A Rightful Place

In reply to Noel Pearson's Quarterly Essay, A Rightful Place: Race, recognition and a more complete commonwealth.



Robert Manne

There is one dimension of Tony Abbott’s political character that does not fit with his wall-to-wall conservatism: his interest in the wellbeing, according to his lights, of Aboriginal Australia and his personal “crusade” for indigenous constitutional recognition. This dimension of Abbott’s politics first became apparent in February 2013 when, as the leader of the opposition, he spoke on the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples Recognition Bill. According to Abbott, Australia was a “blessed country,” except for one thing: “We have never fully made peace with the first Australians.” Abbott described this failure as a “stain on our soul.” Australia had to do now what should have been done 200 or 100 years ago: “acknowledge Aboriginal people in our foundation document.” When he became prime minister, Abbott showed that these words were not an aberration. He began to prepare the ground carefully for a referendum on indigenous constitutional recognition and let it be known that its success was one of his most heartfelt prime-ministerial ambitions. Clearly there is something peculiar in the Abbott discrepancy – the arch-conservative genuinely interested in indigenous constitutional recognition – that needs to be explained. 

My explanation begins with two words: Noel Pearson. In 2005 Pearson delivered the Mabo Oration on the place of indigenous Australians in the nation. His speech concluded with these words: “The political truism that only Nixon could go to China is pertinent here. Only a highly conservative leader, one who enjoys the confidence of the most conservative sections of the national community, will be able to lead the country to an appropriate resolution of these issues. It will take a prime minister in the mould of Tony Abbott to lead the Australian nation to settle the ‘unfinished business’ between settler Australians and the other people who are members of this nation: the indigenous people.” This was remarkably prescient. It was also part of what Pearson describes as his political “long game.” At the time Abbott was no more than a middle-ranking member of the Howard cabinet. 

Under Gillard, Pearson joined the expert panel considering the question of indigenous constitutional recognition, established in the compact with the Greens. For him, however, the planets only began aligning favourably, as he put it, as it became obvious that Abbott would become the next prime minister. For Abbott, as he admitted recently, conversion to the cause of indigenous constitutional recognition was long in coming. There is every reason to believe that it came primarily because of Pearson’s friendship and tuition. 

Over the years it was Pearson who has made a case for constitutional recognition that might have some prospect of success. Its gradual development can be seen in the anthology of his writings, Up from the Mission. It has now been brought together in A Rightful Place. In essence the argument goes like this. Australia is a “triune nation,” formed of three parts: indigenous heritage; British cultural, political and legal foundation; successful immigrant integration through the philosophy of multiculturalism. Pearson rejects the conservative anxiety that the retention of either indigenous or immigrant identity threatens to splinter the nation. In contemporary societies individuals have what he calls layered identities. Part of the identity of indigenous Australians is traditional culture, language and love of homeland; another part the education that will allow them to operate effectively in the modern economy. There is no need to choose between economic participation and fidelity to tradition.

There was once, according to Pearson, a time when indigenous Australians had no place in the nation. This time has passed – through the franchise, legal protection from racial discrimination and limited common-law access to their lands through native title. Yet full acceptance still awaits recognition in the constitution. Until that recognition, Australia will remain an incomplete nation. 

As Pearson understands, constitutional change in Australia is dauntingly difficult. In left–right politics, 51 per cent support is sufficient; in constitutional politics, support must approach 90 per cent, as it did in the 1967 indigenous referendum. A long time ago, when thinking about political support for his plans to tackle the breakdown in remote Aboriginal communities, Pearson became convinced that friends of the indigenous peoples could be found among the conservatives of rural and regional Australia. In thinking now about indi-genous constitutional recognition this idea, about a broad coalition including conservatives, has been extended. To garner the level of support required, the only possibility is an Australian version of the Nixon in China phenomenon. The leadership of a trusted diehard conservative like Tony Abbott is vital.

