A vote for our nation’s greatest bridge

Soon, probably late next year, you and I and every other adult Australian will be asked to vote in a referendum “on the question of whether the nation should build its greatest bridge”.

The quote is from Cape York Aboriginal leader Noel Pearson, who described the coming Indigenous Voice referendum using a metaphor from journalist Chris O’Keefe. O’Keefe likened the referendum’s choices to deciding whether to build a bridge over Sydney Harbour. If the vote is Yes, he said, the parliament decides the bridge’s design. 

The enshrining of an Indigenous Voice in the constitution, said Pearson in a series of radio lectures, would be “our greatest bridge”: joining Australians in common cause, resolving historical burdens, bringing Indigenous heritage into the national identity, creating dialogue between first peoples and political leaders, and helping to close the gap between Indigenous and other Australians.

Pearson’s five radio lectures, as you may know, were the ABC’s annual Boyer Lectures, named after a distinguished early chairman of the ABC Board, Sir Richard Boyer. (I believe he and I are unrelated, but that’s just a narrow European view. Indigenous culture is more accommodating and opens up all sorts of possibilities.)

Pearson’s 2½ hour discussion of the issues to be addressed in the referendum is a unique contribution to the endless debate about our Indigenous heritage. It crosses political and cultural boundaries, draws upon qualities of European and other cultures, and argues persuasively that racism is diminished through constitutional recognition of Indigenous Australians.

Noel Pearson is a man of many parts, derived from the Cape York Indigenous communities into which he was born in 1965, his Lutheran school education, his studies of history and law at Sydney University, and his Indigenous leadership. 

Pearson describes an exchange in the 1980s when the Jewish American writer Saul Bellow asks “Who is the Tolstoy of the Zulus? … I’d be glad to read him.” To which Ralph Wiley, an African American journalist, responded: “Tolstoy is the Tolstoy of the Zulus.” “We all own Shakespeare,” adds Pearson, “because we are human, and this heritage is ours.”

Such acknowledgment of a shared human heritage, whatever our background, is fundamental to Pearson’s argument for Indigenous recognition. Whatever our personal cultural identity, it is only enhanced by our continent’s other ethnic identities, he says. “We must teach our young to embrace all communities of identification that mark our sense of who we are.” 

This short essay can’t possibly cover the huge amount of ground traversed by Pearson in his lectures, including post-settlement Aboriginal experience, non-Indigenous misconceptions, the back-story of the Uluru Statement from the Heart, conservative support for Indigenous issues, breaking out of poverty traps, and access to high-quality education.

Constitutional recognition of Australia’s Indigenous people has been waiting to happen since 1788, when the British claimed sovereignty on the absurd assumption that no people lived here. Australian law’s consequent failure to recognise Indigenous heritage leaves a void in our national narrative and demeans the peoples whose custodianship of our land predates human occupation of Europe by tens of thousands of years.

Constitutional recognition, says Pearson, will draw together the three great strands of Australian heritage: Indigenous, British and multicultural. He describes the latter as “the Gift of Multicultural Migration”, the end of White Australia and a powerful demonstration “that people with different roots can live together”. 

“If we rise to the opportunity that now presents,” he says, “our three Australian stories will become one, and even as we maintain our diverse individual and group identities, we will be able to speak in the first person plural: ‘We the Australian People.’”

A fortnight ago Nationals leader David Littleproud and senator Jacinta Price stood with federal party colleagues and announced – before a referendum campaign has even started – that they would campaign against an Indigenous Voice, claiming it would create racial divisions while doing nothing to close the gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians.

When they spoke, all but one of Pearson’s lectures had been delivered, including his powerful arguments about the unifying power of constitutional recognition, and how essential it was to closing the wealth gap. For whatever reason, they chose to ignore his message, and that is a crying shame. It will be a national tragedy if their action ends up derailing this decades-long process.

In Pearson’s Boyer Lectures (podcasts are on the ABC website), the combination of a profound intellect and his 57 years of Indigenous experience casts a whole new light on our Australians lives. If you take time to listen to him you won’t regret it, and you’ll vote Yes.

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