If you've been following the Constitutional recognition debate, you will undoubtedly have come across an Indigenous 'leader'.
There are lots of them. You don't really need a qualification to become one. There's no test to pass, no forms to sign or factory that produces them. But, there are prerequisites: you have to be politically savvy, articulate and (most importantly) able to perform for the media. In non-Indigenous politics, you have literal leaders, former leaders, leadership contenders, political performers, giants of the political arena and sideshows. In Indigenous politics (which has complex extensions into the Indigenous health, welfare, justice and community sectors), you're either a leader or you're not.
At the top of the media's Indigenous leaders' mound right now, the politically influential Noel Pearson ... and Warren Mundine ...
At the top of the media's Indigenous leaders' mound right now, the politically influential Noel Pearson (founder of the Cape York Institute) and Warren Mundine (Chair of the Prime Minister's Indigenous Advisory Council). These are men who can single-handedly shape the debate and often do, through News Limited and Fairfax outlets. Below them, the likes of Galarrwuy Yunupingu and his brother Djawa who are, to be fair, two respected elders of the Yolngu people. Both played an integral role in inviting the Prime Minister to and hosting him for a week in Arnhem Land last year.
Moving down (and in no particular order), a rogue's gallery of prominent Aboriginal people: Professor Marcia Langton, Dr Tom Calma, Mick Gooda, Lowitja O'Donoghue, Justin Mohamed, Joe Morrison, Nova Peris, Bess Price, Gayili Yunupingu and Adam Goodes to name a few. Adam Goodes is the only prominent athlete among the bunch at the moment. Undoubtedly, other Indigenous sports stars will become part of the debate on a referendum to change the Constitution and they too may be anointed.
Politically, being labelled an Indigenous leader is something of a poisoned chalice.
Politically, being labelled an Indigenous leader is something of a poisoned chalice. The problem is not so much the individuals and their legitimate qualifications and experience; rather, the implication that they represent all First Nations’ views. The vitriol directed towards Warren Mundine (who often feels it necessary to say he doesn’t speak for every blackfella) and Noel Pearson is remarkable and usually unfair. Not so much their fault as it is of the mainstream media who’ve anointed them as spokespersons for Indigenous Australia.
Of course, they both fit the mould nicely. Noel Pearson is a mission boy who grew up to be the intelligent, articulate and charismatic lawyer he is today. Warren Mundine is the former National President of the Labor Party; a politically savvy man who can criticise and praise the Prime Minister in the same sentence with ease. When it comes to creating and massaging the Recognition movement, their experience is invaluable. More importantly, for the media at least, they know the game. Put them in front of a camera and they require little to no coaching. For journalists covering Indigenous politics, they are gifts: Aboriginal, articulate and usually available.
New Matilda editor Chris Graham cheekily noted that Fairfax had recently appointed Pat Dodson and Noel Pearson as saviours of the Constitutional recognition movement ...
New Matilda editor Chris Graham cheekily noted that Fairfax had recently appointed Pat Dodson and Noel Pearson as saviours of the Constitutional recognition movement, which had been turning into a dog's breakfast of competing ideas. Again, it's a real compliment for them to be labelled as such. But underpinning it is the implication that the debate was out of control and blackfellas needed to be saved from themselves and the political mess they were creating in the first place.
Unlike many other media outlets, NITV has an obligation to try and give voice to the otherwise voiceless in what is becoming (rightly or wrongly) the Indigenous political issue: constitutional change and potential recognition of First Nations. These voices include those that are not particularly eloquent (at least to the mainstream media) or easily understood. Make no mistake: there are Indigenous people vehemently opposed to moves to 'recognise' them in Australia’s founding document. Warriors of the Aboriginal Resistance (who have a proclivity to burn anything with the Recognise 'R' symbol on it), the revamped Aboriginal Tent Embassy in Canberra and various other Aboriginal embassies around Australia have all expressed to NITV their opposition to the Recognise movement.
In the mainstream media ... Indigenous people are almost unanimously some variation of 'for' Constitutional recognition.
In the mainstream media (particularly News Limited outlets), Indigenous people are almost unanimously some variation of 'for' Constitutional recognition. Treaties and sovereignty are sometimes mentioned, but usually as a logical progression of recognition. It's as if the notion of self-determination never existed before and can only happen once Constitutional change has occurred.
"We do see the mainstream media appointing Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, mainly Aboriginal people, as leaders," according to Reconciliation Australia co-chair (and oft labelled leader) Tom Calma.
"There are instances where those people don't represent anybody. Sometimes they make it clear they're representing people, sometimes they're just expressing a view."
When an Indigenous person is interviewed on the television news, audiences assume they are a leader ...
When an Indigenous person is interviewed on the television news, audiences assume they are a leader – by virtue of their Indigeneity and the fact they are speaking about Constitutional change. It would be reasonable to ask, why would the media interview them if they weren't somehow representative of black opinions? Now, many Australians only ever hear our 'leaders' talking about recognition. After all, that's what the media asks them about. But the consequence is that the recognition debate becomes the all-consuming issue in Indigenous affairs – pushing to the side other challenges like treaties, combatting Indigenous suicide and incarceration rates.
According to Dr Calma, the notion of Indigenous leaders is fraught. But, he believes there is one person who comes pretty close.
"You do have people like the Social Justice Commissioner [currently Mick Gooda] who does represent the view of Indigenous people because he canvasses and travels very extensively and talks to Indigenous people," Dr Calma said.
"He's able to present an unbiased interpretation. He's probably the only one in the nation who can speak with that level of authority."
There are also Indigenous organisations which can be considered representative, like the National Congress of Australia's First Peoples, Reconciliation Australia and the Northern and Central Land Councils. As well, tribes like the Yolngu, the Nyoongar, the Yidinji and the Ngarrindjeri have their own elders and points of authority. Even in urban Aboriginal communities, like in Western Sydney, there are leaders recognised (usually informally) by the community.
While usually well-intentioned, the mainstream media generally doesn't have the time, resources or inclination to canvass the huge variety of Indigenous political opinion. If they did, they’d find respected and astute Indigenous elders and leaders in every community who could add unparalleled depth to the political debate.