Brisbane, November 19, 2014 (Aloochonaa): During the Sir Paul Hasluck Foundation annual lecture at the Queensland Conservatorium, members of the local Aboriginal community interjected vehemently against Noel Pearson’s speech for a reconciled Australia. The available video footage speaks for itself. I encourage you all to view it in the hope that it will open a space for a conversation about the place of Aboriginal people in what is often a homogenised and simplistic narrative existence of the Australian nation.
Pearson was speaking about his views on reconciliation and Aboriginal responsibility through his current stance on the recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in the Australian Constitution. Pearson wrote on this issue in the most recent Quarterly Essay. This essay attracted wide spread attention, leading to reviews and an appearance on ABC’s Lateline.
Pearson’s current approach is moderate in that it addresses the legal and political realities of achieving recognition through a referendum while also being focused on giving Aboriginal people more of a say about their daily lives through a recognition of their very real concerns. The details of achieving this approach are limited, however, but Pearson has spoken of a national representative body for Aboriginal people.
Powerful and emotional words were used to express what has been a long held criticism of Pearson: that he speaks for or on the behalf of other Aboriginal people when he shouldn’t or that he proclaims to be representative of all of Aboriginal Australia when he is not. I am not condoning the language or the interjection, but simply stating there are very real and important reasons behind it.
The particularities of this criticism are complex and involve a great deal of history tied to a number of different issues not all of which are directly related to Pearson. The criticism speaks to wider issues in the Australian political and legal landscape whereby Aboriginal people are essentialised by successive public policy programs, resulting in situations where people like Pearson are proactively sought as ‘good’ representatives by non-Indigenous Australia, and hold a monopoly on Aboriginal agency.
Being Heard; Being Acceptable
An example of Pearson’s influence is highlighted by the description of him in the The Australian as ‘the Aboriginal advocate most admired by the nation’s establishment and intelligentsia’. The key issue is not Pearson’s stance on constitutional recognition, which as a subject in itself is a complex conflation of law, politics and morality, abstracted further by any number of unexplained normative tautologies – the concept of individual equality against the backdrop of Indigenous rights and sovereignty is just one example.
Nor is it Pearson’s place in the Australian community. Indeed, Pearson is successful, educated, well read and well-spoken, leaving little doubt that he would be welcomed to the ‘establishment and intelligentsia’.
The key concern surfacing through those interjections is the continued exclusion of alternative and critical Indigenous voices in the recognition, reconciliation and broader debates. The visible outrage displayed by the audience member speaks to the desperate experiences of silenced Aboriginals.
The political demand is always for acceptable voices: moderately conservative even. Pearson is acceptable – despite often experiences of temper and hard fought advocacy, Pearson says all of the right things that are acceptable to the nations ‘establishment and intelligentsia’.
The acceptable mantra is Aboriginal responsibility. The problem however is that while this mantra remains within the acceptable confines of ‘closing the gap’ and economic progress, Pearson is seen to apply his own contextual experiences of the Cape York to the rest of Australia. In doing so he is glazing over, perhaps ignoring, the substantial causes of inequality and disadvantage in the rest of Aboriginal Australia. Moreover, these policies and conventional debates with a heavy focus on Aboriginal responsibility fail to account for the non-Indigenous elements and causes that have always existed as a significantly generative part of the ‘Aboriginal problem’.
This mantra is not Pearson’s own, as he does speak in far more detail about the need for change across Australia. But he is tarred nonetheless due to his proactive engagement as one of the few acceptable advocates.
Aboriginals that don’t speak and act like Pearson and that spend their time talking about Aboriginal ontologies and sovereignty aren’t acceptable. Aboriginals like myself. Why aren’t we concerned about jobs, health, education and child sex abuse? About closing the gap? Of course I am. However, these are the only issues the dominant narrative of Australia permits when the others – such as the complete dispossession of Aboriginal land – remain critical in society based on wealth production as a measure of social standing.
The indignant response from the crowd in the Sir Paul Hasluck Foundation annual lecture says it all. But we need to realise that without interjection there is no other stage or platform that other Aboriginals can speak from, or have influence, like Pearson does. This is a problem within Indigenous affairs, but one that is further polarised by constitutional recognition.
Aboriginals have always been treated exceptionally in Australia. Exceptional in that they were seen as being animalistic and incapable of civilization; exceptional in that they needed protection from whites and from themselves; exceptional in that they could not be allowed to own private property, marry without permission or move about freely without exemption; exceptional in that they are now expected to forget and overcome all of this – to overcome the complete and total dominion of themselves and their land to achieve ‘parity’.
This is the history and contemporary experience of many – not all – Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders. It is a lived experience that carries with it the very real affect of intergenerational issues such as poverty; issues that are directly related to the total dominion mentioned above. Australia has not waved its wand and created equality as is so often imagined.
Recognition and the Future
The recognition debate represents a genuine transformative moment for the Australian nation with respect to these ‘exceptionalisms’: Pearson would agree. However, there is a distinct lack of critical engagement with the issues in play or the alternative voices of those that are supposedly being recognised outside of the mantra of Aboriginal responsibility and unity. This is not a new issue for Aboriginal people.
The current federally funded ($10 million) campaign to recognise Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in the Australian Constitution has been humming along for some time now. There is no alternative campaign that receives funding, nor do they publish dissenting – or alternative – opinions.
To this end, the Recognise campaign website presents as a who’s-who list of prominent Indigenous and non-Ingenious community leaders lending their support. Supporters include the current Prime Minister Tony Abbott and most of his predecessors and colleagues; national sporting stars including Adam Goodes and Michael O’Loughlin; and business leaders from CEOs Gail Kelly of Westpac to David Thodey of Telstra.
There is undoubtedly a groundswell of support for Indigenous recognition. What remains most troubling, however, and what provides relevance to Pearson, is the fact that this debate ‘hums’ – according to seemingly established tracks of dialogue – rather than crashing through the ‘acceptable’. The point being that it appears to be the same people with the same interests being consulted again within the same boundaries about what Aboriginal recognition is and how it will be achieved. Once again, it is others – now with their acceptable few – that are formulating exactly what it is to be an Aborigine.
These are not small issues. Constitutionalism is a complex in its own right, and indeed the concept of recognition itself is perhaps even more complex. But these are not issues that haven’t been researched or practiced in some way before providing insight into what could be. There are genuine alternative voices, not in the least those emanating from other Aboriginal people, which should be heard. Pearson unfortunately becomes entrapped in the game. Rather than looking to what Australia is willing to accept, Australia needs to crash through in order to be able to imagine and achieve what Australia could be.
*Edward Synot is a PhD Candidate with the Griffith Law School at Griffith University. His research is focused on the issues of sovereign authority in the constitutional recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. Edward is a Wamba Wamba Aboriginal Australian.
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