Noel Pearson addressing an audience at Sydney Ideas in 2023

Voices on the Voice: Noel Pearson

A public conversation on Voice to Parliament with lawyer and land rights activist Noel Pearson. Hosted by Professor Jennifer Barrett, Pro-Vice-Chancellor Indigenous (Academic) at the University of Sydney.

Hear a keynote address by University of Sydney alumnus Noel Pearson (BA '87, LL B '93), a proud leader from the Guugu Yimidhirr community of Hopevale on the Eastern Cape York Peninsula, and hailed as one of the best orators in Australia.

The Indigenous Voice to Parliament is one of the most important discussions taking place in Australia. As a university it's vital we create opportunities for our community to have meaningful discussions about this issue and facilitate a number of voices on the Voice.

In the lead up to the vote, we bring together a range of voices from across the university and beyond, to offer critical insight to enrich and inform public understanding and dialogue.

The focus of this public event is to give perspective on the journey of the Voice to this point, what the referendum is asking Australians and what makes this moment in time so important.

This Sydney Ideas event opens the conversation as the first event in the 'Voices on the Voice' series, a collaboration led by the University's Indigenous Strategy and Services and National Centre for Cultural Competence. More events and discussions are planned to take place over the coming months so stay tuned.

This event was held on 22 May 2023 at the Seymour Centre.

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Audio transcript



Welcome to the Sydney Ideas podcast, where we bring you talks and conversations with great minds from the University of Sydney and beyond.  



The Voice to Parliament is one of the most important discussions taking place in Australia.  

Indigenous lawyer and lands right activist Noel Pearson has been central in the journey to the Voice.  In this powerful address, Noel reflects on the past, present and future of Australia – providing insight on the importance of constitutional recognition for the First Nations Australians.


I pay respect to the Gadigal of the Eora Nation. I pay respect to the Elders. And bring greetings from Cape York Peninsula. Here at my alma mater, I spent some quiet years. That I was lonely, I realised many years after. My small circle of friends with whom I lived, first in Summer Hill and then Balmain, were my entire social world. And to them, I owe un-compensable debts for sustaining me through two degrees at this university. My student friends, I counted on a sawmiller's hand with no need for the missing digits. Suffice, there was no cultural competence on campus in the early ‘80s. I heard rumour of two Aboriginal students when I arrived, 17-years-old. But we never met. The graffiti confounded me. Like today's Internet cesspit, its anonymity in the toilets and lecture theatres revealed a visceral hatred for Aborigines, none of whom I could find on campus.

This was the first time I realised we were a much unloved people. The graffiti was as ubiquitous as their most frequent object was not. Later studying law in Phillip Street, I recalled a desktop retort to the demand for Aboriginal land rights by ‘88. “But how can fauna own land?” As offensive as it was in the time before the High Court's ruling in Mabo's case, it was a succinct encapsulation of the law. I came to Sydney, keen to indulge my high school love for English and history. My hopes dissipated by the end of English Two, for post-modernism was not my delight. I continued on, as in history and the faculty was magnificent. My modern colonial history teachers, Professors Schroeder, Oddy and Wong, well wonderful. Then I chose American history with a strong faculty, Professors Maney, Waterhouse and two whites, Shane and Richard. I read Aboriginal history with Dr Cook Chambliss, who supervised my honours thesis on the history of my mission from 1886 to 1950. I found intellectual stimulation in that department but remained a loner. 

I don’t remember, I had nothing to say to the world. But I certainly did not. Not in lectures, and hardly tutorials. My best friend’s mother in the bosom of whose family I lived and who cared for me in loco parentis, an interminable lodger and the kind of socially awkward son, took me to a counsellor at the Student Services. I don't think the process divined my malaise. Whatever it may have been, was doubtless something I shared with numerous other young people who, having lived gregarious and centre-of-attention lives encounter when they enter a vast and anonymous institution. My sessions with the counsellor helped me. I wonder what these counsellors think of their brief interactions with people like the undergraduate me, strange young men who don't understand what they feel and why their world feels so heavy. Blessed are the counsellors. May they ever help undergraduates like the kindly lady did, just by keeping my company and talking. It was Dr Cook Chambliss, who saved me. She helped me find my shining star.

My honours year under her supervision was defining. I developed an intellectual framework for my future life. I was confronting questions about myself, my people, my historical past, and political present. I read and discussed and spoke with and recorded my Elders back home. I listened and researched. I started writing and gathering my thoughts, crafting my arguments, questioning my assumptions, and discerning my weaknesses. I now had purpose and understood my growing abilities were not possible without my preceding years of reading, and listening to my lecturers. Learning to read at university is the key. It was an exciting time. And Dr Cook Chambliss could not have been more generous to me. I don't know I ever thanked her for what she did for me. There's no need to admit my shame for not knowing whether I had but even if I did, the debt I owed was un-repayable. What she did for me in that honours year would last my life. I continued my solitary journey through law school, internally roiled by political thoughts, but doing and saying nothing until I returned home for two years. 

I got involved in the life of my community in the Cape York Region. I started talking. It was like, the mute, has a voice. I visited Darwin and northeast Arnhem Land, where my long tutelage began at the side of my Yabba Yunupingu, who we memorialised Thursday last, and we'll say our final goodbyes this next week. After meeting Yunupingu, I wanted to do for my Palmer, what he did for his Yolngu. I took from him land rights, and the disaster of welfare. Our relationship formed my convictions about what we must perforce confront. His eulogy at (UNKNOWN) read Thursday by brother Jack Thompson, I urge you all to read. It is too important to be cursory, about what it said, of Yunupingu. He was born at a time when the world was a different place. It was a Yolngu world and it was in order as it had been for past millennia. He was born into a world governed by the seasons, by kinship, fellowship, duty and allegiance. The greatest allegiance then as it is now was to the song cycles, the ancestors, the law of the land, and all that is in it.

As his life took shape, he would soon become aware of a new world that was forming around him. Cattlemen and policemen had come upon the Yolngu in the 1920s and ‘30s. The missionaries had come in the 1940s and ‘50s. And by the time Yunupingu was a young man in the 1960s, the miners had come. And so Yunupingu was raised in a world where Yolngu people had a future shock thrust upon them. For who could believe that our government without agreement would take control over people's land and authorise the breaking down of their most sacred places? Who could imagine a government that would seek to control the Yolngu world, including the children of that world, and enable the taking of its bounty, and its sacredness for profit? Who knew that minerals and furnaces and factories were of more value than people? Who could make sense of the force and strength that came in such numbers and with such conviction? And who today can imagine the powerlessness, the helplessness and despair of men and women and children who watched their sacred world destroyed in front of their eyes and who saw their elders bereft in the face of another power? 

This was the great challenge that Yunupingu faced as a young man, as he came of age. It was Yunupingu's father, Mungurrawuy, a true warrior and pacemaker, who we now know, spoke quietly into his ears and told him, "Be strong. Look up to the future. Despite everything, believe in yourself, believe in the power of the future." It was an instruction that he never forgot and would never forsake. The power of these words from his father set him and his family on a pathway that he followed to his final days to fight hard for his people's rights, but to make the peace and find the settlement to find a way forward, where Yolngu and Balanda might live in harmony together. Create a life where Yolngu people could be who you are in a modern world, ceremonial beings and economic beings. People have an ancient past, voyages to a brilliant future, masters of ancient dance and ceremony, masters of modern technology, and method. Yolngu people first, but always men and women of Australia. 

Last week, I visited Adelaide and travelled to northeast Arnhem Land for Yunupingu's Memorial. 

I was reminded of a research project briefly undertaken in 1987 as a student at this law school. It concerned South Australia's most famous world-changing innovation, the Torrens system of land registration, first affected by the Real Property Act of 1858, whose long title read, "An act to simplify the laws relating to the transfer, and encumbrance of freehold and other interests in land." I had just read the law of the land recently published by eminent historian Henry Reynolds. This history became seminal in the jurisprudence of Native Title cited by the High Court in its subsequent 1992 ruling in Mabo's case. Reynolds recounted the history of the South Australian Colonisation Commission, chaired by Colonel Robert Torrens. On 2 June 1836, he and John Hindmarsh, the soon-to-be governor of the new colony, was summoned to a meeting at the Colonial Office in London, with the Secretary of State for the colonies, Lord Glenelg on the eve of their commission, which would hand out land titles to settlers in South Australia, and thereby dispossess the Aboriginal owners.

