Call for a 'declaration' celebrating all Australians, one year after Uluru statement


2018 May, 29

Patricia Karvelas: It's been one year since the Uluru statement from the heart and I know that there is a lot of talk among indigenous people about where to go next, you're delivering the Lowitja Oration next week, what’s your central message?

Noel Pearson: Well I have the honour of speaking for Lowitja, I think the greatest indigenous leader I've had the great honour of working with, learning at the feet of in my earliest days in leadership and my message next week will be let's revisit the Uluru statement from the heart, let's talk about the voice to Parliament proposal, let’s also examine the other elements of Uluru, namely the makarrata commission and a truth telling process and I'll also talk about the other recommendation of the referendum Council which is a declaration of Australia. I think that there's great opportunity still in front of us to pick up the pieces of Uluru and move forward in a way that once again strives to achieve bipartisanship.

PK: Let’s talk about that because the government got the Uluru statement of the heart, of course it rejected its central recommendation which is a voice being enshrined in the constitution representing indigenous Australians The co chair of the referendum Council has recently said you either take all of the Uluru statement for the heart or nothing -  is at an all or nothing proposition for you?

NP: I think the what is very clear. You can’t detract from the what, namely that we should have a voice that’s enshrined in the constitution. I think the question we can re examine in the joint parliamentary committee process that's now in under way is the how. Perhaps we could we could come up with a model of how we do that the voice that answers that objections that have been raised by the government and particularly by the prime minister. I think the fact that we have now leading the committee the leading re conciliation leader in the country, namely senator pat Dodson, and we have on the other side of the aisle Julian, who really is the most diligent a constitutional lawyer in my view in the parliament on the conservative side. He in fact was a supporter and he helped to conceive the idea of the voice to Parliament. Julien's a highly principled man, he has a strong view about upholding the constitution but he believes that you can do that whilst at the same time addressing the historic challenge we have for indigenous recognition.

PK:  One of the central issues the government had with these voice to Parliament being essentially enshrined in the constitution is that it would have veto power and also that it would be like a second chamber, another chamber, how are you going to address that in the way that you construct the body?

NP: Well in relation to the veto, that was never going to be a, that was simply a furphy – there’s no capacity for any such body to veto the parliament. The argument was raised, well it might have some kind of moral veto, not a legal veto or a political veto, but its presence and the advice it provides to the parliament might oblige the parliament to follow its every advice. Well you would hope that the advice of the body would be taken very seriously, that is why we want to created. But at the same time parliaments a very robust place, Australian politics is a it is a very robust scene, I don't think I've never seen the day when Australian governments and parliamentarians have followed word for word what aboriginal leaders have ever said in our history and I don't think that's gonna change in the future. It’s the provision of advice, Aboriginal people will be involved in the national politics of the day and the discussion, the debates, the arguments - it'll be a matter of how persuasive those arguments are as to whether the parliament will adopt them and that's the way it should be.

PK: Talk to me about this declaration, you say that’s something you'd like action on, would you like that to happen before the next federal election?

NP: I have from day one and I still hold today even in aftermath of the rejection of Uluru last year that bipartisanship is crucial for referendum success and the optimal alignment is for a Conservative government to lead the proposition. So there's a window, I see daylight in the door, we still have a window and Prime Minister Turnbull has a very good person leading the committee - I hope Julian and Pat can lead that committee to define a new how, to design a new how, and get the thing through the door while we can still see the sunlight. The payoff for the Australian people though is not the constitutional change, it is this idea of the declaration, which is a very exciting idea I think. For the first time we're going to define for all of us a mutual recognition of who we are as Australians and the proposition that I've been pushing and I think I persuaded the referendum Council to adopt this thinking, namely that we should recognize the fact that Australia's foundations is indigenous and then we built upon it - the institutions we've inherited from Britain and we've achieved a great multicultural triumph on the top of that foundation - three parts: indigenous, the British institutions and the multicultural triumph - the immigration success. We should tell that story, the story of Australia, who we are. We're not British, we're not just indigenous, we’re three parts in a whole. I think if we could come up with some words that that really can can carry us as a people, can carry our children into the future that shows that recognition ultimately is a mirror - we're not just recognizing the indigenous people of Australia we’re actually recognizing each other. I think that is the payoff for the Australian people.

PK: That's a parliamentary declaration, something that the Commonwealth, the Parliament would pass. Could it happen quickly?

NP: It could happen quickly, it could be legislated but like though the American declaration of independence it actually needs another legal footing. It is a declaration of a people, a declaration of the Australian people. It has all of the moral weight the declaration of independence has in the United States and it could play the same role here - children could recite it at school, on the opening of parliament and other civic occasions, these words could be very salutary about who we are and what our values are. We could actually use the declaration to express what our values are –

PK: This is outside of the constitution?

