'The start of a long, arduous trek'


2017 May, 26

SABRA LANE: Delegates have burnt the midnight oil in Uluru, working through the night to nut out resolutions that most convention attendees will be happy with.

Leaders acknowledge that that package will have majority support: it won't be unanimous, following the walk-out by a small number of participants.

But it's clear the final statement will involve much more than constitutional recognition.

Queensland Indigenous leader Noel Pearson joined me a short time ago:

Noel Pearson, thank you for joining AM this morning.

NOEL PEARSON: Thank you, Sabra.

SABRA LANE: How will history be made today?

NOEL PEARSON: This is base camp. This is really the start of a long, arduous trek across a vast continent.

I think this is a very important opportunity. It's one that many Indigenous peoples have been fighting for, for a long, long time.

I want to tell you a story about my own part in that journey. In 2004, Patrick Dodson and myself and other leaders around the country attempted to bring together some kind of understanding with the Howard government.

That was in 2004. We were anticipating the 40th anniversary of the 1967 referendum and thought that, in the twilight of the Howard government, there might be some softening of the heart and he might seek to remedy his legacy in relation to Indigenous Australians.

I think personally, there was a prospect of that. And we attempted to work together in what became the Lingiari Initiative.

Of course, it didn't come together.

The only thing that we did extract from Mr Howard was his election eve commitment to recognise Indigenous Australians in the constitution. And of course, he then disappeared from political history.

And I've been reflecting in the early hours of this morning that it is now 10 years later.

SABRA LANE: You've finished discussions at around four this morning, local time. Have you come to an agreement - a rough agreement as to what will be presented to the conference this morning?

NOEL PEARSON: Yes. We're presenting a draft statement from the centre. It is a statement that captures a series of 12 dialogues that have gone on for the last five months, from all points of the compass in Australia.

But it also captures what has gone on here at this culminating convention.

The themes are notorious. They're well known, Aboriginal people have been talking about these problems and their aspirations for the future for many decades: many, many long decades.

If you go back in time, to the beginning of our modern political struggle, you'd have to be going before 1937, the 150th anniversary of the coming of the British to Australia.

This is a long struggle we've been involved in. And we just stand on the shoulders of these giant activists, agitators and advocates that have gone before us.

The themes are well known. The challenge for the current generation is to conceive a strategy that would answer those aspirations but, at the same time, kind of thread the camel through the eye of the needle, you know: a majority of voters in a majority of the states.

SABRA LANE: That is a huge challenge for you. You know all too well: 44 referendums in Australia, eight successful. The ideas that you present today will be more than constitutional recognition. There's talk of treaty or sovereignty.

How do you bring the rest of the country with you?

NOEL PEARSON: I think getting them to understand our aims here is going to be important.

My aim is to uphold the Australian constitution. I think it's an important document that underpins our country and we are not here to trash it or to radically overhaul it.

What we can do is amend it, to do that which was not done in 1901: to include the Indigenous peoples in a rightful place in their own country. And so this idea that our challenge is to uphold the constitution and to recognise the Indigenous people.

Secondly, I think, there's no doubt in my mind that all of the parlous social misery of our people is linked to our structural powerlessness. We're the most - per capita, the most imprisoned people in the world.

Our children are away from their families, living in foster care, at rates greater than probably any human population across the face of the earth. And our juveniles are legion in number in institutions.

And that cannot be because we are innately criminal, or that we do not love our babies, or that we do not hold hopes for our young.

There's a structural issue here: a structural issue of disempowerment. 

And the place that power starts in our country is the constitution.

And we can no longer be token about this question. We've got to fully empower Indigenous people to have a voice in their own destiny; and a destiny that will succeed or fail because of our own contribution to it and our determination to lift ourselves out of our parlous condition.

SABRA LANE: That voice: is that an elected body to advise Parliament? Or does it also include specific seats in Parliament?

NOEL PEARSON: Well, those are the options that are being discussed this week and will be subject of an ongoing process of consultation and negotiation with Parliament.

The important concept for constitutional change is one that myself and other people have been championing for a while: that is, that we need our own national Indigenous voice.

It will be a political voice. You know, in order to have good policy and good laws enacted by the Parliament, Indigenous peoples need to have a say. And they need to have a national voice in our democratic system.

And so we believe that this concept of enabling First Nations of Australia to advocate with Parliament on bills, but also to advocate with the executive government of the day, what programs and policies applied to our people.

That process of active democratic engagement through an institutional voice, that cannot just be arbitrarily gotten rid of, as ATSIC (Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission) was.

With all the justification, perhaps, of the removal of ATSIC, the fact is: we have gone more than a decade now without any voice in our own affairs. And I think that has really compounded our problems and our predicament.

SABRA LANE: During the convention yesterday there was a discussion about treaty and sovereignty. It prompted a small walkout, but you gave a rallying cry to the gathering that lifted people's spirits. What did you say to them?

NOEL PEARSON: I made the connection between the Anangu people and their connection with this: Uluru. An extraordinary place, first time I've visited in my whole life and completely overtaken.

I think all Australians should come to this place to understand the question that we're facing here with this recognition.

But the argument I made was to connect an opinion, describing what is of the essence of the Indigenous relationship with the land. It is a relationship between the people and Mother Nature, the land from which they we're born; and the connection they always maintain with that land and the fact that they will return.

The words are: "thither to be reunited with their ancestors". It is that link between the people and the land, between the living culture and the living people and the bones of their ancestors in the land, which is what we're talking about here.

It is what makes Indigenous people's claims to their homeland so unique.

And I think people resonated with that understanding. And that is an understanding that we seek greater recognition of in Australia.

This is a relationship that is important not just for the First Nations themselves, but is one that, increasingly, we need to educate the wider Australian community about their connection with this country.

It is a shared connection and it is one that ultimately will bind the original peoples and the new peoples together.

SABRA LANE: Noel Pearson, thanks for talking to AM.

NOEL PEARSON: Thank you, Sabra.

SABRA LANE: Indigenous leader Noel Pearson.

'The start of a long, arduous trek'