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A black and white image of Noel Pearson.
Noel Pearson at a keynote address at the National Museum of Australia in Canberra. Mick Tsikas/AAP Image

Compelling even to his critics: Mission by Noel Pearson explores rights, land and justice

How does one tell the story of a life lived well in public service, and in service of your community?

That is the broad ambition of Mission, the latest book from Noel Pearson, First Nations lawyer, activist and founder of the Cape York Institute.

Mission, a series of Pearson’s essays, speeches and eulogies, is not as disjointed or disconnected as such collections sometimes are.

Instead, the collection presents a unified and coherent story of his life in public, his advocacy and the consistent views he has held over this time.

Mission portrays Pearson as only he himself could – a towering figure within the First Nations community, and one whose work has shaped decades of policy and debate on the issues most important to us and our communities: rights, land and justice.

It’s well worth your time to read to get an understanding of the man himself, and of the last several decades of First Nations affairs in this country.

A yellow book cover titled 'Mission' by Noel Pearson.
Black Inc. Books

Pearson the man, Pearson the politics

I should be upfront at the outset of this review. I do not share much of Pearson’s politics, especially his idea of the “radical centre”, and his views on some topics I strongly disagree with. I very much find myself to the left of politics, and see that as a legitimate way forward for First Nations communities.

This, however, is not a reason to discount what I have to say in this review. I would argue it is much better to be reviewed by people with whom you do not always see eye-to-eye, rather than devoted fans. Indeed, throughout this collection, Pearson outlines his positions in such clear and commonsense ways, even I found myself coming around on some of them.

It opens with the titular namesake essay, a 75-page reflection on his upbringing, early life and devotion to his community. The book then delves into many of the key parts of Pearson’s life and politics, including sections entitled After Mabo, The Radical Centre, Labor and Social Democracy, Profiles in Power and A Rightful Place.

All of these contain many essays on key issues of their time, and of today, all of which maintain their relevance to a contemporary audience.

His eulogy of former Prime Minister Gough Whitlam, praised at the time it was given as one of the best speeches ever in Australian politics, channels Pearson’s usual intellectual rigour alongside his wit, and his clear values in advancing his own community. Apart from all the successes of the Whitlam government, he asked, what did that “Roman ever do for us?”

An excerpt from Pearson’s speech:

Only those who have known discrimination truly know its evil. Only those who have never experienced prejudice can discount the importance of the Racial Discrimination Act. This old man was one of those rare people who never suffered discrimination but understood the importance of protection from its malice.

Noel Pearson remembers Gough Whitlam.

Read more: A closer look at Noel Pearson’s eulogy for Gough Whitlam

A call for constitutional recognition

A number of Pearson’s pieces in Mission are much less known and also much more recent. The newest and final essays present some of the clearest and best language on the recognition of First Nations people in the Constitution.

Pearson is a strong advocate for constitutional recognition and a Voice to Parliament, and alongside Professor Megan Davis and Aunty Pat Anderson, will receive the 2021 Sydney Peace Prize this March on behalf of the Uluru Statement from the Heart.

Pearson writes strongly on why a Voice to Parliament is not only desired by First Nations people, but necessary for our full inclusion in this country, and to move forward on advancing issues of change for Blackfullas nationwide.

Pearson states:

Why recognition? The answer is straightforward: because the Indigenous peoples of Australia have never been recognised.

This is not a dumbing down of complex issues to be palatable for an audience, it is presenting true and undoubtable facts about this nation and First Nations peoples’ place within it.

As Pearson writes in one of the essays entitled A Rightful Place,

history is never resolved, and we should not make a shared future contingent on a shared path.

Read more: Most Australians support First Nations Voice to parliament: survey

This series of essays on Uluru, recognition and the true place of First Nations people are the most powerful. They speak to a disenfranchisement, detachment and degradation of our people throughout history, and why a Voice to Parliament as a form of recognition is so necessary.

Constitutional recognition of Indigenous Australians is not a project of woke identity politics, it is Australia’s longest-standing and unresolved project for justice and inclusion.

These words should be burned into the retinas of every politician, journalist and academic across the country. This project on First Nations constitutional recognition is not merely one in which we are engaged because we feel it is good politics. It is a project to fundamentally reshape the nation for the better, and to achieve justice and equity for our people after many centuries of dispossession and disregard.

The power of his voice

The only thing really lost in this collection is something which is not the fault of anyone but the format. In reading these essays, rather than listening to Pearson speak them, you lose the power of his presence and his articulation, and the way he captures an audience the way very few can. But what you don’t lose is his voice, which is as clear and consistent in his convictions, as if he were standing right before you.

Pearson is a strong advocate for his views and values, and presents them in a way that would be compelling even to his critics.

I’m not saying I walked away a changed man, but I definitely got a much better sense of who Pearson is from this book. On some things, I have come around more to his point of view, while on others, I feel even more sure of my own positions that counter Pearson’s.

Mission is a book worth reading whether you know of Pearson strongly or not, and whether you agree with him or not. You’ll find much to engage with here.

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