Garma festival: Noel Pearson warns against treaty before constitutional deal

Indigenous lawyer says people must not accept the word of the prime minister when he said it ‘can’t be done’

Noel Pearson has warned against pursuing treaty before a constitutionally enshrined Indigenous voice to parliament, warning people not “to take the word of an ordinary person” when the prime minister says it cannot be done.

The Cape York lawyer and member of the prime minister’s referendum council was speaking at the annual Garma festival in north-east Arnhem Land.

The event carries the theme of “truth telling” and has continued to push the recommendations for constitutional reform which Malcolm Turnbull last year rejected. It has also hosted discussions of treaties between Indigenous groups and state and territory governments.

“Constitutional enshrinement is a goal we can’t let slip away,” said Pearson on Saturday.

Pearson said people must not accept the word of the prime minister when he said the parliamentary voice “can’t be done”.

“We can’t be like that. We can’t be that weak. We can’t take the word of an ordinary person,” he said.

“We can’t be intimidated, we can’t be told that the Australian people are so racist or redneck [the proposal won’t be accepted].”

While treaty also formed one part of the Uluru Statement’s recommendation, Pearson urged against pursuing it before the parliamentary voice was enshrined in the constitution.

“We need a constitutional voice, a position from which we can never be shed,” he said.

“Those of us who come late to this strategy need to wake up. Treaty door is the second door. First door is constitutional enshrinement.”

Pearson’s comments came amid a broader discussion about the treaty process and the future of the voice to parliament recommendation which, along side a truth- telling process and makarrata, was the culmination of unprecedented dialogues with Indigenous people.

A joint select committee last week released its interim report on the Uluru statement, finding strong support for the parliamentary voice but no clear picture of what it would look like.

NT Labor senator and member of the joint select committee, Malarndirri McCarthy told Guardian Australia she disagreed with Pearson’s concern.

“We can separate state and territory jurisdiction expectations to [those of] the federal parliament,” she said.

“I disagree respectfully in the sense that our regions deserve to be involved at both the local and the state and territory parliamentary levels.

I don’t think that one jeopardises the other. If anything it galvanises that sense of hope.”

Pearson’s address was followed by the NT government member for Arnhem, Yingiya Mark Guyula. The Northern Territory is working on a treaty process with the four land councils.

“Ultimately we want the big one – a treaty with the federal government,” said Guyula.

“That one is long overdue. But treaties at all levels of government and recognised sovereignty will bring improvement.”

“Our success as a sovereign nation is well documented for thousands of years – we lived with good health, strong in our identity … and law.

Malarndirri McCarthy
Labor Senator Malarndirri McCarthy says ‘our regions deserve to be involved at both the local and the state and territory parliamentary levels’. Photograph: Mick Tsikas/AAP

Guyula noted the Yolngu people had had treaty with the Maccassans hundreds of years ago, as the two people traded with each other.

“Sovereignty is not about control, it is about power, about recognising that we are a real nation with real governance and real laws and real authority,” he said.

“Right now this federal government does not recognise our sovereignty at all. It does not see that what we have to say is important let alone recognise us.”

William Tilmouth, the former Central Australian chair of ATSIC, called for those working on treaties and constitutional reform to remember those who were “left behind”, without the power to speak for their nations because of government policies of removal and assimilation.

“I am a product of assimilation, I’m a product of being denied my identity, my family, my country, my culture, and my language,” said Tilmouth, who is of Arrernte descent and a member of the stolen Generation.

“Assimiliation is still in the minds of decision makers today.”

He said the Uluru statement and what was asked for was clear.

Vincent Forrester, a traditional owner from Mutitjulu, said a treaty would not hurt anyone. “It will enhance Australia as a nation.”

Garma Festival continues until Monday.


Helen Davidson at Garma

The GuardianTramp

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