Glenelg instructed Torrens the Aborigines were not to be dispossessed of their lands, except by their agreement, and the payment of compensation. To Torrens (UNKNOWN). The colonial office was insistent upon the recognition of Aboriginal land rights. A provision was inserted into the letters patent of the Commission, the legal authority under which it was formed. Reynolds tells how this insistence was deeply troubling to Torrens and potentially frustrating to his enterprise. He had thoughts about its abandonment. However, he decided to proceed and executed the commission under the contrivance that it would respect the rights of Aboriginal owners, where they are found to exist. They then found them to exist nowhere. The Northern Territory at the time formed part of the new South Australian colony. The legal import of the letters patent arose in Milirrpum versus Nabalco the goal of land rights case in 1971, concerning the Bauxite mine established near Yirrkala in opposition to the Yolngu welders, including Yunapingu's father. 

Justice Blackburn ruled the reference to the rights of Aboriginal people to their land was not a confirmation of land rights, but rather a kind of public relations SOP [statement of purpose] to humanitarians of the Aborigines Protection Society. Torrens had not executed his commission ultra vires his letters patent. In the light of Mabo, we know the letters patent reflected the common law of England and Australia. Today in the federal court, Chief Justice Mortimer and two members of the bench handed down her decision in respect of the Yolngu entitlement to compensation for the losses they incurred as a result of the granting of the Nabalco mining lease by the Commonwealth Government. This decision confirmed the Yolngu entitlement. In 1987, at the same time, I was reading Henry Reynold's history of the South Australian colonisation commission, I was studying real property under Professor Batt in my law degree. I was learning the law concerning old system titles. The system preceding the Toreen system governed by a large body of precedent concerning the validity of title to land according to a proper chain of title being established in the conveyances.

Land conveyancing in the old days of OST really did require solicitors to undertake due diligence of title deeds. Unlike today, lawyers did have to do actual work for their fees. Today, they charge for no real work for the validity of title under the Torren system depends on registration rather than perfection in the history of previous transfers. Whereas OST, old system titles, were defeasible for imperfection in the chain of title, Torrens title was indefeasible on the face of its registration, except for fraud. You need not worry for any defect in previous titles, because the system cured any defections. Caught in this collision between the history and law, my immediate question was, of course, who was Colonel Robert Torrens? And what was his role in the creation of Torrens title? I soon learned from articles in the library at Phillip Street, there were two Robert Torrens, father and son. The father was the chairman of the Colonisation Commission and the son, the inventor of the Torren system of land title registration. 

I decided to undertake research, which eventually included a trip to South Australia and the Torrens papers. My preliminary research revealed the son had experience as a landing waiter, a type of shipping clerk in the London docks, who'd come to South Australia, with a determination bordering on zealotry. According to the Australian dictionary of biography, to reform the system of land title, administration in the colony, he came to call his mission, the cause, the younger Torrens indefatigably campaigned to change the centuries-old OST. He succeeded in getting the South Australian Parliament of which he was for a time a member and later, briefly premier to adopt his new scheme. He instituted his system in Victoria, and the Torrens system was subsequently adopted across Australian and British colonies throughout the world, including certain states of the US. It was the most revolutionary change to land title administration in the history of the British Empire. My young law students' interest in this intersection between history and law, concerned whether the younger Torrens deliberately created a system of land registration that would cure any problems caused by his father's execution of his original commission contrary to the letters patent, issued to him by the Crown.

Was this a fraternal conspiracy between father and son to make right the father's wrong or at least potential susceptibility to challenge? Or was it entirely coincidental? The son created a system of land registration that would put beyond doubt the validity of titles issued by the father. Though the references were tantalising, I found no explicit evidence of such a conspiracy. Whether the passion harboured by the younger Torrens involved the concern about the validity of titles issued in the colony. The fact is, he did create a system of land administration, which would make indefeasible what was once under the common law defeasible. Following a two-year sojourn, where I became involved in the public affairs of my community, and the Cape York region, I returned to Phillip Street. In this time, I worked with my countrymen and women to establish the Cape York Land Council in order to fight for land rights. A Sydney office in my Balmain bedsit, armed with a Macintosh computer, and a facsimile machine, my lifelong work with Professor Langton started at this time. I became well acquainted with the history and law of native title that eventually emerged in Mabo's case, on 3 June 1992. They had been little such jurisprudence in my law course. Unlike what Professor Nettheim instituted at the University of New South Wales law school. I learned instead, from independent reading, and increased involvement in land rights politics. The late Eddie Mabo seconded a resolution supporting our land council in Townsville in 1990 in emulation of Yunupingu's northern land council, a decade and a half before.  

