• Discussions at Uluru Constitutional Recognition conference (NITV)Source: NITV
The Government has rejected an Indigenous voice in Parliament. Now that our constitution remains "shamefully absent" of Indigenous opportunity, what is to happen to our people? writes Caden Pearson.
By
Caden Pearson

4 Nov 2017 - 9:00 AM  UPDATED 4 Nov 2017 - 9:00 AM

I have a voice and I would like to use it.

I was hesitant to do so, but that was until I was denied by my elected Prime Minister. Denied a chance to use that voice in a referendum.

I will use it here, now, instead.

In May, at the National Constitutional Convention in Uluru the majority of the Indigenous representatives spoke. The subsequent Referendum Council report proposed, among other reforms, a voice to parliament enshrined in the constitution.

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Why a constitutionally enshrined body? Law Council of Australia president Fiona McLeod SC said it would afford the body “some protection from being defunded or wound back.”

 

It shouldn’t be so easy to silence the voices of Indigenous peoples

Governments will come and go but the body would remain, a sentry against the sneaky men and women of parliament who make sport of Indigenous affairs. Men and women who don’t have Indigenous peoples’ best interests at heart.

As an Indigenous individual with the desire to see my people equal and prosperous, I can’t help but feel a deep sadness at the callous and frankly imprudent rejection of a model that constitutional and other eminent legal experts are calling ‘conservative’, including - as The Australian’s Stephen Fitzpatrick reported - two of Australia's top lawyers. 

As people like (my uncle) Noel Pearson and Professor Megan Davis have continually tried to explain - if the parliament have the power to pass laws specifically and exclusively about Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, well, shouldn’t we have a say in that?

To my fellow Australians I say, don’t believe the lies promulgated by Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and Minister for Indigenous Affairs Nigel Scullion about a so-called ‘third chamber of parliament’.

Do not believe them. However, do pause to consider whether the politicians regulating our affairs undertook a press junket to mislead the public, to ‘dog whistle’ and made it that much harder for us to achieve important things like our collective aspirations, to improve the quality of life for our communities, our families, ourselves.

Politicians did not merely deprive Indigenous peoples of our rights, but went on to attack our ambitions in the first place, telling us that we asked for too much.

Politicians did not merely deprive Indigenous peoples of our rights, but went on to attack our ambitions in the first place, telling us that we asked for too much.

Therefore, to the Prime Minister I say, using your Minister for Indigenous Affairs to tell Indigenous peoples what is good leadership is, ironically, an example of weak leadership.

There was something especially hideous and intolerable about the official disrespect in the government’s rejection of the reform proposals in both the press release and the subsequent media appearances by the Minister for Indigenous Affairs. He appeared on television and on the radio, using the full power of his voice, to perversely misconstrue the proposal and while doing so caused great harm to the relationship between Indigenous peoples and the current government.

By virtue of our right to self-determination, we the Indigenous peoples, as a collective and as individuals, are free to determine our political status. This is not some singular dream of mine - this is according to the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

Referendum Council co-chair Pat Anderson said we are ‘voiceless and powerless in our own lands.’ Uncle Noel described the ‘torment of our powerlessness.’ How true this rings in light of recent events.

 

Grandpa Glen's Range Rover

I am reminded of a story my father told me about the many layers of bureaucracy that his father  -  my Grandfather -  had to go through just to buy a Land Rover in Hope Vale Mission in Far North Queensland in the early 70s.

Grandpa Glen was a contract musterer, and the preferred subcontractor, employed to drove cattle. He would be gone for months at a time droving cattle from Starke River down to Mareeba. He earned good money, ‘but not compared to the white fellas,’ my father would say.

In order to buy his first motor car, Grandpa Glen had to seek permission from the superintendent of Hope Vale. The superintendent then sought approval from the Director of the Department of Aboriginal and Islander Affairs in Cairns, who had to get the final say from Brisbane. The superintendent and the Director had to vouch that the white seller of the Land Rover was a citizen of good character and that my grandpa had enough money in his bank account.

And though it was my grandpa’s own bank account, it was held for him by the authorities and he had to go through another approval process to access his money to make the purchase. The seller, from Cooktown, would need to wait two or three months until the various levels of bureaucracy had vetted and approved the transaction. All this to buy a car.

Grandpa Glen’s story is not unique among Indigenous peoples. His generation had no power, they had no voice. I wonder, would I be telling that story if Indigenous people were included in the founding of the Australian constitution in 1901?

 

Having a so-called 'fair go'

I acknowledge the diverse opinions held by Indigenous peoples. We are all different but we all posses a unique sovereign right to these lands as the First Peoples. We don’t and shouldn’t have to all agree. In a democracy such as ours, a majority of voices will do.

Nayuka Gorrie wrote in The Guardian that Indigenous people should not engage the mechanisms of power to deliver what we want or need. She writes, “Why would they establish the means for their own demise? Why would they give us anything that could take away their ability to control us?”

I understand Nayuka’s despair. It always seems to be a case of ‘perhaps the next government will deliver.’

But while the structures of power may have been created without regard for Indigenous nations, I firmly believe Indigenous citizens can use them to hold elected officials to account and assert our rights as sovereign peoples, and this means there is always hope

An Indigenous MP representing Sydney’s inner-west can do little to help my people in Cape York. Having the power to vote in state and federal elections is not relevant to the fact that in the founding document of this country Indigenous peoples are shamefully absent.

To those who say we should simply become members of parliament I say, the argument for dedicated seats in parliament is not a solution. It is a separate issue. An Indigenous MP representing Sydney’s inner-west can do little to help my people in Cape York. Having the power to vote in state and federal elections is not relevant to the fact that in the founding document of this country Indigenous peoples are shamefully absent.

Members of parliament represent only their electorates, the 97 per cent. They don’t represent the 3 per cent whose sovereign land this is. Yes, there should be designated seats in parliament, not to address Indigenous issues but to address inequality; the inequality that we face in not easily being able to become members of parliament in the first place.

All we want is a right to say what the laws that specifically and exclusively affect us will do. Whether they are oppressive or whether they actually empower us. We’d like to have a "fair go".

We’d like our voices to be heard.

Caden Pearson is a Bagarrmuguwara writer, director and media professional from Hope Vale in Cape York. Follow Caden, @CadenPearson

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