Tony Abbott's ruling out of Indigenous advisory council 'puzzling'


2015 August, 29

ELIZABETH JACKSON: The Prime Minister is back in Sydney this weekend after a long trip to Cape York and the Torres Strait Islands.

He's told journalists Australia has turned the corner on the road to reconciliation.

But he's also made it clear that he won't support Cape York leader Noel Pearson's proposal for an Indigenous advisory body to be enshrined in the Constitution.

That's come as a surprise to Noel Pearson, who says that's not what the Prime Minister told him.

Noel Pearson, welcome to Saturday AM. The Prime Minister seems pretty happy with his trip north. Do you share his optimism?

NOEL PEARSON: Oh, I think, you know, it's always very good to have the Prime Minister out there on the ground, understanding what's happening in Indigenous communities. He's made Indigenous Affairs a priority for his Government and I think this practice of going out there every year is really important.

ELIZABETH JACKSON: He says that he won't support your idea of an Indigenous advisory body to be enshrined in the constitution. What's your reaction to that decision?

NOEL PEARSON: Yeah, I found that very strange, Elizabeth, because only last week we agreed on a process of Indigenous conferences and consultations with Australians, a proper process over 12 months where nothing was to be ruled in and out.

And then I find this puzzling commentary from the Prime Minister, ruling some models out even before we've started the consultation.

ELIZABETH JACKSON: So you're suggesting that he's told you one thing and told the journalist something else?

NOEL PEARSON: Well, that's the way I read it. And I think Michael Gordon's piece in The Age makes very clear where he stands on the issue.

My point, Elizabeth, is that, you know, he's saying to everybody - and it's not the first he's said it - that, you know, if you're too ambitious, a referendum won't succeed.

Well, I would ask him to repeat another mantra, which is the kind of flipside of that point, which is: if you aim too low, you won't succeed either.

And I think if the Prime Minister's going to kind of temper people's expectations over the next year of consultations, he should say both sides of that point: aim too high and we won't get there; but gee, if you aim too low, you won't get there either.

ELIZABETH JACKSON: Why is it so important to have an Indigenous advisory body enshrined in the constitution?

NOEL PEARSON: Well, it's the alternative to the main proposal. The main proposal, Elizabeth, is a non-discrimination protection.

So if the Prime Minister is ruling out an advisory body, then he'd better be ruling in a non-discrimination protection because that's the main alternative to the advisory body thing.

And I think that if an advisory body is not viable in his view, when we would be very much expecting that the expert panel's recommendation from 2011 that there be a provision in the constitution outlawing discrimination against anyone - black, white, Aboriginal, non-Aboriginal - that at least that provision will be part of any constitutional reform.

ELIZABETH JACKSON: The Prime Minister has said that he "sweat blood" over this. Are you doubting that that's the case?

NOEL PEARSON: Well, you know, as I say: he needs to understand that aim to high and you're not going to get there. But Prime Minister, don' t think that you're going to aim low and get there either, you know.

If he thinks he can, you know, sweat the smallest amount of blood in order to put a minimalist proposition through, then he's got to realise that is going to fail.

ELIZABETH JACKSON: What does it mean now, then, for your negotiations with the Prime Minister, given that this has happened?

NOEL PEARSON: Oh, it is disturbing, I have to say, given the events of recent weeks when there was differences about how these consultations should take place.

Pat Dodson and I and Megan Davis and Kirstie Parker met with the Prime Minister a week ago and we put the whole process back on the rails. And so his comments from the northern Cape York Peninsula are somewhat disturbing to me.

And I just want to make plain to him that, you know, this... I think I've read his remarks from Michael Gordon's piece in The Age as starting to rule options out that I thought were supposed to be the subject of discussion.

ELIZABETH JACKSON: So does this discussion take the process off the rails, from your perspective?

NOEL PEARSON: No, it doesn't. But if it continues, it will, I think. Because we can't in good faith go into a process of community consultation and say that we've got options on the table here; they should be fulsomely discussed and debated.

And this implied view that only a minimal proposition has any chance of success: you know, I too would in an equal sense rule out the viability of that idea because I don't think the Prime Minister quite realises that it's not just overly ambitious proposals will fail, it is overly unambitious proposals - you know, miserable proposals - that will also fail.

ELIZABETH JACKSON: Noel Pearson, thank you.

NOEL PEARSON: Thank you very much, Elizabeth.

Tony Abbott's ruling out of Indigenous advisory council 'puzzling'