The Pearson Influence

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In the late 1990s, journalist Nicolas Rothwell came across a dog-eared document. Rothwell describes this 80-odd page photocopy of an early version of Cape York leader Noel Pearson’s Our Right to Take Responsibility as a "soaring, intense text". He transcribed the entirety in shorthand, immersing himself for hours in Pearson’s thought-world. "Sparks of genius" flew. Indeed, Pearson went on to ignite a debate that has transformed Australian public discourse and policy making — and the white heat hasn’t gone out of it yet, nine years since it was published.

Now Pearson has released a collection of essays, columns, position papers and speeches titled Up from the Mission, and his views still make for an exciting, even electrifying read. Even though Pearson’s analysis of the interrelated issues of alcohol abuse, state dependency, passivity and responsibility is no longer revelatory, this book raised my hackles, offended and confronted me. It also persuaded me, deepened my understanding of contemporary Aboriginal realities and confirmed my opinion of Pearson’s import.

In this collection, comprising writings drawn from points throughout his career, Pearson’s work is many things. To begin with, it is varied and unpredictable, and yet remarkably coherent, given the long period it covers.

Where Pearson is unpredictable is chiefly in style and mood. He is at turns methodical, impassioned, nasty, intellectual, and inspired. More than the volatility, what makes an impression is just how involved Pearson is: this bloke is in it up to his elbows. The choice of front cover image conveys this too. A high-level powerbroker, Pearson, the politician, could have been pictured looking serious in a suit at any number of meetings or public moments. Instead he is captured with a hand outstretched; offering. There is a sweaty slick across his face, and he is wearing a chaotic painted t-shirt. This is Pearson, the activist.

Pearson also has unpredictable responses to a range of political issues and actors. For example, he cannot make up his mind what he thinks of the Apology: he turns the moment over and over, scrutinising, intuiting. Other pieces are less engaging — Pearson comes to some conclusions too quickly — yet the point is that he is a thinker, not an ideologue, however neatly (and perhaps problematically) his critique of the apparatus of the welfare state aligns with neoliberal political philosophy.

In terms of coherence, Up from the Mission traces the fascinating evolution of both Pearson’s thought and political strategy. The centrepiece of his intellectual project is the essay titled "Our Right to Take Responsibility", based on material taken from that earlier book. In it, unusually, Pearson writes for an Aboriginal readership: "We need to face up to reality," he tells his readers. Here Pearson outlines his understanding of the disastrous consequences of remote Aboriginal Australia’s entry into the welfare state in the 1960s. Two themes dominate.

The first is his insistence that social problems, such as grog addiction, be treated as a condition in their own right and not as symptoms to be attributed to the historical experience of colonialism. Quite obviously, Aboriginal social positions are the result of colonial and racial domination. But Pearson argues that causal meta-narratives obscure more than they reveal, and certainly offer little hope for the recovery of individual lives to states of health and meaning. Further, Pearson sees that this explanation involves conceding power to racism. "As bad as racism is we cannot allow it to reduce us to being treated — and seeing ourselves — as if we are not fully capable people in our own right."

The second theme is the insidious, destructive effect of welfare dependency, what some call "sit down money" and Pearson terms "passive welfare". Pearson perceives that a perverse relationship undergirds the welfare arrangement. "Welfare involves a superior power having all of the rights and all of the responsibilities to make decisions and take actions on behalf of relatively powerless people." Welfare, then, is a method of governance whereby marginalised recipients are "helped" — read managed — by people with resources. It becomes in both parties’ interests to perpetuate the relationship: the empowered hoard the power to help, and recipients — says Pearson — become attached to an image of themselves as victims who need and deserve assistance. Immersed entirely in a passive welfare economy and sociality it becomes difficult to imagine oneself as an architect of one’s own future, as a responsible, consequential social being.

Armed with an understanding that ran counter to much Aboriginal action on the national political stage (although, significantly, he found his views widely held at the community level), Pearson then set about positioning himself as a credible force for change. There are two moments that Pearson touches on in Up from the Mission which help explain his rise to influence.

It is well known that Pearson has broken with the Left, which since the late 1960s and 70s — the era of the student Freedom Rides and the land rights protest movement — has been seen as the natural ally of the Aboriginal struggle. In "Talking to the Right" (2004) he credits Mabo case laywer Ron Castan QC with teaching him that people from conservative rural and regional Australia have much in common with Indigenous people: not only do they face similar issues based on shared experiences but many genuine, and I would add historically rooted, relationships and friendships exist in these places.

