Debate about indigenous affairs at rock bottom: Noel Pearson

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Cape York leader Noel Pearson has called for constitutional recognition to provide the “hook” for a decade-long cascade of reforms aimed at finally closing the gap between indigenous and non-indigenous living standards.

Speaking at the Garma Festival in Arnhem Land this morning, Mr Pearson said debate about indigenous affairs had “hit rock bottom” and radical change was urgently needed.

“This is thing that the country needs, this parlous situation that we’re in at the moment where we really don’t believe the next announcement, we really don’t believe that the next set of policies is going to get us there,” Mr Pearson said.

“The concept of the settlement that’s been proposed by the Yunupingu brothers at Garma 2016, utilising the Yolngu concept of makarrata, can provide the framework for us to really believe.

“If we have the right pincer and we have the left pincer, we might get there.”

The comments come after The Australian today revealed that Mr Pearson had joined with Arnhem Land leader Galarrwuy Yunupingu in calling for a “final settlement” envisioned as a network of treaty-like deals.

Mr Pearson said treaty-making and constitutional recognition were not separate concepts.

“We are recognising the First Nations of Australia. We are not recognising that I happen to be a descendent of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples,” he said.

“We need to synthesise the treaty and constitutional reform concepts.”

“If we think that these are contradictory agendas, somehow this process will fail. They are complementary agendas.”

He said constitutional reform should provide the “hook”.

“We should think in terms of a package, a road map, a cascade of reforms,” he said.

“It will take times for us to roll that out. It may be five or ten years of work, once we get the hook in the constitution, … to build off that hook, to get a cascade to be articulated.”

Previous government-sponsored reports into indigenous constitutional recognition have rejected proposals for agreement-making powers on the basis they would be unlikely to win broad support.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner Mick Gooda said the planned 50th anniversary of the 1967 vote, in May 2017, was no longer a realistic date to put constitutional reform plans to the people.

“I don’t think we’re going to get anywhere near the 27th of May next year for the referendum,” Mr Gooda said.

“We’ve got to get it right. We can’t focus on getting it done now.”

Last year Mr Gooda told Garma festival he felt like “curling up under the doona” in response to the parlous state of the constitutional reform push. Today he said he had been “in and out of that doona a fair bit” in the past year.

Labor Senator and reconciliation advocate Patrick Dodson said that while the “battle” for constitutional recognition had been ongoing for years, a proposition should not be put to the people till the time was right.

“The timing has to be right, and that has to be when things are right, and known and clear,” Senator Dodson said.

“This is about all of us. It’s not some concession to the natives. It is about this nation coming to terms with its dark, desperate and miserable history.”

“Our nation has driven down, stomped on and derided the Aboriginal people. It is now time to release that jackboot and look to the better things we can do.”

He said the crucial problem was a “lack real preparedness to actually listen and hear what it is that indigenous people want”.

“The parallel education process is not happening in the parliament of Australia: the games go on as if the spoils are there. That is going to be an enormous challenge,” Senator Dodson said.

Mr Pearson acknowledged that constitutional reform was hard and effectively required 90 per cent support, spanning both sides of the political aisle.

“We need more hunters on the right. Everybody likes to go and talk to our converted brothers on the left,” he said.

He attacked sections of the media for their reporting of recent strife with the Cape York education and welfare reform programs. He also lashed out at the Queensland government as “mongrel”.

“The media, the progressive media—the ABC the Fairfax the Guardian—they could not be more calculated to our detriment if they put thought to it. Every good thing gets torn down,” Mr Pearson said.

“In Queensland that mongrel government is tearing down the opportunities for indigenous Australia, and not a word for our loss.”

“This is the first time I admit defeat. This is the first time that we have been outmanoeuvred. We have suffered a massive setback in our plans in Cape York, all at the hands of a bastard government.”

Mr Pearson said symbolic change via a “plaque” in the constitution would not be sufficient. He also emphasised the need for indigenous people to take responsibility for their own problems.

“I don’t believe self determination is about us being in a position to kick government for its failings. If there are failings they will be as much ours as government’s,” he said.

“At the moment we’re on a trajectory of slowly becoming culturally pauperised because we’re not economically strong.”

“We don’t want assimilation. But the important part is to ensure that we’re economically strong and we maintain our culture.”

Mr Pearson that while successful constitutional recognition remained possible, he was gloomy about its current prospects.

“If we have the gumption enough we might be able to do it, but as likely enough we’ll probably shoot the horse in the middle of the desert and then see if we can survive the walk back home,” he said.

Land rights laws ‘asleep’: Yunupingu

Yolngu leader Galarrwuy Yunupingu has called for a constitutional guarantee to protect Aboriginal land rights, warning in the 40th anniversary year of the landmark Aboriginal Land Rights Act (NT) that it had delivered few practical benefits for indigenous people.

Speaking at the Garma Festival in Arnhem Land this morning, Mr Yunupingu attacked the “lie” spoken by Captain Cook when he first arrived in Australia, raised a flag, and claimed the continent for himself.

“He raised a flag with no shame, and said the flag gave him the right to own Australia. What crap. What a lie. That’s what happened while the black man was standing right in front of him, watching him do the act. And you know the rest of it,” Mr Yunupingu said.

“The land of Aboriginal people, ownership, has to be owned by Aborigines themselves, for ever. What that means is the truth of the land. The land has to be theirs by constitutional rights: rights to everything. He must have the rights to that land.”

Mr Yunupingu said the Land Rights Act was “asleep”. He also complained about mining companies and other developers coming back to traditional owners every few years asking for access agreements.

“You think of it: if you were a land owner, you wouldn’t like it,” he said.

His Gumatj clan is the greatest beneficiary of mining royalties in the region.

The move comes after The Australian today revealed that Mr Yunupingu had joined with another prominent indigenous leader, Noel Pearson, in calling for constitutional recognition to become a “final settlement” process in which formal recognition of First Nations bodies would precipitate a network of treaty-like deals.

In Arnhem Land that would mean strengthening land rights so it could not be changed, to give Aboriginal people “ownership” of the Aboriginal Land Rights Act (NT), Mr Yunupingu said.

He said it was up to non-Aboriginal people to work out how that might be achieved.

Addressing a Garma Festival audience after Mr Yunupingu, Northern Land Council CEO Joe Morrison echoed calls for the Aboriginal Land Rights Act (NT) to be better protected.

“We have to ensure that Aboriginal people can determine the future of the Aboriginal Land Rights Act,” Mr Morrison said.

“There must be a discussion about protecting the Act through some means, whether it is through constitutional reform or through some overarching settlement process.”

Mr Morrison said any decisions about future changes should be made by Aboriginal people and that amendments sponsored by governments had to stop.

Anindilyakwa Land Council chairman Tony Wurramarrba said that although it had take a decade, he and his people had been able to negotiate an agreement with mining company South32 that benefited both parties.

“On many occasions I had to walk away from the negotiating table because they didn’t want to budge even an inch,” Mr Wurramarrba said.

“You come to me on my terms, on my people’s terms. If you want to mine on my land, you’ve got to see things the way I think. See things through the eyes of an Aboriginal person.”

Mr Morrison criticised the lack of consideration for Aboriginal interests in the northern development process.

“The northern development white paper has no place for Aboriginal people. It sees land tenure as a problem and no place for communal decision making,” he said.

Mr Yunupingu called for help “in this big struggle that Aboriginal people have” to make land rights work properly.

“It is not a Land Rights Act that is ours; it is a Land Rights Act that is shared by everybody, with very little given back to the owners,” he said. He said his struggle was for a “straighter and firmer” Land Rights Act.

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