I can only reflect briefly on how Native Title played out in Cape York and across the country in the 30 years since. Within three years, the final terrestrial Native Title claims in Cape York will be settled under the Native Title Act, over 98% of the landmass. My first reflection is the jurisprudence that followed the high court's decision in Mabo and subsequently, the Wik People’s case, which we prosecuted in 1992 and received the high court's ruling in 1996 has been fundamentally mistaken in respect of the concept of Native Title.

My views on errors made in the High Court's decision in Yorta Yorta in 2002, was set out in my essay on the High Court’s centenary the following year. Essentially, my argument was that Native Title is properly conceptualised as possession. That communal native title is an entitlement to possession as a consequence of occupation. Customary title to land is not a separate basis of title to possession, as originally assumed by Professor McNeil in his 1989 book, ‘Common Law Aboriginal Title’, which influenced the High Court in its 1992 decision. Rather, customary law is relevant to an entitlement, whereas the common law apprehends, that that entitlement is possession. The occupation of land by Indigenous peoples at the time of British sovereignty gives rise to possessory title. As Justice Toohey, the one judge that examined the possessory title thesis, in his judgment in Mano, said succinctly, “possession is a conclusion of law”. We have over three decades developed a large case law in the federal and High Court of Australia that fundamentally misconceived the concept of Native Title as the product of traditional laws and customs, rather than the common laws according of possession, to those who are in occupation of land. 

This is just a cursory reflection. And I have not the time here tonight to dilate my arguments. The second brief reflection is one prompted by the Ugandan scholar Mahmood Mamdani in his 1996 book on the Rwandan genocide, ‘When Victims Become Killers’. 
This electrifying book has challenged me for many years that I've been contemplating its extraordinary scholarship. Colonise native communities and their identities are creatures of colonial law. Colonial law created political categories that fundamentally changed our identity and plurality work prior to colonisation, and saddled those communities with categories that would work great woe, to the people subjected to them. One basic challenge Mamdani is analysis of Africa raised for me, was why the date of sovereignty, an event here on the eastern seaboard of Australia, now more than two centuries old, should be so determinative of native rights to land. According to prevailing jurisprudence, Native Title today is dependent upon the existence of traditional laws and customs, dating back more than two centuries. My approach to possession as the basis of native title would obviate this problem. It would accord to the Native Title holder's possession upon annexation by the Crown. A possession would crystallise as an allodial form of the simple.

There would not be the travesty of Yorta Yorta, where justice only assumed the so-called tired of the history, washed away the basis of Native Title because of the claimed destruction of traditional laws and customs. Rather, the question was entitlement to possession that crystallised under the common law at the time of sovereignty. This is the true meaning of presumptive Native Title. The presumption of the common law, that beneficial possession vested in the native owners and contemporary claimants could rely upon that presumption not just to possession but the recovery of possession.  

Let me now turn to a core question I've been grappling with ever since I was a student in the late Dr Shane White's extraordinary course, on the black experience in America. My interest in African-American history has been lifelong since that course. Its parallels and differences with the experience of Aboriginal people has been the subject of constant cogitation, central to that contemplation has been the relative place of class and race, in our problems with these societies.

As with everything, my starting framework is old-school left. I have mostly not had cause to depart from that framework in any case, I always returned to it. Notwithstanding post-modernism and its new variants today, my final conviction around the relative role of class and race in understanding the African American predicament in America and the Aboriginal predicament in Australia is set out in my introduction to ‘Mission’ published in 2021. In that essay, I take the view that class and race became fused. From the moment the first slaves arrived in Jamestown in 1619. Slave labor was from the beginning, a part of the colonial political economy. At the same time, race was from the beginning the ascriptor of their class position. This race-class fusion would last centuries and still survives in America today. Notwithstanding two valiant attempts made by the Americans to break that fusion. The first was the 600,000 dead of the Civil War that brought emancipation from slavery but did not break the class-race fusion, because the century of the Jim Crow system would follow, preserving that terrible fusion. 