Secondly, in the introduction to this collection, Pearson explains a crucial change of tack after Beazley lost the 1998 election. At that point he faced a stark choice: was the Indigenous leadership content to commentate and wait? Or should it consider dealing with the Howard government, despite its undeniabe contempt for Aboriginal rights-based claims for justice? Pearson chose the latter path, and set about translating his ideas and critiques into viable policy positions, many of which are now taking shape in the alcohol management and community-administered welfare quarantine trials underway in Cape York communities.

In assessing this collection of writing, a number of reviewers have dwelt upon Pearson’s favourable assessment of Howard, and I suspect there is an element of titillation at work here ("Check this out — an Aboriginal person likes John Howard!") and it’s not an angle that I find interesting. Rather, for this review, I have time to touch on just one other important piece in addition to Our Right.

In 2008 Pearson published a long, complex essay entitled "White Guilt, Victimhood and the Quest for a Radical Centre". Here he develops his analysis of the corrosive effects of what he calls the "victim" mentality mentioned above. He argues that the political viability and efficacy of this identity is sustained by the liberal Left’s "morally vain" attachment to the Aboriginal cause. He accuses the Left of infantalising Aboriginal people as hapless victims of a terrible history so as to maintain a sense of superiority over their political opponents (crudely, Right-wing racists who deny history).

Pearson wants Aboriginal people to be held responsible — indeed to feel more responsible — for their own circumstances, to be more accountable to their own families and communities. Extremely frustrated with historical determinism, he advocates a more careful conception of the relationship between structural disadvantage and individual creativity. As he puts it in a 2008 speech to the National Press Club, "The past is strongly with us in the present. But … we must also look to the future. Although our inequality and dysfunction have larger structural causes, they are ultimately realised in the behaviour of real human beings — who have the potential for insight, organisation and agency." He also says that class is a greater determining factor than race, in terms of life chances.

It has become commonplace to talk about a paradigm shift in Aboriginal affairs. But the old paradigm, the old faiths, have not simply disintegrated, broken up and drifted away. The ideas and institutions that form the bedrock of the self-determination era creak and groan under pressure but they are still there. Pearson’s insights spring to mind all too often in conversations and forums where Leftists seem to me possessive about Aboriginal people and issues: "they" are ours to worry about, to care for, to talk and know about.

But Pearson’s depiction of the deeply felt sympathies and agonies of the Left suffers from being a caricature. Anthropologist Emma Kowal unravels the question of moral vanity in a short article in a 2008 Australian Anthropological Society Newsletter. Kowal argues that the liberal Left is interested in maintaining the moral superiority, not of themselves, but of their position in its own right. "In the logic of the self-determination era, it was morally right to change the "circumstances" of Indigenous people, but immoral to change Indigenous people themselves," writes Kowal. To want Aboriginal people to change was the desire animating a previous, racist era: it was assimilationist in intent. So Pearson overstates his case here, but does not miss the mark entirely.

Another area in which Pearson needs to take more care is in his recent writing looking at the fate of 1970s Aboriginal radicalism. Pearson is not only mean-spirited as he goes about mocking radical posturing, he fails to step us through what happened. The very projects and people he says are steeped in "victim politics" were originally energised by dreams of self-organisation, self-rule and self-salvation — and that rhetoric at least squares with Pearson’s vision. (Granted, their separatist ideals are entirely out of step with Pearson’s hope that Aboriginal people will "come in" to the nation.) Pearson frequently says that what he advocates amounts to real self-determination, and that real self-determination is hard work. What he seems to be criticising then is faux self-determination, an elaborate facade in which white people continue to run the show.

Since Up from the Mission was published in early June, I have visited Cape York, and been to the Laura Festival where mobs from across the Cape, north Queensland and the Torres Strait danced new and traditional dances. Old men directed their dancers with earnest concentration; a young woman from Lockhart River performed with such confidence, power and energy that the crowd surged, and was lifted and suspended in the swirling, cross-hatched coloured night lights from the stage, while her countrymen and women screamed with pride; the young fellas sported curling, fluorescent blonde rats tails after visits to the festival’s mobile hairdressing unit where Aboriginal trainees spent hours practising their craft on patient customers. Despite glimpses of other lives I failed to find the anecdote I admit I was waiting for, something to "use" in this review. What do I know of the material lives, the inner-lives, the aspirations and frustrations of the people I encountered briefly in the dust, under the shadow of an escarpment painted with Quinkin spirits?

I could have written an entirely different review, holding out against Noel Pearson’s interpretations and vision, rejecting his moralism, his normalising, his punitive proposals. But here is someone with an inkling of how to repair something that’s damaged. What would it mean to want him to fail?

New Matilda

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