What are the prospects of success? In A Rightful Place Pearson quotes a comment made in 1959 by the anthropologist W.E.H. Stanner: “To the older generations of Australians it seemed an impossible idea that there could be anything in the Aborigines or in their tradition to admire. The contempt has perhaps almost gone.” Unhappily, Stanner was wrong. In recent years, the old contempt has returned. One source is the editor of Quadrant, Keith Windschuttle. His revisionist history of the genocide in Tasmania not only minimises the number of deaths but also argues that Aborigines had no attachment to country and were “the agents of their own demise,” that is to say responsible for their own extermination. Another source is the former Labor minister Gary Johns. Here is a typical passage from his Aboriginal Self-Determination. “What if the [Aboriginal] culture is no more than people behaving badly, a result of blighted environments, poor incentives, awful history, and an historic culture best relegated to museums and occasional ceremonies? … Aborigines did not prosper in Australia. They merely survived.” A third source is the News Corp columnist Andrew Bolt, who regularly attributes the contemporary malaise of life in the remote communities almost entirely to traditional Aboriginal culture and treats with sarcasm any warm-hearted description of the world of the Aborigines before the arrival of the British, while apparently blind to the racism involved. 

As Pearson understands, writers like these are influential on the right of the federal parliamentary Coalition. Come the referendum it is hard to estimate how many will side with Andrew Bolt rather than Tony Abbott. Even more troublingly, such writers have created a public opinion of uncertain size contemptuous of Aborigines and hostile therefore to constitutional indigenous recognition. Pearson’s political logic is based on the idea that the hard right can be isolated from Abbott-led conservatives and everyone to their left. But if the hard right cannot be contained to a rump, and if right of centre opinion is, on balance, opposed to recognition, then the referendum will most likely fail. 

There is a different kind of problem with relying on an arch-conservative to lead the campaign. The Gillard-appointed expert panel favoured the removal of the idea of “race” from the constitution but also constitutional protection against racism, recognition of Aboriginal languages, and a generous declaration acknowledging and respecting the Aborigines as Australia’s first peoples. As soon as their report was tabled, Tony Abbott opposed the idea of constitutional protection from racism as a mini bill of rights, a classic expression of contemporary Australian conservatism. Eventually conservative opposition to any mention of Aboriginal languages in the constitution also became clear. Even then the whittling down of the expert panel’s recommendations seemed not yet complete. 

A referendum on doing little more than removing references to race in the constitution would be a far from satisfactory outcome. Pearson has tried to overcome the problem of diminishing hopes by floating the idea of a stirring declaration outside the constitution, and the creation inside the constitution of an indigenous body restricted, however, to providing the parliament with advice. Whether such ideas will be supported by other indigenous leaders or by conservatives is presently unclear. I believe Pearson is right to think that the referendum is only likely to succeed if the campaign is led by a trusted conservative. Paradoxically, however, leadership of this kind might in the end reduce the scope of recognition so radically that the question put to referendum might actually be opposed by a sizeable number of indigenous Australians. Such an outcome would be, of course, grotesque.

There is another problem with this whole question. More than anyone, Noel Pearson was responsible for turning Australians’ attention from exclusive interest in symbolic reconciliation to the crisis of life in the remote indigenous communities. This was an act of high political intelligence and courage. But it was not without risk. As Pearson understood, concentration on community dysfunction might revive the oldest stereotypes about Aboriginal Australians lying just beneath the surface of national consciousness. In the past years the old stereotypes have indeed resurfaced, encouraged by both the hard right’s advocacy of assimilation and their expression of unconcealed contempt for indigenous culture. 

Around the time Pearson broke the public silence concerning the problems of alcohol, drugs and welfare dependency, I argued that his increasingly open expression of irritation with the left, while understandable, was a political mistake. The pro-reconciliation enthusiasm of a significant section of the educated and affluent middle class was an asset that ought neither to be spurned nor taken for granted. I still think there is something to this criticism. Under the influence of Noel Pearson, John Howard first floated the idea of indigenous constitutional recognition immediately before the 2007 election. The idea was revived by the Greens in their 2010 compact with the Gillard government. As we have seen, it was strongly supported by Tony Abbott as leader of the opposition in 2013. And yet, despite the support for the referendum across the entire political spectrum, time and again it has been postponed, most recently until 2017 and the fiftieth anniversary of the 1967 referendum. The reason is dismayingly simple. The issue has never captured the national imagination. 

