Indigenous lawyer and land rights activist Noel Pearson addressed a packed audience online and in person at the Seymour Centre for a Sydney Ideas ‘Voices on the Voice’ event on 22 May.
Mr Pearson began his address by reflecting on his time studying history and law at the University of Sydney in the 1980s, where he didn’t see or know of any other Aboriginal students on campus.
“Suffice to say there was no cultural competence on campus in the early '80s. I heard a rumour of two Aboriginal students when I arrived at 17 years old, but we never met.”
Mr Pearson went on to complete an honours year he described as defining. “I developed an intellectual framework for a future life. I was confronting questions about myself, my people, my historical past and political presence.”
After continuing his educational journey through the Department of History and the Sydney Law School, Mr Pearson returned home and became involved in the life of the Cape York community, before going on to establish the Cape York Land Council and fight for land rights.
Turning to the “crucial problem we are trying to solve with the Uluru Statement from the Heart and its proposal for a voice,” Mr Pearson said that Australia needs to move on from being a “settler native” society.
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.
“The federal constitution established halfway through the colonial settlement recognised no place for the natives other than the exclusion of the nation… The cat flap through which we entered the house of the Commonwealth, with the endorsement of 90 percent of the Australian people, was section 51 (26) the race clause, which existed since the Constitution's inception in 1901 but specifically excluded Aborigines from its jurisdiction,” said Mr Pearson.
“If we are to move beyond the settler native dialectic, we will need to put settler and native behind us.”
Mr Pearson described the challenge as both a historical and political task.
“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 common. Our people will continue to be represented as members of Parliament, and participate in the lawmaking and governmental processes of the country, on the same basis as every other Australian citizen.
“But our Voice to this parliament 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.”
In a question and answer session hosted by Professor Jennifer Barrett, Pro Vice-Chancellor Indigenous (Academic), Mr Pearson was asked about the involvement of young people in the debate.
“Young people are with us in greater numbers and we need them to have those conversations in their communities,” said Mr Pearson.
“The message we're getting from young people is why is this even a question? So, we need to mobilise young people to get out there on the day to vote, with their families.”
Vice-Chancellor and President, Professor Mark Scott AO, also highlighted the importance of engaging students in the national discussion.
“In the months ahead at Sydney, we want many opportunities for our students to engage with this critical national conversation. To be fully informed and equipped to play their vital role in responding when the vote is called.
“Today’s students are set to play vital roles in the future of this nation in the generation ahead. And it is hard to conceive of a more critical nation-shaping event for the century ahead than this vote.”
Teela Reid, First Nations Lawyer in Residence at Sydney Law School, closed the Sydney Ideas event by thanking Mr Pearson and reciting the Uluru Statement from the Heart. Ms Reid said when it comes to the Statement, the Voice is simply a starting point.
“It is not the end of Makarrata, peace, the end of the struggle. The invitation at the heart of the Uluru Statement is a reminder that real change happens when ideas and strategies, when words on paper, are put into action.”
The Sydney Ideas event was the first in the 'Voices on the Voice' series to offer critical insight and inform public understanding and dialogue, led by the University's Indigenous Strategy and Services portfolio and National Centre for Cultural Competence. More events and discussions are planned to take place over the coming months.