Indigenous affairs in deep crisis, says Pearson

Noel Pearson began his address at the National Press Club speaking in his native Cape York tongue.



It was translated by a 12-year-old from the region, whose great aunt has been teaching him to keep the language alive.


“(through translation) My heart is very large for all our children. They are learning to speak, read and write in the white people’s language. English. But they are not leaving our own language behind. They will not forget our language.”


The activist and lawyer took a swipe at Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull’s innovation agenda.


Mr Pearson says instead of focussing on business and product innovation – social and policy innovation should be prioritised.


He argued that the solutions don’t lie on either side of politics, but rather can be found somewhere in the middle.


“The real solutions lie in that elusive centre and it is in the parliamentary process that that centre is most needed. More innovation will come from connecting the left and the right in the parliamentary process than any amount of politicians trying to be latter day Steve Jobs trying to do product and business innovation. Policiy is the main business of our parliament and better policy design through a politics that aims to locate that higher centre is the real challenge of innovation.”


He says to that end, a new centrist political solution – or party – is needed.


“If politics is necessarily about tension and struggle, then the radical centre is the highest compromise. The radical centre is the policy and political source of innovation. If you want innovation, then keep exploring the tensions between the left and the right. Keep hunting for the centre. Creativity and imagination are the means to locating it. The glaring omission in Australia’s political landscape is the absence of political representation hunting for that centre. We need a new Democrat with new philosophy, with a higher purpose than simply keeping the bastards honest.”


A bipartisan Referendum Council formed last year is carrying out consultations on a referendum to recognise Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in the Australian constitution.


It will later this year advise the federal parliament on the next steps and what the question will be.


Mr Pearson – who is a member of council – says he is optimistic about the process.


“I think we are about to embark on a process of discussion within Indigenous Australia through a series of conferences this year. I think the planets are lining up and the question will be down to how well we conduct that process during 2016. There are people who say that we should put the question on the 50th anniversary of the ’67 referendum in May next year, that has not formally been adopted by anyone. But there are many I think challenges for us to come to grips with. I think the question will ultimately come down to, ‘Is the model that we finalise, does it ‘genuine recognition?'”


But when reflecting on the state of Indigenous affairs in Australia, Mr Pearson made this assessment.


“Make no mistake, Indigenous affairs is in deep crisis. We are seeing good things in isolated areas but not seeing the tectonic shifts that are needed.”


Since 1967, policy relating to Indigenous Australians has been set in Canberra.


Last year, eight Indigenous communities released a report seeking to change the way policies are created and implemented.


The “Empowered Communities, Empowered Peoples” paper called for more decision making at community levels with less direction from governments.


Noel Pearson is one of the leaders behind the report and has expressed disappointment at the lack of engagement with its proposals.


“There has been no proper engagement in the ideas we’ve proposed and the institutions that we believe are necessary to rationalise that relationship. The reforms we propose will in fact minimise the necessity of having a ministry of Aboriginal affairs or indeed – eventually a Minister. The idea that a single Minister can pick winners in a complex policy market would not be tolerated outside of Indigenous affairs. Ministers cannot determine what is right in any particular context and what project also work, rather, ministers should create the systemic solutions for communities to strive for development within the parameters of an enabling policy.”