By James Fitzgerald Sice and Juliette Taylor

Noel Pearson could have been Australia’s first Indigenous prime minister, former PM Paul Keating told a media gathering today.

Speaking at the launch of the prominent lawyer and land rights activist’s new book Mission: Essays, Speeches, and Ideas, Keating said he had tried to line Pearson up for the federal seat of Lalor in 1998 and regarded him as having all the attributes to be the future leader of Australia. After Pearson declined an offer by Keating and trade unions leader Bill Kelty, the seat instead went to Julia Gillard, who went on to lead the party and the country.

“I’d said to many people that in the primary requirements of leadership, particularly of an organisation such as the Labor party… I believed you were the most qualified person to basically lead the country,” he told Pearson at the Judith Neilson Institute in Chippendale, Sydney.

Let’s say you became prime minister, how different Australia would be today.

“You have one great quality in public life that you must have, and that is the quality of being persuasive. There are a lot of people who make speeches, a lot of people who say things but they are not persuasive, but you have a persuasive quality that would have lifted you through a caucus.

“Let’s say you became prime minister, how different Australia would be today.” 

But Pearson stated that he lacked the “self-belief” to consider the opportunity a “serious idea” and that someone “in [his] position” would first have to establish the place of Indigenous people in Australia before considering becoming Prime Minister, he told the audience. 

“I became stuck in that frame of mind that one couldn’t make a contribution to the country as a whole until we sorted out the issues between the country and my people,” he said.

“I hoped that at some point over the past three decades we would have reached the point that … any Indigenous leader wouldn’t be an Indigenous leader, they would be an Australian leader… but also the presumption of leadership has also been a source of doubt for me.”

To laughter, he added: “Tony Abbot had the self-belief to be leader of the country, why didn’t I possess the same self-belief?

“I think you (Keating) had more belief in me than I had in myself”.

Keating said Labor should be “on the front foot” of treaty negotiations and if Pearson had become Prime Minister, the overdue tasks of treaty-making, constitutional recognition, and enshrining an Indigenous voice to parliament would have been a priority. 

“The centrality of these ideas feeds the truth of the political party’s (Labor’s) existence, it feeds its soul, otherwise you live the lie,” said Keating. “I tried in the Redfern speech to articulate the lie… but we’re still living the lie.”

Pearson cautioned both parties not to delay legislating constitutional recognition of the Indigenous Australians’ Voice to parliament following the upcoming election in May. 

He said: “Howard went into the 2007 election with that commitment. Kevin Rudd immediately said he would do the same. When it was clear that Rudd was going to prevail at the election, he said ‘we will deal with this in the second term. He never got a second term’.

“I fear that the Opposition now is in danger of repeating the same mistake, deferring the question of putting reconciliation to the Australian people in a referendum, deferring it to a second term and repeating the mistake of 2007-2008.”

We are very clearly an effective Australian nation, but we have never settled the question of ‘what is Australia?’

In December, the Scott Morrison government announced a series of local and regional ‘Voice’ bodies that bear little resemblance to the recommendations of the 2017 Uluru Statement from the Heart and sidestepped the call to enshrine it into the constitution.

Under Keating, who served as Australia’s 24th prime minister from 1991 to 1996, the government enacted the Native Title Act 1993, granting land rights to Indigenous tribes and consolidating the High Court’s pivotal Mabo decision of the year before.

But, lamenting missed opportunities since then, Keating said: “We have not succeeded at reconciliation, we don’t have a treaty, we don’t have a voice 200 years along, I think the debates changed… but nevertheless we don’t have the reconciliation.”

Pearson said he had three political ‘instincts’. “I am a socialist, I am a conservative and I am a liberal,” he said. “I recognise those motivations in myself and I actually have a way of reconciling that… good societies are in fact not made up of one of those traditions, you need an amalgam of three of them.” 

Both men spoke about the ‘humble’ influence of their working class fathers, who died in their 60s, and of the drive to do good for others and create a more equitable society.

“We are very clearly an effective Australian nation,” Keating said to Pearson, “but we have never settled the question of what is Australia. This is your point. And I think those issues in your hands would have been more clearly settled.” 

Main Image by James Fitzgerald Sice