Christopher Pearson: Beware of a relapse, Noel
There have been signs that Pearson may be drifting back towards the politics of his firebrand years writes Christopher Pearson

1st July 2006

DURING the Keating era and the early years of the Howard Government, Aboriginal leaders generally belonged under the umbrella of the Labor Party or on the further fringes of the Left. Noel Pearson was not alone when, during the Wik native title debate in 1997, he described John Howard as "racist scum". But, unlike most of the old guard, Pearson was a pragmatist. After the 1998 federal election he saw that the Aboriginal leadership was going to have to deal with a long-term Coalition Government and began to modify his rhetoric accordingly.

In August 2000, he used the Light on the Hill dinner, an occasion to honour the memory of Ben Chifley, to launch an attack on Labor's failed progressive policies in indigenous affairs. Although there were some barbs for the Coalition, too, it was essentially a conservative critique of welfare dependency and an argument for bringing Aboriginal Australia back into the real economy and the world of gainful employment. He stressed old-fashioned virtues such as hard work, self-betterment and taking responsibility for family, virtues the Left had tended to forget about, though they still struck a chord with middle Australia.

For the past six years Pearson has been increasingly influential in the counsels of the federal Government and has helped set the indigenous policy agenda. Coming from a conservative Lutheran mission culture, he has been able to embrace private-sector partnerships and schemes to send gifted kids from his Cape York fiefdom to boarding schools in the city, initiatives that would have been anathema to the Black Power brigade.

There have been other ways in which he has used his authority that have sometimes discomforted the Left. Having seen up close the drug and alcohol-induced despair in isolated settlements and the violence and sexual abuse aimed at women and children, he has not hesitated to talk about those problems, nor, when he thought it necessary, to speak critically about various prominent Aborigines and the often dysfunctional institutions they led. That he has been straightforward and more outcomes-driven than ideological has enhanced his reputation across the political class as an honest broker.

However, there have been signs in his media appearances during the past fortnight that Pearson may be drifting back towards the politics of his firebrand years. First of all, he announced that he wouldn't be going to the national summit convened by Indigenous Affairs Minister Mal Brough, telling Kerry O'Brien on ABC television's The 7.30 Report that it was in danger of turning into Groundhog Day. He also used the interview to complain about the way governments "think that they can step over the top of indigenous people and say, 'We prescribe a certain pathway for you and you just stay passive and we will lead because you're useless' ... That is our entire interaction with governments at both levels."

In Monday's edition of The Australian, he expanded on the dangers of bureaucracies turning into juggernauts ("Big government hurts the Aboriginal population").

In the same day's edition of Melbourne's The Age, he cropped up again, this time arguing the case for a constitutionally recognised First World national minority. It is a surprising stance for someone who has spent so much time in recent years turning Aboriginal attention away from an agenda based on rights and entitlements towards one focused on accepting responsibilities. The article also grinds some none-too-subtle ideological axes.

Pearson says he wants to foster a dialogue between Aborigines and conservatives about contemporary policy and history. "We should be able to agree with conservatives and liberal people that Aboriginal Australians need modernity, geographic mobility, full command of English and economic integration." He also reiterates a familiar theme that "much of the political Right's criticism of the progressive consensus about policies for Aboriginal Australians is correct, particularly in relation to welfare and substance abuse".

Then come a couple of segues into the history and culture wars. He begins, reassuringly enough, by saying that "in the debate about Australian history, rigour and revision of history is essential". But then he proceeds to attack one of the country's leading revisionist historians, Keith Windschuttle, and Gary Johns, a former minister in the Keating government and one of the Labor Party's most persuasive revisionists on the indigenous policy front. "I am very concerned about the damage conservative Australians are doing to the prospects of reconciliation through their uncritical endorsement of people such as Windschuttle and Johns," he says. "Their influence has decreased empathy with Aboriginal Australians." Furthermore, "the coldness that characterises Johns and Windschuttle is an inexplicable antagonism to Aboriginal Australia's wish to remain distinct".

In the course of a rather discursive piece, it emerges that he has taken particular offence at Windschuttle's matter-of-fact account of Tasmanian Aborigines' level of material cultural development and their non-proprietorial attitude to land, the latter point being one that, if conceded, rather undermines the usual justification for land rights. Johns's mistake was to argue that state schools had no business attempting to teach Aboriginal students indigenous culture or languages.

Pearson sees these as two prongs of an attack on Aboriginality as a viable cultural and political entity: "The influence of Johns's and Windschuttle's irrational contempt is causing their powerful conservative audience (and thereby Australia) to move further away from the modern, enlightened view that minorities have the right to agreements with the central power about securing the survival of their identity and political rights."

It's no criticism at all to reproach a historian, or an analyst of educational policy for that matter, with coldness. The charge of inexplicable antagonism and irrational contempt would be more telling if it were true but, having spent a fair amount of time in the company of both men, I must say that I see no evidence of it in their private conversation or their published writing. Although both have a hearty contempt for the Rousseauan fantasies about noble savages that the Left used to cherish, they're concerned in fairly practical ways about Aboriginal advancement.

Precisely where Windschuttle would stand on the broader question of the desire "to remain distinct" I don't know, although I imagine he'd take a sceptical view of "Aboriginal nations" and Inuit models of national minority status. Both men would be quick to point out how vast the cultural distance is between hunter-gatherer mode and modernity and that what's now called Aboriginality is inevitably a very self-conscious, contemporary construct, but I doubt that they'd begrudge anyone who found pride or comfort in it.

Johns's position on Aboriginal culture is certainly more complex than Pearson's summary (a culture unable to change that "must therefore be left to die"). He says: "Culture has been used as a curtain, drawn by those who seek to avoid responsibility for their actions. It is used as an excuse by parents to take children from school, by children to leave school and by teachers to teach to a lower standard."

His emphasis is on the primary obligations the state has to equip children to function in the modern work force rather than condemning them to a marginal, impoverished existence in ethnic ghettos. The job of cultural maintenance and transmission may be important, but it's a task for family and community. Again, as he notes bleakly in reply to Pearson: "If you need government to teach you what your culture is, it is already lost."

Pearson pounces on Johns's line that "a modern, Western education system cannot maintain a pre-literate nomadic culture" and throws it back at him. "Of course it cannot. But we have a right to a modern, literate, prosperous version of our culture. This right to cultural continuity is exactly the same right the non-indigenous conservatives demand when they fight to prevent postmodern gobbledygook from pushing knowledge about old Western culture out of the curriculum."

"A modern, literate, prosperous version of our culture" strikes me as a very tall order. It makes more sense in relation to the user-friendly artistic and folklore elements of the remnant tradition than it does to Aboriginal religion. The latter, except in banal, New Age versions, is irretrievably pre-modern. But even without the religious component, which purists would regard as its animating spirit, there are serious problems.

Who in indigenous Australia could ever be entrusted with the task of articulating a new, syncretic version? Should it be a single pan-Aboriginal account that risks swamping regional and linguistic diversity, in the same way political pan-Aboriginality subsumed tribal differences and annihilated all other blood ties? Should it be the special preserve of indigenous teachers or something bland enough to be taught by anyone who has got through teacher training?

Beyond the practical problems, there is the question of why Pearson is reverting to the ethos of entitlement and describing this new, re-engineered version of Aboriginal culture as a right. Johns says of the article in The Age that "it signals the return of the old-guard Aboriginal leadership and of Pearson to its fold". But, given the reiterated concerns to maintain a dialogue with political and cultural conservatives, perhaps it's not too much to hope these are rhetorical lapses rather than a complete change of heart.