This points to something deep. During the 1990s, under Paul Keating and Patrick Dodson, there existed an atmosphere of intense hopefulness about the role reconciliation might play in the creation of a better nation. In May 2000, at its climax, hundreds of thousands of Australians walked across the bridges of Australia in support of a reconciliation ceremony at the centenary of federation, an idea which, unforgivably, the Howard government quickly killed. The mood of hope was still not altogether extinguished, as the passions stirred by Kevin Rudd’s February 2008 apology to the stolen generations demonstrated. However, in recent years that atmosphere has faded. Somehow, if the referendum is to succeed it will now have to rediscovered. Pearson is probably right to believe that unless the movement for indigenous constitutional recognition is led by a rock-solid conservative it is unlikely to succeed. The problem is that a rock-solid conservative is the least likely kind of political leader capable of reigniting the social-justice passions of Australians. If the referendum fails, it might not be as a consequence of the Great Australian Silence over the meaning of the dispossession but of something even older, the Great Australian Indifference to the fate of the Australian first peoples.

Noel Pearson is pre-eminently a political thinker concerned with outcomes. But he is also an intellectual concerned with the search for truth. Never has the tension between these two dimensions of his personality been clearer than it is in A Rightful Place. As a political strategist, Pearson understands that nothing is more likely to destroy the prospects of a successful referendum than a return to the fiercely partisan cultural conflicts over the nature of the dispossession which Australians called the History Wars. As an indigenous intellectual, however, he has discovered that the issue simply cannot be avoided.

The familial parts of A Rightful Place, where Pearson struggles to shine a personal light on these matters, form, for me at least, both the most moving and intellectually compelling dimension of the essay. He is keen to introduce his children to English literature. In the preface to an old favourite, War of the Worlds, about a ruinous alien invasion of London, Pearson discovers to his astonishment that H.G. Wells’ inspiration was the British extermination of the indigenous Tasmanians. In the work of a contemporary English scholar, he discovers to his even greater astonishment that Charles Dickens – the author of Great Expectations, the book he has been reading to his daughter – was a bitter enemy of savage peoples: “I am yet to work out whether, how and when to tell my girl that the creator of Pip, Pumblechook and that convict wretch Magwitch may have wished her namesake great-great grandmother off the face of the earth.” Pearson knows that missionaries saved his people. But he concludes this chapter with the chilling story told by one of these missionaries of the murder of Didegal, a contemporary of his great-grandfather. “Anonymous, extrajudicial, unreported, mundane. Like eradicating vermin. Or inferior beings of human likeness.”

All this points to the most obvious contradiction at the heart of A Rightful Place. Pearson believes that the successful passage of the referendum for indigenous constitutional recognition relies on conservative leadership. For someone who is seeking to rally conservatives to the cause of constitutional recognition nothing could be more impolitic than to dwell upon the meaning of the dispossession or even to embrace, as he does, the concept of genocide as a descriptor for the nineteenth-century disaster in Tasmania and maybe elsewhere. Even some left-wing historians now avoid it. Pearson understands only too well the tension between his political pragmatism and his obligation to analyse the history of his people truthfully. “I hoped to avoid the past, but it is not possible. I hoped to dis-remember the past, but it is not possible.” Pearson is too honest either to avert his gaze from history or to pretend that he has found a way to resolve the consequent contradiction. 

Robert Manne

This is a revised and expanded version of a piece that appeared in the The Saturday Paper on 27 September 2014.


This is a reply to Noel Pearson’s Quarterly Essay, A Rightful Place: Race, recognition and a more complete commonwealth. To read the full essay, login, subscribe, or buy the book.


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