Noel Pearson has 'real optimism' Coalition will create Indigenous voice to parliament

Cape York leader says it is still possible the body could be inserted into the Australian constitution

Noel Pearson has said he has “real optimism” the Morrison government will create a voice to parliament and noted it was still possible the body could be inserted into the Australian constitution.

Pearson, the Cape York Indigenous leader and one of 19 advisers appointed to help co-design the voice, made the comments at the Law Council annual dinner on Thursday, lending support to Indigenous affairs minister Ken Wyatt’s suggestion the voice could first be legislated and then later included in the constitution.

Pearson said that constitutional recognition “requires Nixon to go to China – it requires a conservative government”.

Pearson famously persuaded John Howard to support constitutional recognition but then spectacularly fell out with Malcolm Turnbull who he accused of supporting a voice to parliament in 2015 before reneging in 2017 when the Uluru statement called for the body while Turnbull was prime minister.

Tracing this history of the proposal for constitutional recognition, Pearson said that at first a non-discrimination clause in the constitution had wide support but was eventually rejected when constitutional conservatives warned it would amount to a “one clause bill of rights”.

Pearson said the consensus then shifted to a voice to parliament, for which there was a constitutional conservative constituency because there would be “no resort to the high court, it would be non-justiciable” and the voice would be “heard but not necessarily heeded”.

The voice to parliament “should have been a pathway through the thicket” – that Indigenous Australians and conservatives could both agree, he said. But the voice to parliament lacked a “clear champion” due to political instability in the Turnbull-Abbott era.

Nevertheless Pearson said he still has “real optimism” Australia will now come to grips with constitutional recognition. “We have a conservative government – we have Nixon, we have China.”

Pearson blasted the Institute of Public Affairs and commentator Andrew Bolt for arguing the voice divides Australians by race. In October the IPA and Liberal senator James McGrath released a video making the inflammatory claim, as well as arguing it would “damage equality”. Pearson argued “it is a question not of race but of Indigeneity”.

Pearson praised the former high court justice Murray Gleeson’s intervention into the debate, noting that the observation “there are more Indigenous Australians than Tasmanians” put paid to the idea that recognising First Nations people somehow harmed the concept of equality.

Pearson said constitutional recognition amounted to a question of whether 60,000 years of Indigenous settlement should “count for something” or “only the last 250 years should count”.

The leaders of the co-design process, Tom Calma and Marcia Langton, have both said it was possible the Morrison government could countenance constitutional recognition after a model is resolved.

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Wyatt has said it was “possible” that a future government could enshrine the representative body in the constitution, but he has advised Indigenous Australians to focus on what could be achieved here and now.

“I want to get to step one, and that is to have the structures. Later on, the government may consider [enshrining it in the constitution] but I can’t hold a future government to account in terms of saying they will do it,” the minister told Guardian Australia earlier in November.

Pearson said: “I do not accept that we have been precluded from this question [of a constitutionally enshrined voice] by the Morrison government.”

“If there is a pathway through this that can be articulated and fairly found, we will get to the destinati­on. And the question might hinge on the meaning of enshrinement,’’ he said.

“No Indigenous advocate is talking about enshrining the voice in the manner of the high court in the constitution.

“We are talking about sufficient status in the constitution to empow­er the parliament to ­legislate the creation of the voice that will not impede the parliamentary process.

“We will accept parliament­ary supremacy in a way that provided the necessary status that would define recognition.”

Pearson also reiterated his calls for a declaration of Australia to recognise the ancient Indigenous heritage as the foundation of Australia with British institutions built upon it and the adorning gift of multicultural migration thereafter.


Paul Karp

The GuardianTramp

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