A second attempt was the struggle for civil rights in the 1960s, which notwithstanding its achievements never really broke the ascription. The Black Lives Matter movement this past decade is a testament, that a half-century after civil rights, the race-class fusion of black America remains strong. I find the race-class fusion, irrelevant to our experience. It is a trap. But our position is different from the American slaves and their descendants. This is my analysis. Dispossession from their land base, resistance to enslavement and marginalisation from the colonial economy, defined the place of Aboriginal people. While domestic servitude under state laws, and institutional confinement are cited as examples of slavery, the predominant story is that Aborigines would not, and could not, be pressed into systematic slavery. The British Empire no longer sanctioned it. And while South Sea Islanders were blackbirded to the farms of the East Coast, slavery is not a proper description of the depredations the dispossessed Aborigines suffered on the Australian frontier, and in its wake. Useful analogies and comparisons could be made but this is not how the history is properly characterised. 

Yes, Aboriginal people played significant roles in sectors of the economy, most famously in the northern cattle industry, but also in other rural labours, mining, railways, and other industries that have use for them. But it is our marginality to the economy, built upon our dispossession that marks our people. The ascription of innate, primitive backwardness and inferior intelligence, aversion to systematic industrial work, non-existent education and limited skills, poor productivity and inclination to nomadism and unreliability. The absence of value placed on material goods and accumulation, the cultural features of our tribal obligations and priorities that militated against to work and industry. This is the mix of ascripted racial characteristics, cultural features incompatible with the merciless industrial economy of the invaders, and active resistance to the destructive economic revolution on our lands that marked our people. 

There is no exact term for the place of First Nations people in the political economy trying to survive invasion. Contemporary parlance would call the class to which Aboriginal people predominantly belong, the precariat but the exclusion of Aborigines from the colonial economy confined to its most extreme margins, was the dominant story. The precariat has grown from the former proletariat within a continuous class society. While many or most Aboriginal groups have no history of a place in the proletariat. In classical Marxist parlance, Aboriginal people in the colonial period, and long into post-colonial times, were probably lumpenproletarians. Famously described by Marx and Engels in the ‘Communist Manifesto ‘as, quote, "The dangerous class," the social scum, that passively rotting mass thrown off by the lowest layers of the old society that may here and there be swept into the movement by a proletarian revolution. Its conditions of life, however, prepare it far more for the part of a bribed tool of reactionary intrigue.

Lumpenproletariat is also not quite right, though, because it refers to the de-classing within an evolving economy, how First Nations were overrun by a foreign economy. Noise fringe dwellers [is] the term we need. Even though it appears to have originated in Australia, it focuses too narrowly on a certain type of settlement. I would therefore suggest the portmanteau “colonialariat”. It meets the need for a word describing the experience of Indigenous nations inextricably engulfed by colonial powers across the globe, from British Columbia to Australia and Brazil. We need a word for that experience of being not only lower in a stratified structure but also cast to the side and experience we instantly recognise and understand in our contexts with Indigenous peoples from other continents. The experience that one's existence is under question. Unlike the existence of proletarians, or slaves, who have a place in the political economy. Our exclusion from and resistance to the economy established on our lands and our consignment to its extreme margins defined our place in the Australian political economy as a colonialariat. 

This race-class fusion came into existence from the beginning of colonisation. And through dispossession, subjugation, exploitation and marginalisation, the idea that Aboriginal people neither had the right to economic participation, nor any interest in or capacity for it, became the predominant idea. That fusion of racial ideology and class exclusion lasts to this day and it informs Australian conceptions of the place of Aboriginal people in the nation, society and the economy. Ours is a place of mendicancy, dependence and marginality. That we are foundation members of the passive welfare class that arose after the post-war welfare state is of a piece with that. 

I now turn to the crucial problem we're trying to solve with the Uluru Statement from the Heart and its proposals for a Voice, Makarrata and Truth-telling. And that is what I have come to call the settler-native dialectic. Echoing Hegel's idea of the master-slave dialectic in his ‘Phenomenology of Spirit’ in 1807. Again, it is Mamdani who illuminates his 2020 book, ‘Neither Settler nor Native’, the making and unmaking of permanent minorities is the culmination of long study and thought. 

His case studies of settler societies contending with this dialectic, starting with native Americans in the United States, South Africa, Sudan, and Israel Palestine. This is an extremely important book. Settler societies create permanent minorities of natives, who are invariably ascribed with racial differences from settlers and other ethnic groups depending on colonial imperatives to manage colonies through indirect rule. Post-colonial violence is readily explicable through Mamdani’s analytical lens. To understand what is going on in Sudan today, read Mamdani. The permanent Aboriginal minority in Australia follows this analysis. The natives of Australia were excluded from the settler constitution. Their pre-existing sovereignty was ignored. The Federal Constitution established halfway through the colonial settlement recognised no place for the natives other than the exclusion from the nation. They were for all purposes a separate race. And to the extent that land provision was made for them, the classic approach of designating reservations and homelands that separated the natives from the democracy and the economy was adopted.

When we were eventually admitted into the national constitution in 1967, it was on the basis of race. The cat flap through which we entered the House of the Commonwealth, with the endorsement of 90% of the Australian people was Section 51(xxvi), the race clause, which existed since the Constitution's inception in 1901 but specifically excluded Aborigines from its jurisdiction. As with all settler societies, perhaps with the exception of South Africa, the settler-native dialectic defines the place of Indigenous minorities and the Australian settler state, where a permanent minority designated a place in Australian citizenship on the basis of race. If we are to move beyond the settler-native dialectic, we will need to put settler and the native behind us. This is both a historical and political task. We need to forge a citizenship that is truly inclusive of Indigenous minorities, and which moves beyond the idea of an Australian settler society, which has native homelands for its Indigenous peoples that sit separate from the democracy and in the mainframe of Australia. 

Before I turn to the Voice as the first step in Australia moving beyond the old colonial settler-native dialectic, let me reference again, Yunupingu's eulogy, which spoke to his lifetime adherence to the idea that his Yolngu needed to be in, quote, "the mainframe of the nation." He found the respect of all he met through his authority and poise. But it was his determination to do things that needed to be done and that were right, that spoke to his allies and his opponents alike. And always he sought constitutional recognition and a voice for the powerless. He understood that to go forward in the nation, Aboriginal and Islander people had to be part of the mainframe of the nation. That was the gift he sought in return for his life's work. We affirm that the work he did is not over. It has just begun, and that the challenges he faced remain. And these are our challenges now. 

I turn to the Voice. In the lead up to his visit as Prime Minister together with his entourage of government ministers and senior bureaucrats, to northeast Arnhem Land, again, of all places, in September 2014, Tony Abbott did a strange thing. I recently told the Senate committee inquiry into the bill that will initiate this year's referendum that Abbott had proposed to me that rather than a constitutional body representing Aboriginal and Islander people advising the parliament and government that a simpler model capable of comprehension by the Australian people would be the allocation of Senate seats for Indigenous peoples. This would follow the special seats allocated to Maori in New Zealand, put in place in the 1920s. Abbott visited New Zealand presumably on his wife's encouragement and had extolled the Treaty of Waitangi and other provisions that had been put in place in that country, in his closing-the-gap speech at the opening of Parliament. I recall a roadside phone call, where I attempted to explain that the advisory body would be more acceptable to the public because it did not interfere with the system of democratic representation existing in Australia. The advisory body would provide advice to the Parliament rather than be of the parliament. 

Subsequently, the concept of specially allocated seats was reported in the press. Then a Shanahan from The Australian reported that Abbott was floating the concept, which had purportedly come from his Indigenous Affairs advisors. Where Chief-of-Staff, Peta Credlin was at in all of this, is unknown to me. Rosie Lewis from The Australian reported the story, it was unclear who was advising the concept if it was not Credlin. In any case, Shanahan, who reported the float, then subsequently dumped on the idea under the headline, “Dedicated Senate spots a step too far”. Patricia Carvelas and Rosie Lewis then reported vociferous objections from Indigenous MP Ken Wyatt and Warren Mundine. By the time I arrived in Arnhem Land, it was clear the special Senate seats balloon had been floated, and burned to the ground, like the Hindenburg within 48 hours. Abbott ruefully told me that the problem facing constitutional recognition was that his colleagues lacked compassion. The problem with Abbott's foolishness was not the political infeasibility of the Senate seats allocation, whether with his colleagues or the Australian people, but that it was not democratically defensible.

It would upset the system of democratic representation in the country. The Voice is not only a more feasible idea, it is a better idea. It does not change the democracy. It is a superior idea to the idea that Abbott in his foolhardiness floated for a brief couple of days, before being blown to smithereens by the violent rejection of his colleagues. Professor Kim Rubenstein from the ANU has written the best about this. She shows that the Voice will enhance citizenship by providing the voices of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people within our democratic system without derogating from that system. I commend Rubenstein's writings in relation to how the Voice will provide active citizenship on the part of First Nations people. I believe that active citizenship is one of the key requisite changes needed for our people to become part of the mainframe of Australian democratic life. No longer racial groupings, sitting on the margins of the democracy, distinct from the settler mainstream, out of sight and out of mind from the main game of Australia; rather, a plurality of voices actively part of the Commonwealth. 