NP: This is a separate to the constitution but of course related to it. It's not used, it doesn’t have any legal effect whatsoever but it tells us about our values of fair go, egality, of having a go, being able to count on each other. Whatever Australian values we feel are important to us can be expressed in this declaration.

PK: And this declaration,  that's the argument you going to be put into this committee that Julian Lesser is that is the chair of  -

NP: Yeah.

PK: Is it something you'd like to see Malcolm Turnbull as prime minister before the next federal election take on? Is that a way of healing the wounds of as you say, and I've heard it from many indigenous Australians, some broken hearts over the rejection of Uluru?

NP: I think there’s a pathway, a  very narrow pathway to doing both. I would advise against separating the two and only doing the declaration. That will make a mighty important, mightily important concept, we would probably devalue it. In fact Julian came up with the idea of the declaration, he and his colleague professor Damian Freeman, proposed the declaration in 2015 and I was very taken with it.  I think together with an amendment that enshrines an indigenous voice. Now, when we talk about the voice, the alternative way to answer the question how, is to build of the voice at the local level,  not at the National level – let’s recognize regional voices across Australia. Now people like Warren Mundine and other people, Tim Wilson and Warren Mundine actually proposed in a paper, in a very simplistic way, the voice to parliament you could see is a pyramid, Well Warren says flip the pyramid and put the regions, put the voices from the ground at the forefront and recognize them rather than the kind of pyramid. I’ve got a lot of sympathy for that view and I think we should, this committee should really examine this alternative approach but it is an approach that says let's do it in the constitution –

PK: And there's no other way of doing it? You've previously said it needs bipartisan support, we know that the coalition is very resistant to this. This is this is a very entrenched view in the Coalition, so you can't get a referendum passed –

NP: I'm hoping that the entrenched view is against the monolithic structure. I think those same entrenched of years in opposition should open their minds, whether they're interested in recognising not a monolithic structure but regional structures that represent voices from the ground up. In the conservative tradition they call them the small platoons. There’s two options here, one is the one we've been discussing and that has been rejected by the Conservatives, namely a monolithic voice. The alternative is this more akin to conservative philosophy idea of  the small platoons. Both proposals need to be considered by the committee and I hope that Julian and Pat Dodson will be able to thread the way through this very narrow gap in the door that we have that I'm still very hopeful about.

PK: You were very critical of the prime minister's rejection of this and also his language about the third chamber, have you had conversations with him since your very outspoken critique of him?

NP: No I haven't and I was obviously was shattered after the rejection of the voice. I thought it was very unfair to characterise it as a third chamber of Parliament. I'm hoping that this idea of a bottom up voice, the small platoons voice actually makes it very clear this is not a third chamber of parliament. This is about recognising indigenous representative structures out on the ground is not about creating a third chamber of parliament. I think that a line, the flippant line put out by Barnaby in the first instance and then carried by the prime minister and other members of the government, I thought that was highly unfair that they characterized it like that because it is a deliberate mischaracterization. At the same time I've moved on, you have to in this game. You gotta pick up the bundle again. Having done so I see that this committee that's underway as our best chance. It may be a last chance for a while, but this is our best chance. If we go into the future with the Conservatives kind of saying you know we said no and that's it well constitutional recognition will be over and will be over for this generation. Yes, we could legislate structures and we could always legislate  like parliament and always legislate but it won't be recognition. Opportunity to achieve proper recognition is the one that's before us with Malcolm Turnbull as prime minister with Bill shorten as opposition leader –

PK: So the window is now

NP:  We were shattered out of the road with the same sex marriage thing, referendum council report and then this is SSM truck came blasting up the highway, we had to step aside, that has been done. The same number who supported SSM have supported constitutional change, recognising indigenous people through the voice. We had the same bowling numbers. I think the path Prime Minister should really sit down and think about –

PK: How about the idea of a plebiscite perhaps to figure out if there is support for your idea before any referendum?

NP: I think you know it's not for me to call for that. I think that Pat and Julian's committee should really consider that - what is the pathway for convincing Parliament that there are the numbers, the Australian people are well disposed toward this. Remembered sixty something percent were polled by News poll and other polls in favour of a constitutional reform through the voice and that was after a very concerted opposition by the government to the idea. Now imagine if we could come up with a model that satisfied Prime Minister Turnbull that he could take to the Australian people and advocated for the Australian people. I think in a in a scenario like that we could very well –

PK: Do you think it’s something he could take to the next election?

NP: I has to be done before the next election or at the next elect –

PK: This is a very tight timeframe.

NP: This is a very a tight timeframe. The committee's going to interim report soon and final report in November. The planets lined up very quickly with same sex marriage in the end and I think that we should give indigenous Australians a similar chance.

Call for a 'declaration' celebrating all Australians, one year after Uluru statement