Beyond black and white
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