By Janet Albechtsen – The Australian
PHOTO: Noel Pearson’s ‘tremendous work in Indigenous education and other areas … does not give him carte blanche to treat people who disagree with him so poorly’. Picture: Lyndon Mechielsen
This column has unashamedly put forward legal reasons and philosophical arguments to demonstrate why inserting a race-based voice in the Constitution is problematic to our democracy.
Whether responding to claims by lawyers or former judges or Indigenous leaders, academics and politicians, I have focused on the substance of the claims made. It has never been personal.
This week I am forced to diverge, at least partly, from that model of debate. Only partly, because the attacks by Noel Pearson a week ago demand a calm, thoughtful response. Anger is no way to respond, or to win an argument honestly or fairly.
So let us analyse in detail what was wrong with Pearson’s interview last week with Patricia Karvelas on Radio National.
What stood out most was the lack of intellectual rigour from this intellectual heavyweight. Pearson started by condemning the Nationals, saying they were deciding to vote against something that did not yet exist. Yet Pearson and other voice activists have thrown their wholehearted support behind something that also does not yet exist. If supporters can mount a Yes case, why can’t critics mount a No case?
Though we do not have the final wording, we have the Albanese amendment and the legal issues it raises. And we have the principle that inserting a race-based voice into the Constitution undermines equality.
Instead of putting forward intellectual arguments for the voice during his 17-minute interview, Pearson chose instead to launch a series of nasty attacks on those who dared to disagree with him.
Pearson attacked Nationals leader David Littleproud, accusing him of being a “boy”, a “kindergarten kid”. He was a “man of little pride”, boomed Pearson. The Indigenous leader then accused the Nationals leader of having his strings pulled by Jacinta Nampijinpa Price, then accused Price of having her strings pulled by think tanks such as the Centre for Independent Studies and the Institute of Public Affairs. He accused Tom Switzer and me of pulling Price’s strings, too.
PHOTO: Nationals Leader David Littleproud and Jacinta Nampijinpa Price. Picture: NCA NewsWire / Gary Ramage
Where does the string-pulling stop? Who is at the end of the line? Who is pulling my strings, Noel? There are no strings. Only ideas and concerns and questions I have raised in great detail over months. Price has done the same.
I do not know Price except for a couple of brief conversations, one long before Pearson’s attacks and one immediately after to check on her after listening to Pearson’s demeaning attacks. Even if I’d had 100 conversations with Price, even if she were my close friend, it would not warrant the patronising, belittling accusation that Price is the puppet of someone else.
Attempts to smear people who have concerns about the voice have been going on for some time. But Pearson shows how high the abuse goes, reaching into the upper echelons of the voice proponents. It suggests there is little that leaders of the voice campaign would not do to try to taint those who have raised concerns about a major change to the country’s founding document.
Witness Marcia Langton this week claiming it would be unfortunate if “the debate sinks into a nasty, eugenicist, 19th-century style of debate about the superior race versus the inferior race”. This is a wicked intervention from Langton. No one on the No side has done this. Only an Indigenous leader on the Yes side has mentioned eugenics.
No matter how invested these Indigenous leaders are in the voice, nothing warrants this ripping down of opponents to try to win people over to their side.
Notice the allusions to violence Pearson chose to deploy – people like me had fashioned the “bullets”, he said, and Price’s “black hand is pulling the trigger”. We were, he claimed, “punching down on other black fellas”.
If one wanted to resort to the same foul language, one could point out that Pearson was punching down on a black woman during that interview.
When Karvelas chose not to call out these nasty, personal, anti-intellectual attacks, or Pearson’s demeaning accusation that an Indigenous woman was the puppet of others, it revealed how one-eyed she had become on this matter. Imagine if a conservative claimed that someone was pulling Megan Davis’s strings or Penny Wong was someone’s puppet. There would be an uproar about sexism. But if Pearson demeans a black woman, there is silence from the left.
Sadly, even those voice supporters in the media we might expect to be more balanced have fallen silent, as if Pearson is a protected species. Their silence tells you they are not thinking clearly about the voice.
Whether you agree or disagree with Price, we need more people like her in federal parliament. People who are not political insiders, not former political staffers or union officials. People who have pulled themselves up by their bootstraps, with a set of convictions that predate politics.
Pearson’s arrogance is dangerous to an informed debate. He claims there are “two kinds of people in the bush”. People such as Littleproud, who disagree with Pearson, are the “heartless” people who “couldn’t give a stuff about black fellas”. People who agree with Pearson are the “decent” people.
Pearson has been rightly celebrated for his tremendous work in Indigenous education and other areas. But that does not give him carte blanche to treat people who disagree with him so poorly.
He sounded ridiculous when he boomed about Price being caught in a “vortex”, “a celebrity vortex”, “a redneck celebrity vortex” and then a “tragic redneck celebrity vortex”. Had he reached for one more adjective I would have called for confiscation of his thesaurus. He then moved on to John Howard, who has expressed concerns about the voice. Pearson attempted to rip into Howard by saying: “Who can arrogate to themselves that kind of presumption that their own view should be the view that prevails?”
Oh, the hypocrisy, Mr Pearson. You spent 17 minutes demeaning opponents and presuming that your view is the only morally acceptable view.
“We’ve landed with the voice,” Pearson thundered to Karvelas, as if a series of conventions and meetings and papers drawn up by Indigenous activists should settle the matter once and for all. In fact, we, the people, have not landed anywhere yet. That is up for debate. And a referendum.
Pearson’s lack of temperance when it comes to the voice reveals a dark side, not just to the voice campaign but to what a body called the voice may look like.
I once feared that a constitutionally entrenched voice would be filled with people like Lidia Thorpe. That changed last week. If the voice comes to sound anything like the bullying from Pearson – with people who believe that attacking people with different views, rather than engaging in a civilised debate, is the way forward for reconciliation – then the country is in trouble.
Janet Albrechtsen is an opinion columnist with The Australian. She has worked as a solicitor in commercial law, and attained a Doctorate of Juridical Studies from the University of Sydney. She has written for numerous other publications including the Australian Financial Review, The Age, The Sydney Morning Herald, The Sunday Age, and The Wall Street Journal.