Our people will continue to be represented as members of parliament and participate in the lawmaking in governmental processes of the country on the same basis, as every other Australian citizen, but our voice to these Parliaments will speak on behalf of our heritage, and our particular needs, and agendas as a community. The Voice is about integration, not separatism. Some of our people may recoil at the word integration, but integration is not assimilation. We keep our identity as First Peoples but we do this in the midst of Australia, not at its margins. We do this as Yunupingu said, by leaning into the future, rather than retreating to the past. We advocate plurality, not apartheid. We want differences of all kinds to be respected, whilst always avoiding separatism.

The Voice will bring us into the mainstream as the First Peoples of Australia rather than denizens of racial Bantustans in the remote margins of the Commonwealth. The Voice will be a decisive step towards moving Australia from the old settler and native society to one perhaps where we are all natives of Australia. 

In my Quarterly essay in 2014, I proposed the disturbing idea that even Andrew Bolt would one day be Indigenous to Australia. I will risk causing a disturbance again tonight by returning to what I wrote. My point is that it is not the law that is the wellspring of Indigeneity. It is a reality concerning the dead, the living and the people to come and the country to which they are tied. It is a similar reality of which Scruton writes when he refers to Burke's view of society as an association of the dead, the living and the unborn. If Burke's association is real, then it is real in the sense captured in Georgia Moon's most apposite definition in the Western Sahara case, and in the Uluru Statement from the Heart. 

On this interpretation, it is theoretically possible to take Andrew Bolt seriously when he protests that he too is Indigenous to this country. The bones and dust of his ancestors and all settler and immigrant Australians who made this continent their home have been accumulating and mixing with the ancient soil for 226 years. Aboriginal laws and customs recognise the connections that arise from places of birth and burial. In this spiritual sense, the Bolts are becoming Indigenous to Australia. Perhaps he could recognise in turn that the bones of Yunupingu’s ancestors have been returning for millennia to the lands from which they arose. Australia and Australians will inexorably unite and share the country under one citizenship. The Voice will be a decisive step towards that unity. Thank you. 




Thanks for listening to the Sydney Ideas podcast. For more resources, including the audio transcript, check the show notes. 

The talk from Noel Pearson is recorded from a live public event at the University of Sydney – on the land of the Gadigal people of the Eora Nation.  

We recognise and pay respect to the Elders and communities – past, present, and emerging – of the lands that the University of Sydney's campuses stand on. For thousands of years they have shared and exchanged knowledges across innumerable generations for the benefit of all.


The speakers

Keynote: Noel Pearson 

Noel Pearson (BA '87, LL B '93) is an Indigenous Australian, land rights activist and a history and law graduate of the University of Sydney. He is Chair of the Cape York Group (CYG), an organisation promoting the economic and social development of Cape York, in North Queensland. Organisations within CYG include the Cape York Institute, Cape York Partnerships, Cape York Employment, Cape York Timber, Djarragun College and Djarragun Enterprises.

Vote of thanks: Teela Reid

Teela Reid is a proud Wiradjuri and Wailwan woman, lawyer, essayist, storyteller and co-founder of @blackfulla_bookclub, a platform that honours First Nation’s Ancestors as the original Storytellers. Currently, Teela is a Sydney-based Senior Solicitor practicing in Aboriginal Land Rights litigation and is the current Practitioner in residence at Sydney Law School. She is also a campaigner for the Uluru Statement from the Heart.

Host: Professor Jennifer Barrett

Jennifer Barrett is Pro Vice-Chancellor Indigenous (Academic) (PVC-I) and former Director of the National Centre for Cultural Competence (NCCC). Jennifer is of Dunghutti heritage from the Macleay River region in northern NSW and has worked in various roles in the University of Sydney since 2000, becoming Professor of Museum and Heritage Studies in January 2020, and serving as the Director of the University’s Culture Strategy, and Pro Dean (Academic) in the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences (FASS).

Header image: Noel Pearson in 2023, addressing a live audience at Sydney Ideas. Photo by Nicola Bailey for The University of Sydney.

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