Shortcuts / 19 September 2023

Jacinta Nampijinpa Price and Noel Pearson

The referendum on enshrining an Indigenous Voice to Parliament into Australia’s constitution is fast approaching, so in this episode of Squiz Shortcuts, we get to know two of the most prominent people on both sides of the campaign: Jacinta Nampijinpa Price and Noel Pearson. They are both Indigenous Australians and have very differing views about the proposition that’s being put at this referendum. 

Let’s start with Jacinta Price. Where is she from?
She was born in Darwin in the Northern Territory. She describes herself as being a Warlpiri-Celtic Australian because her father is of Anglo-Celtic descent and her mother is a Warlpiri Indigenous woman.

What was her early life like?
Price moved to Alice Springs as a kid and completed her schooling there, and she’s talked about the violence that affected her family in that town. In her first speech to Parliament, she spoke about showing one of her colleagues around her town, and says, “I don’t know where else in Australia a member of federal parliament can provide a tour of the numerous places their direct family members have been violently murdered, or died of alcohol abuse, suicide, or alcohol-related accidents.”

What happened once she left school?
She stayed in Alice Springs and had 3 kids with her high school sweetheart. After that relationship ended, Price said she experienced domestic violence in subsequent relationships, just like her mother did when she was younger. 

How did she get her start in politics?
After a stint as a rapper called Sassy J and releasing an album Dry River with the help of a Scottish travelling musician who is now her husband, Collin Lillie, she was elected to the Alice Springs council in 2015. 

And she’s a conservative?
Yep – it was during this time that Price started writing opinion pieces for The Australian and appearing on Sky News. She also did some work for the Centre for Independent Studies, which is a libertarian, right-wing think tank based in Sydney. 

So she was building quite the national political profile… 
She was, and she was also setting her political sights on bigger roles. She ran in the 2019 federal election for a seat in the House of Reps for the Country Liberal Party – which is the Coalition’s party in Northern Territory. She lost it to Labor, which has held that seat of Lingiari since it was created in 2001. And in 2022, she ran as a candidate for the Senate, winning one of the NT’s two spots. 

And the rest is history?
Price hadn’t been in Canberra long before Labor announced the Voice referendum, which she was opposed to before she entered parliament. And after Coalition leader Peter Dutton appointed her to be the Shadow Minister for Indigenous Australians, she became one of the most prominent Indigenous spokespeople for the ‘No’ campaign. 

And one of the most controversial…
That’s especially true after her address to the National Press Club in Canberra last week. She made some points that got a lot of attention, including taking Indigenous bodies to task by saying they “demonise colonial settlement in its entirety and nurture a national self-loathing about the foundations of modern Australian achievement”.

What was the response to that?
Minister for Indigenous Australians Linda Burney said that Price’s statement – along with others in the speech – was offensive. Fellow Indigenous ‘No’ campaigner Warren Mundine also disagreed with Price.

Tell me about Noel Pearson…
He’s a key figure in the ‘Yes’ campaign and unlike Price, he isn’t an elected official – he’s a lawyer. Pearson was born in Cooktown, Queensland and grew up on a church mission as the youngest of 6 kids. 

What is his family background?
Pearson’s great-grandfather was a Kuku Warra man who survived the near-annihilation of his people during a gold rush in the 1870s. But his son, Pearson’s grandfather, was a member of the Stolen Generations, as was his grandmother. Pearson has also talked about his great-uncles who served in both world wars and who faced discrimination when they returned to Australia. 

What kind of education did Pearson get?
He was a clever student who went to the University of Sydney, graduating with an honours in history. That was around the time that his father died, and so Pearson went back to the mission, which was no longer a mission. The church had left – and Pearson was elected as a leader of his community as a council member. 

How did he become a lawyer?
When Pearson was 25yo he went back to uni to study law. And it was during that law degree that he co-founded the Cape York Land Council and became an advocate for land rights for Indigenous Australians.

Which was heating up as a big issue…
Yes, because it was in 1992 that the High Court made its famous Mabo decision, which recognised the existence of ongoing native title in Australia. And after that decision the government at the time led by Paul Keating passed the Native Title Act which put down a legal process for Indigenous applicants to have their native title rights recognised.

And Pearson was involved in this?
He was one of the 21 members of the Indigenous negotiating team helping to draft that act. From there, Pearson has held leadership positions relating to various Indigenous policy and leadership bodies. In 2007, he was one of the key people advocating for the Northern Territory Intervention.

The what?
The Intervention was a policy adopted by the Howard Government to take significant control over many aspects of the lives of residents in 73 remote Indigenous communities. It followed a report from the NT government revealing there was rampant child sexual abuse and violence in those communities, which saw PM John Howard declare a “national emergency”. 

So Pearson backed that approach?
He did, and he was also very involved at that time in discussions about the best use of the welfare system to help rather than become a tool that entrenches poverty in Indigenous communities. He was also advocating at the time for recognition of Indigenous Australians in the Constitution.

This sounds familiar…
It does, and at the time, John Howard agreed – it was actually one of his election promises heading into the vote in 2007. Spoiler alert: Howard lost and new PM Kevin Rudd wouldn’t do it. 

But Indigenous recognition was now on the agenda?
It was, and when Julia Gillard became PM, she set up an expert panel to look into how to best give constitutional recognition to Indigenous Australians. That report kicked off a series of committees, processes and councils over the next decade, and Pearson contributed to those. 

Including the Uluru Statement from the Heart?
That’s right, and Pearson was awarded the Sydney Peace Prize back in 2022 for his work alongside Professor Megan Davis and Pat Anderson. That statement included a call for the establishment of a First Nations Voice to Parliament, and  Pearson has been one of the most vocal proponents of the Voice as a mechanism for Indigenous Australians taking responsibility and control over their own communities. 

So we’ll be seeing much more of Pearson and Price in the coming weeks?
We sure will – both are key campaigners for the ‘Yes’ and ‘No’ campaigns respectively, so we can expect to hear a lot from them as we head towards 14 October. 

Squiz recommends:

Noel Pearson’s 2022 Boyer Lecture on ‘Who we were and who we can be’ and Jacinta Price’s speech to the National Press Club. They’re both good snapshots into these people’s views in their own words. 

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