Noel Pearson has unrivalled influence over indigenous Australia, despite the fact many of his own people say he doesn’t speak for them.
Unfortunately for those who disagree with him, the tough-talking boss of the Cape York Institute has the ear of those who make the big decisions. An impressive intellect and powerful orator, you only need to see the influential people lining up to support what Pearson’s doing in the Cape to know how much authority he’s got.
“He has tremendous influence, prime ministers of all political persuasions have flown to the Cape to have a chat with him,” indigenous leader Warren Mundine tells The Power Index. “Not only politicians, but businesspeople too. I talk to a lot of CEOs and chairmen of boards and they’ve all been to the Cape.”
“He’s an outstanding intellect on any level but particularly on indigenous affairs,” editor of The Australian Chris Mitchell tells us. “And when he decides to unleash his emotions he is one of the most powerful writers and speakers anywhere.”
And while he doesn’t always agree with him, La Trobe University professor of politics Robert Manne also nominates Pearson as a “profoundly influential” thinker. He’s done it with “intellectual integrity and courage”, he says.
Pearson’s eloquence may have helped him forge a voice as a public intellectual, but inside the indigenous community it hasn’t necessarily won him much power. Opinion is divided over who Pearson speaks for and what role he should play in determining the future of his people.
“I don’t think Noel’s that powerful, maybe according to other people. But not to most of the people up in Cape York: they say that he’s not their leader, that they’d rather lead their own,” Cape York leader David Claudie tells The Power Index.
It’s the “Noel Pearson doesn’t speak for us” line which also gets bandied about by those who oppose him on some of his ideas to remove disadvantage in indigenous Australia, such as the controversial Cape York Welfare Reform Trial.
Recently extended, Pearson’s welfare reform restricts payments through Centrelink to try and help communities struggling with welfare dependency. It’s been lauded by the federal government as a success and has become a model for similar programs in other indigenous communities. Still, those who know Pearson reject the suggestion he’s trying to speak on behalf of all indigenous Australians.
“I think Aboriginal people on the ground can make their own minds up,” says Mundine. “I’ve been to places where they’ve said ‘Noel Pearson is an idiot’, I’ve been to places where they’ve said ‘he’s a good bloke and we want to work these things through’.”
Regardless of what people on the ground think, Pearson has managed to convince those higher up of his brilliance. Like John Howard, for instance, who Pearson formed a close relationship with as prime minister. Controversially, Pearson supported the Howard government’s Northern Territory Intervention in 2007.
Opposition leader Tony Abbott is also an admirer, having regularly cited Pearson’s policies in Cape York as an example for other communities. He’s even floated the idea of using Pearson’s welfare management scheme as a model for other forms of government benefits.
Abbott has also backed Pearson over his efforts to overturn the Wild Rivers legislation, which restricts development in the Cape. Queensland Liberal-National Party leader and premier-in-waiting Campbell Newman has also raised issues over what Pearson has called the “green foot” crushing the throats of indigenous people.
And while Pearson hasn’t always been a friend of the Labor party (he once called Kevin Rudd a “heartless snake”), there is still a belief amongst those in Canberra that he has carte blanch to influence indigenous policy-making on both sides. As independent MP Rob Oakeshott told parliament in 2010:
“We continue to see both sides of the chamber wanting to get close to Noel Pearson in Cape York because of some perception that, if you are close to Noel Pearson, you have the voice of Aboriginal people in Australia.”