Reconciliation is not just about recognising Indigenous Australians, Noel Pearson told a spellbound audience at The Property Congress. It’s a chance to “look in the mirror” and to redefine our nation.
In 21 months’ time, Australia will commemorate “that fateful boat” and the “extraordinary mariner” Captain James Cook, who first landed in what he named Stingray Bay, on 29 April 1770.
“How will we deal with the moral challenge that the arrival of this ship confronts in us?” Pearson, the lawyer, academic, land rights activist and founder of the Cape York Partnership, asked.
“Was this a discovery? Was this an invasion? Was this the arrival of the greatest mariner of the Pacific? Or was it the equivalent of Columbus and Cortez? What are we supposed to teach our children?”
Australia needed great national leadership now more than ever, but we were currently “leaderless”, Pearson said, “unable to interpret our own past, deal with it in the present, and forge a future”.
Great societies bring together three political philosophies – conservatism, socialism and liberalism – and visionary leaders sit at the “great radical centre” of all three, he argued.
Instead, Australia was “riven on the polarity”. We were allowing “the 15 per cent on the polls to run the national debate with 140 characters”. The “great middle” – that political sweet spot at the heart of the Venn Diagram – was “lost in the discussion,” Pearson said.
He admitted that it was a “Herculean task” to convince nearly all Australians to put their hands up for Constitutional recognition.
In 2017, a constitutional convention at Uluru brought together more than 250 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander leaders. The majority resolved, in the ‘Uluru Statement from the Heart’, to call for the establishment of a ‘First Nations Voice’ in the Australian Constitution and a ‘Makarrata Commission’ to supervise a process of ‘agreement-making’ and ‘truth-telling’ between governments and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.
For more than 200 years our laws presumed this land was ownerless. We “clung to that myth” of Terra Nullius for two centuries before the High Court disposed of it on 3 June 1992 with the Mabo decision. The lack of recognition in the Constitution shows that “we are hanging on to frail untruths. To frail myths,” Pearson said.
We each “owe a duty” as Australians, Pearson said, to read the Uluru Statement of the Heart. “It is the offer of the terms of peace from the people who occupied and owned this country for 65 millennia.”
While remaining an advocate for constitutional recognition, Pearson also outlined his own declaration, or moral statement, which he said could bring our nation together.
“Three stories make Australia: the ancient Indigenous heritage, which is its foundation, the British institutions built upon it, and the adorning gift of multicultural migration. That is who we are.”
The future of our nation rests on a “return to a government that is committed to the brilliant centre – bringing the best of the left and right together, melding the contradictions and forging not just a lazy centre but a highly ambitious centre,” he said.
What should we, as Australian citizens, do as Indigenous people continue to push for recognition?
“This is your country. This is the country you define,” he said, urging the audience to engage in the debate. There was only “one thing worse” than Australian people saying no to a “very modest proposal” for Constitutional recognition. And that was never having the question put to them in the first place.
“Recognition isn’t just about recognising the blackfellas. Look in the mirror and recognise yourselves. That’s how profound this debate is.”