By the 20th century, Queensland was in white hands and Indigenous survivors lived in shanty-towns or missions. At Hope Vale in Cape York, German missionaries were successful because they learned the local language. Many Indigenous people were killed in the 1870s Palmer River goldrush and the Guugu Yimithirr people were grateful to Lutheran pastor Schwarz who provided an alternative to a fringe-dwelling existence. As in missions across Australia young strangers developed an Aboriginal identity of their own.
Noel Pearson’s father was a stockman who grew up at the mission and shared its Lutheran faith and Noel was born there in 1965, his first two years as a “constitutional alien” before the referendum was passed. Noel enrolled at a Brisbane Lutheran school, and studied anthropology and archaeology at the University of Queensland. A great influence was Charles Perkins, another mission boy whose political fearlessness and strong sense of Aboriginal dignity saw him lead the freedom ride and later clash with numerous prime ministers.
Pearson got his first taste of politics with what Marcia Langton called the Goss Labor Queensland government’s ‘nasty games’ on land rights. Pearson was excited by the 1992 Mabo decision saying native title showed the capacity of British common law. He described Keating’s Redfern speech as ‘the seminal moment of European Australian acknowledgement of grievous inhumanity’ to Indigenous people.
After Howard won power in 1996, Pearson adjusted his political radar as he understood the problems of decolonisation. On western Cape York, Peter Dutton exposed the devastating state of Aurukun calling it the end of the liberal consensus on Aboriginal issues. In Pearson’s Hope Vale, alcohol, drugs and gambling dependencies were rife. He saw ‘sit down money’ as a long-term corrosive and began to take ‘once unmentionable’ issues to a national audience.
Pearson saw the political left was strong on land rights but weak on personal responsibility while the right was the opposite. Pearson became a ‘radical centrist’ and following Amartya Sen, he spoke of the illusion of singular identity and began understanding Australia as country shared by two peoples. His goal is to see Indigenous people recognised as “peoples” with cultural distinctiveness and “populations” who can be measured against health and education outcomes against other Australians.
Pearson speaks to an ever-evolving sense of self, grounded by the dignity of his upbringing and his Aboriginality. Bennelong, Bussamarai and Pearson are separated by time and circumstance but united by the need to take control of their lives. All faced massive challenges and all were scarred by proximity to colonialism. Bennelong was arguably Indigenous Australia’s first and only ambassador, but was discarded when Britain had no more use for him. By Bussamarai’s time colonisation was in full swing across Australia, a war on many fronts. His ‘opera’ was similar to Bennelong’s spearing of Phillip: the mark of a strategic thinker with a sense of drama. Bussamarai was killed and victors wrote him out of the history.
Today, an Indigenous man is re-writing history and imposing his own dignity on a white world. Noel Pearson is educated enough to understand the scars of colonisation but he is also honest enough to see the problems of decolonisation. His speeches are the mark of an iconoclastic intellectual, black and brave yet also human and universal. Pearson is using dignity to serve new ends for a people that have survived invasion and want to flourish on their own terms. See also Part 1 and Part 2.