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Pearson remains 'unfollowed' because other voices remain unheard

By Jack Wilkie-Jans - posted Friday, 28 November 2014

In response to Jack Waterford's article 'Noel Pearson is a great orator but he's essentially a leader without followers in Aboriginal world' (The Canberra Times, November 7th, 2014), I would say that while a great amount of detail was given describing Noel Pearson's oratory prowess, the reasons backing Waterford's point were fairly skeletal and over simplified.

Yes Noel Pearson is a great speaker and as an academic he has proven himself very capable as a critical thinker, not to mention one who puts forward alternatives- styling which has helped his business interests in remote areas such as Cape York grow and become highly lucrative. But nobody denies his abilities, not even Pearson's critics.

They say that in regards to the Nobel Prize likewise with philosophy, that often it’s the question not necessarily the answer that’s important. To give enormous credit where indeed it is due, Pearson asked the right and valid questions as the right time.


But Pearson went a few steps beyond presenting theoretical academic discussion; he became a project manager and businessman operating private ‘social experiments’ at the ‘go-ahead’ of many governments based on his academic ideology. I think perhaps the point which was half-made or hinted at in Waterford's piece, that Pearson's academia and thought process could or could not be of great value to the future of Aboriginal people, just needs time for such notions to be discussed, analysed, critique and absorbed. This essentially means that Pearson's ideologically driven ‘social experiments’, which is putting theory into practice, has rather jumped the gun.

Instead of using the public purse to experiment with one man’s philosophy I believe that the best thing for places Cape York and the people there is for the governments to first build on what there is [or isn't] in rural and remote regions; building up and on government services and other mainstream initiatives i.e. the role of government, and bringing them to a standardised level of acceptability and accessibility. That is the only way to "close the gap". That’s the first step currently being ignored. Pearson’s grand visions have no working foundation which is why his work is not showing success across the board and on the ground.

While there are small pockets and without doubt individual success stories, given the fact that these experiments, projects, policies or initiatives- whatever you want to call them- are government funded, were these not Pearson initiatives I have no doubt that their funding would have been re-considered some time ago.

In short, Pearson’s experiments are failing.

Pearson’s spoken words resound through non-Indigenous and hopefully most Indigenous circles but in reality there is still a long way to go and after millions of dollars and several years I think it’s definitely time that white Australia entertained more than just Pearson when in regards to Aboriginal Affairs and discussion on the plight of our First Nations peoples. Pearson asked the right questions at the right time but while opening the discussion, he monopolised it.  While what he says sounds good I think it’s time that Pearson’s theories go through one final stage of development and that is, like with every other great critical thinker before him, that these are taken back to the drawing board and re-evaluated for their workability.

If people can agree with him in theory and yet in practice the results just aren’t there that means he’s certainly on to something, but that there are shortcomings and that the shortcomings are, indeed like Waterford acknowledged, somewhere in the mix.


I do not think that the shortcomings are necessarily wholly the fault of the Aboriginal people who Waterford rightly suggested do not ‘follow’ Pearson. I do not think, and fervently rebuke, that the unsuccessfulness of Pearson’s philosophies in action are the fault of an Aboriginal populous who simply aren’t up to speed. For each of the stars in the sky there are double the ways in which a nation or people can move forward. So why, considering the relatively short period in which Aboriginal people have been able to enjoy an equal footing rights wise as their non-Indigenous counterparts, should the discussion about their present and their future be resigned to only one train of thought as being the right approach; that being Pearson’s approach?

I don’t believe that the reasons for Pearson not having followers are even Pearson’s fault as some would espouse. The fault of these failings, the communication breakdown, lay with the people listening to Pearson and the people who think that it’s all they have to do in order to be seen to understand and to be helping Aboriginal people. Consecutive governments have heard Pearson, liked what he had to say and then handed over responsibilities to him and his organisations. They passed the buck well and truly.

Having said that, Pearson does have every right to his say and as he even states, he speaks for himself only. Yet actions speak louder than words and while his voice is his, his actions and work directly affect Aboriginal people in remote places, places forgotten by the governments so handed over to Pearson for experimentation. Pearson is a prophet no more, he is now a puppet. He has been set up to fail either way, in success or otherwise. Anything he does or says becomes his fault, he becomes the sole target shifting focus from the governments’ blasé approach to Aboriginal Affairs and their lack of caring because to them it’s easier to just “stick with Noel”.

As far as the governments are concerned, when regarding Aboriginal people, failure or success would be Pearson’s but the responsibilities and accountabilities won’t be the government’s. This is why Pearson has no followers, not because of a separation of intellect from his Aboriginal brothers and sisters, but because he is swimming upstream with theories which just don’t seem to be working in practice because the governments of this country didn’t facilitate a successful platform from which Pearson’s work could build off i.e. standardised and accessible services and opportunities in remote regions. They shifted responsibility to Pearson, placing him in the firing line.

The more Aboriginal Affairs and Aboriginal issues remain tokenised by the mainstream press, the less mainstream society will hear of alternative views or approaches to those of Pearson, the less governments will have faith in anyone but, meaning the more Pearson himself and his organisations will have to struggle for success of any degree. I think in the media and mainstream or white society we’ve side-tracked enough discussing Pearson and I conclude by saying that he is not the only one we should be listening to and he himself is not what we should be discussing any further. Let’s get back to the grass-roots concerns of Aboriginal Affairs and broaden such discussion to include the solutions from the community members and local governments. Let’s encourage Pearson and his work to be in partnership with his non-followers and let’s once again make Cape York the focus, not just one man.

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About the Author

Jack is a Traditional Owner from the Western Cape, Cape York Peninsula, an Aboriginal Affairs advocate and he sits on the board of the Cape's peak body organisation for social, economic and environmental development, Cape York Sustainable Futures Inc.

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