Noel Pearson’s recent ‘dear John’ letter to the cultural Right got a pretty generous treatment from Charles Richardson, given the naivete and waste that Pearson’s strategy of cozying up to the Right has caused.

After all, it wasn’t just about building bridges with such champions of aboriginal Australia as Keith Windschuttle and Gary Johns. Pearson also wanted to make a break with the ‘silly, social-workerish’ liberal-left, and he did that by insulting them until many – including those who had years of experience in race politics – seeing themselves unwelcome, put their energies into other causes.

Nor was it just Marcia Langton warning him that such a strategy would not be reciprocated by the right. In Arena Magazine, in 2001-2002, we ran a series of articles (at the same time as running pieces by Pearson) suggesting that abandoning longstanding political alliances to negotiate new ones with traditional enemies for the sake of their ideas was politically naive in the extreme (Robert Manne made similar comments).

To put it bluntly – because he still hasn’t got it – the Right saw Pearson coming from a long way off. His every utterance was breathlessly namechecked by the commentariat – Pearson (Christopher – no relation), Devine, Akerman etc – and even strategies that he never claimed as original (such as voluntary communal prohibition, developed by NT women elders) were attributed to him.

And some of his alliances were bizarre, such as a reasonably close political relationship with Isi Leibler, who, as an ultra Zionist, knows a thing or two about the oppression of indigenous minorities. Was Leibler involved purely out of the goodness of his heart – or as a preemptive move against any linking of the plight of aborigines and Palestinians, as was common in the 1970s?

If there was any doubt about how the Right have always seen him, Christopher Pearson’s July 1 article would have put paid to it. The patronising title – ‘Beware of a relapse, Noel’ – says it all.

Overall, it’s time Pearson gave a few more results and a little less rhetoric. Is Cape York substantially better off than other areas as regards substance abuse, violence etc? Or is it running equal to places where ‘silly’ strategies such as harm minimisation are employed?

If it is, I’m happy to stand corrected. If not, perhaps these things are more complex than first appeared and it’s time he retraced his steps back to some older political alliances, however justified he may be in his criticisms of some of their ideas.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey