­tion­wide, as well as a majority of vot­ers in a majority of states. So A Right­ful Place can be read, in part, as an ap­peal to con­ser­va­tive vot­ers and power­bro­kers, with Pear­son stress­ing how con­sti­tu­tional recog­ni­tion would em­body con­ser­va­tive val­ues such as re­spect for tra­di­tion and pro­mot­ing na­tional unity.

The stakes are high: a de­feated re­form bid would sow new di­vi­sions be­tween in­dige­nous and other Aus­tralians, but a suc­cess­ful ref­er­en­dum would be a defin­ing event in our his­tory, cre­at­ing a more com­plete com­mon­wealth and giv­ing fuller recog­ni­tion to the fact the First Aus­tralians hold a unique place in the na­tion’s story.

Pear­son is the coun­try’s most in­flu­en­tial in- A Right­ful Place: Race, Recog­ni­tion and a More Com­plete Com­mon­wealth By Noel Pear­son Quar­terly Es­say 55, Black Inc, 106pp, $19.95 dige­nous in­tel­lec­tual, and in his bold­est es­say propo­si­tion he calls for a rad­i­cal re­think of the con­cept of race. He ar­gues that to­day “there are no races’’; that we are all mem­bers of a sin­gle hu­man race, and within that race there are peo­ples with dis­tinct cul­tures, her­itage and lan­guages. He draws on some dev­as­tat­ing ex­am­ples to il­lus­trate how a his­tor­i­cal em­pha­sis on racial dif­fer­ence has been cat­a­strophic for Aus­tralia’s first in­hab­i­tants. In the 1800s, it nour­ished pseudo-sci­en­tific the­o­ries about a hi­er­ar­chy of races — and Tas­ma­nian Abo­rig­ines were ranked as “the low­est of the low’’.

He is shocked to learn, through the re­search of Bri­tish his­to­rian Tom Law­son, that even Charles Dick­ens, cham­pion of the in­dus­trial revo­lu­tion’s poor and op­pressed, looked for­ward to the day when “sav­ages” would be wiped out. Dick­ens as­sumed “sav­ages’’ — pre­sum­ably, in­clud­ing Aus­tralia’s in­dige­nous tribes — would die out “be­fore an im­mea­sur­ably bet­ter and higher power’’ (Euro­pean colonists) and that “the world will be all the bet­ter when his place knows him no more’’.

Will Pear­son’s read­ing of Great Ex­pec­ta­tions to his daugh­ter feel quite the same? He writes poignantly: “I am yet to work out whether, how and when to tell my girl that the cre­ator of Pip, Pum­ble­chook and that con­vict wretch Mag­witch may have wished her name­sake great­great-grand­mother off the face of the earth.’’

A mem­ber of the Ex­pert Panel on Con­sti­tu­tional Recog­ni­tion set up by the Gil­lard gov­ern­ment, Pear­son calls for the axing of those parts of the na­tion’s rule book he con­sid­ers racially dis­crim­i­na­tory: sec­tion 25 and sec­tion 51 (xxvi). Sec­tion 25 has been used to pre­vent in­dige­nous peo­ple from vot­ing, while sec­tion 51 (xxvi) al­lows the com­mon­wealth to pass spe­cial laws for par­tic­u­lar races, whether to pos­i­tive or neg­a­tive ef­fect. He asks: “How can a lib­eral demo­cratic con­sti­tu­tion still al­low race-based laws against its cit­i­zens … the truth is the found­ing fa­thers aban­doned lib­eral demo­cratic prin­ci­ples with re­spect to race.’’

In a sig­nif­i­cant con­ces­sion, he drops his ear­lier de­mand — still ad­vo­cated by some in­dige­nous lead­ers and pro­gres­sives — that a clause for­bid­ding racial dis­crim­i­na­tion be in­cluded in the Con­sti­tu­tion. In­dige­nous ac­tivists, he ar­gues, need to recog­nise that such a clause would only en­trench op­po­si­tion. For con­ser­va­tives fear it would lead to ac­tivism by un­elected judges who could po­ten­tially usurp the role of par­lia­ments.

But if the pro­gres­sives need to give ground, so should con­ser­va­tives, he rightly ar­gues. Be­cause in­dige­nous peo­ple rep­re­sent just 3 per cent of the pop­u­la­tion and are scat­tered across the con­ti­nent, they lack the con­cen­tra­tion of num­bers to sig­nif­i­cantly in­flu­ence elec­tion out- comes and pol­i­cy­mak­ing about is­sues af­fect­ing them. Pear­son con­tends in­dige­nous peo­ple are af­flicted with “ex­treme mi­nor­ity sta­tus’’ when it comes to po­lit­i­cal rep­re­sen­ta­tion — it is telling that there have been nine in­dige­nous Aus­tralians of the Year but just four in­dige­nous fed­eral politi­cians. To re­dress this stark im­bal­ance, he urges that a mech­a­nism be in­tro­duced to the Con­sti­tu­tion al­low­ing for a new body that would en­sure “in­dige­nous peo­ples get a fair say in laws and poli­cies made about us’’. Pear­son is vague about how this body would work, though it’s un­der­stood it would not be a replica of the dis­cred­ited Abo­rig­i­nal and Tor­res Strait Is­lan­der Com­mis­sion.

In A Right­ful Place, we don’t just en­counter Pear­son the po­lit­i­cal strate­gist, we also con­nect with Pear­son the philoso­pher. The Cape York leader med­i­tates on the ex­is­ten­tial angst of Yunupingu, who lies awake at night wor­ry­ing his tra­di­tional Yol­ngu world will be “swal­lowed up by white­fel­las’’. And he re­flects on the “ur­gent” need to do more to pre­serve en­dan­gered in­dige­nous lan­guages and songlines.

He had hoped to avoid the na­tion’s blood­stained past be­cause “the risk with his­tory is that it may pro­voke par­ti­san­ship and di­vi­sion’’. Nonethe­less, he re­vis­its the era of fron­tier vi­o­lence, es­pe­cially the near-ex­tinc­tion of Tas­ma­nian Abo­rig­ines in the first 50 years of white set­tle­ment. He con­sid­ers the much-de­bated ques­tion of whether this con­sti­tuted a geno­cide. Draw­ing on Law­son’s re­cent con­clu­sions, he comes up with an an­swer that will sur­prise those who re­flex­ively as­so­ciate him with the con­ser­va­tive side of pol­i­tics.

Pear­son does not al­ways ex­plic­itly link his broader re­flec­tions to the ques­tion of con­sti­tu­tional recog­ni­tion, which makes his es­say seem oc­ca­sion­ally dis­jointed. Nev­er­the­less, A Right­ful Place is a piv­otal and il­lu­mi­nat­ing con­tri­bu­tion to a de­bate that I sus­pect, can seem dry and re­mote to many Aus­tralians. It makes the ab­stract seem con­crete and ar­cane le­gal con­cepts gras­pable. It thus moves us that much closer to com­plet­ing what Pear­son calls the na­tion’s “un­fin­ished business’’.

A Right­ful Place,

In we don’t just en­counter Noel Pear­son the po­lit­i­cal strate­gist, we also con­nect with Pear­son the philoso­pher

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