Noel Pearson, a long-standing columnist with The Australian newspaper and the publication's reigning 'Australian of the Year' award winner has told an Abbott Government cabinet minister to ‘f*ck off’ and ‘get the f*ck out of our campsite’ during a heated exchange at an iconic Aboriginal festival in the Northern Territory.
The altercation occurred shortly after Pearson and a group of Aboriginal leaders delivered a presentation on a trial Aboriginal governance model to hundreds of people at the Garma Festival, a cultural event staged over the weekend in Arnhem Land.
Nigel Scullion, the Minister for Indigenous Affairs, had attended the presentation and was walking past the campsite where Pearson and his group were staying. Witnesses say Scullion was urged to join the group.
The Minister was asked by Pearson for his views on the Empowered Communities model – Scullion, as minister, has responsibility for whether or not the pilot project eventually gets funded (it was provided $5 million by the previous Labor government to write a report on the model).
Witnesses, all of whom requested anonymity, report that Scullion expressed some reservations about the strategy, and noted that he was still waiting on the group’s report.
One witness, who asked not to be named, told New Matilda that “Pearson’s face completely changed”, before he delivered a tirade of abuse.
“Scullion goes to the campsite and declares ‘I want to be up front about this’ and said he was unconvinced around the merits of the Empowered Communities concept,” a witness told New Matilda.
“Pearson expressed disappointment and said he believed they’d spent time briefing him and bureaucrats on the worth of the program, and noted that the [previous]government had already committed $5 million to the project.
“Scullion maintained that he still wasn’t convinced, and that’s when Pearson lost it.
“His face changed. I mean, it just completely changed.
“He said words to the affect of ‘He was sick and f**king tired, despite their best efforts, to brief f**king public servants and politicians, and yet they are still ill-informed regarding [Empowered Communities]’.
“He used the words ‘f**k off’ and ‘f**k’ quite a few times – there were a lot of f-bombs – and then he told Scullion words to the affect of ‘Get the f**k out of our campsite.’”
New Matilda understands the altercation occurred in front of around 50 people. Witnesses say Scullion stood up to Pearson, told him to calm down, and then left.
A spokesperson for Mr Pearson told New Matilda he was unavailable for comment.
New Matilda was also unsuccessful in gaining comment from Minister Scullion’s office, and from Jawun Indigenous Corporate Partnerships, which hosted the group at Garma and which is guiding the Empowered Communities project.
Editor of The Australian, Clive Mathieson also declined to weigh into the issue, telling New Matilda it was “… entirely a matter for Mr Pearson.”
Ironically, it’s The Australian that has played a major part in lifting Pearson’s profile. Pearson has been a long-standing columnist with the publication, and is still listed on the site as an opinion writer. The Australian has awarded Pearson its ‘Australian of The Year’ honour on several occasions, including in 2014.
That honour was bestowed despite The Australian earlier publishing an explosive story revealing lengthy details about Pearson’s occasionally abusive exchanges, which included calling bureaucrats “white c*nts”, throwing water in the face of a journalist who asked him a question he didn’t like, and regularly abusing politicians and journalists.
In April 2012, multiple Walkley Award winning journalist Tony Koch revealed that after writing a story about alleged fraud at the Djarragun College in Cairns – a school Pearson strongly backed – he says Pearson phoned him.
“[He] didn't think the story should be written, and he blasted me down the phone, telling me that I was a "f … ing disgrace" who had "made a living out of the misery of Aboriginal people".
Koch, who worked closely with Pearson for 15 years, described him as a brilliant intellect and great orator, but said he also possessed a “bitter tongue”.
“I can't say why I've never publicly criticised Pearson for this kind of behaviour before. Perhaps I thought his sudden outbursts and his often bitter tongue were part of the price we had to pay for his brilliance.
“Was I too thrilled, especially in the early years, at the sight of Pearson, burning bridges and stepping on toes, saying what nobody else would say, in his bid to save Aboriginal Australia?
“I suppose because I'm older than Pearson, I also figured he would grow humbler over time and the grace that comes with age would strengthen him as a leader.
“I imagined him reaching out to others, taking wise counsel, drawing an ever-wider circle of influence, as he sought to improve the plight of his people.
“It pains me to say the opposite has happened: Pearson's profile has blossomed, but so has his ego, and while that is only human, there have been consequences. Instead of drawing people into his orbit, Pearson has succeeded in pushing almost everyone away.
“In recent weeks, as he stepped up a new and extraordinarily expensive campaign for more funds for Cape York schools, he has taken to berating people who could actually teach him a thing or two.”
In defence of Pearson, all of the witnesses at Garma who New Matilda spoke to acknowledged his presentation on the Empowered Communities model was outstanding.
One witness described as “hands down the best speech I’ve ever seen delivered by an Aboriginal person”.
“He was fantastic. He really provided a good reasoning of what [Empowered Communities] was. I think people were really interested in the concept because of the standard of the leadership [promoting it].
“I think that’s important to acknowledge because there’s a real disconnect between what happened later on.”
The Empowered Communities group includes leaders from eight regions around Australia: North East Arnhem Land in the Northern Territory, Sydney and the Central Coast of NSW, the Murray Goulburn region of Victoria, the Cape York Peninsula in Queensland, the East and West Kimberley regions of Western Australia and the NPY lands in the Central Desert region that borders South Australia, Western Australia and the Northern Territory.
The Empowered Communities website notes: “Members of the group have been collaborating informally for many years. Since June, a representative from each region has sat on a Steering Committee to guide the Empowered Communities work. Through this, they have been working to establish formalised collaboration mechanisms and to develop a proposal for reform to the interface between Indigenous people and government.”
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