Even when he is on the other side of an argument, Noel Pearson rarely seems simplistic, partisan, self-congratulatory or ahistorical. He has lived the predicament of Aboriginal people struggling to reconcile their ways with modernity, thought about it with great sophistication, and written and spoken about it with unique power. Agree or disagree, it’s hard to deny that he speaks with authority. That’s why he’s widely seen as a kind of modern-day prophet. Despite, for instance, concluding a thunderous 1998 oration with the call to be rid of “this putrid government,” he had a much more complex view than the other, more predictably one-sided speakers on native title at that packed and roaring public meeting in Mosman. It was my first personal contact with Pearson. As the local MP, I found his attack on the then government was hardly endearing. It was pretty clear, though, even then, that Pearson understood how much more there was to Aboriginal disadvantage than simple racism.
When, a couple of years later, he began his long crusade against the unconditional welfare that was poisoning his people, members of that very government were among his most enthusiastic supporters. I was pleased, as employment minister, to have “whole of government” responsibility for commonwealth programs in Cape York because it gave me the chance to work with Pearson rather than just to agree with him. Pearson, I’m sure, already knew from bitter experience what I began to learn in that period between 2001 and 2003: namely, that it’s much easier for well-intentioned governments to spend money than to make a difference. Still, over the course of several visits, including one camping trip with Pearson, Fred Chaney and some troubled Aboriginal youths from Aurukun, I came to think that perhaps the most serious obstacle to real reconciliation was modern Australians’ failure to exceed the level of personal commitment to Aboriginal people that had been shown by the missionaries of former times. They had bled with them and bound their wounds. Many had left their bones in the communities they served. This generation’s greater sensitivity towards Aboriginal culture has not yet translated into a more widespread inclination to spend long years performing thankless tasks in hardship posts.
Last year, Pearson arranged for me to spend three weeks as a teacher’s aide in Coen. This year, it was ten days assisting the truancy team in Aurukun. In his Quarterly Essay, Pearson commends the MULTILIT remedial reading program denounced as “rote learning” by much of the educational establishment. When I recently returned briefly to Coen, I found pupils who had been illiterate a year earlier writing simple short stories thanks to MULTILIT. In his essay, Pearson eviscerates the academic orthodoxy which makes “culture” an excuse for Aboriginal students’ under-performance and even non-participation in education. At Aurukun, thanks to the truancy team funded and organised by Pearson’s Cape York Partnerships through the welfare reform process begun under the Howard government, school attendance rates have risen from about 30 per cent last year to over 60 per cent now. Of course that’s still far too low and the academic results are not yet in. Undeniably, though, it’s an important start.
Pearson’s essay elegantly restates his now well-known positions on the importance of a standard academic education and on the need for Aboriginal people to be able to participate in the broader economy on their merits. That, though, is not his main point. Effective participation in wider society is more a by-product of the education that he wants for young Aborigines; it’s not the main objective. Even in the most remote places, pre-prepared food, pay TV and four-wheel drives have had their inevitable impact. Aboriginal culture remains distinctive, but it is often but a distant echo of the high culture of traditional Aboriginal people. For understandable reasons Pearson is not very interested in preserving a contemporary Indigenous culture characterised by unemployment, substance abuse and domestic violence. He wants to restore fluency in traditional languages and the intimacy with country that can only come from traversing it on foot. In places where such a culture is no longer automatically passed on, Pearson thinks, education will be needed to create the mental aptitude and the critical mass for effective cultural transmission.
As is so often the case, just when he might have become pigeonholed, Pearson has the capacity to surprise both his backers and his critics. His call for a longer school day so that Aboriginal children can receive a sound general education is, of course, a challenge to the political Left. His bigger challenge, though, is reserved for the Right. Pearson wants the longer school day also to accommodate serious, sustained teaching in traditional Aboriginal culture: the language, lore and ritual of particular Aboriginal groups. Without an education in the “cultural hearth,” as he calls it, Aboriginality may survive as an identity but it is unlikely to endure as a series of cultures. He’s challenging Aborigines to become, in his words, a “serious people”: like the Jews, perhaps the world’s most successful minority, who have succeeded brilliantly in wider society while maintaining both their sense of identity and their distinctive beliefs and practices.
For all his consciousness of past injustice and of historical dispossession, Pearson is also an Australian. The civilisation that the British brought to this country from 1788 has ultimately benefited everyone, Aboriginal people included. Inevitably, Aboriginal people suffered grievously in the initial clash between modern and ancient cultures. Even so, British settlement brought immense changes for the better. As Pearson puts it, “the Enlightenment was not … a European … [but] a human illumination.” This is the concession that Pearson makes to his non-Aboriginal fellow Australians. In return, the concession he seeks from them is a commitment to maintain Aboriginal cultures as living entities rather than as memories recorded in archives and artefacts stored in museums.
Although Pearson knows it won’t be easy, I suspect he underestimates the magnitude of this task. The Jews are the most successful practitioners of cultural maintenance, but most Jewish people cling to the culture rather than to the religion; indeed, to liberal versions of it that might not pass Pearson’s threshold test. Pearson concedes that individual Aborigines might choose to assimilate, as many Jews have over the centuries. Still, real respect for Aboriginal people, he thinks, means empowering them to keep their culture as well as to change it or to lose it, if that’s their choice. Government, of course, unlike Pearson, could not be partial about the choices Aboriginal people make.
The challenge, for those who have been Pearson’s philosophical fellow travellers up till now, is to accept that biculturalism, at least for Aboriginal people, is a worthy object of Australian government policy and is worth paying for. That should not be too much to ask. After all, Western civilisation, especially its English-speaking form, has never demanded of people that they acknowledge a single immutable identity. Because it is unique to our country, support for Aboriginal culture is a responsibility of Australian government in a way that support for other minority cultures clearly is not.
In his final scripted speech as prime minister, John Howard acknowledged how far he’d come in his attitudes to Aboriginal issues. Undoubtedly, his late-flowering friendship with Pearson was a key factor in his personal journey from resistance to engagement. Over the years, Pearson has prompted quite a few conservative Australians to a change of heart. He’s now inviting us to go a little bit further than the former prime minister was prepared to, but it’s a project that we should be ready to support.
Tony Abbott is the shadow minister for Families, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs and serves on the House of Representatives standing committee for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Affairs.
This correspondence featured in Quarterly Essay 36, Australian Story.
ALSO FROM QUARTERLY ESSAY