Watch video of Noel Pearson and Jonathan Lear in conversation

On Tuesday, 8 December 2015, Cape York Indigenous leader Noel Pearson and the University of Chicago’s Professor Jonathan Lear held a public conversation about recognition in the Great Hall of the University of Sydney, followed by a cocktail reception in the Quadrangle.

The event, which was part of the University’s Sydney Ideas series, and was funded by Baker & McKenzie, CEFA’s principal partner for Educating About Recognition, and marked the beginning of CEFA’s Educating About Recognition initiative.  This initiative aims at running similar events all around the country and informing Australians about a range of views concerning the Australian Government’s approach to amending the Constitution.

Speakers included Sydney University Vice-Chancellor Dr Michael Spence, Baker & McKenzie’s national managing partner, Christopher Freeland, and the University of Melbourne’s Professor Marcia Langton AM.

Professor Shane Houston, Sydney University’s deputy vice-chancellor for Indigenous strategy and services, provided a thoughtful acknowledgement of country, in which he spoke of the different traditional lands from which the roof beams, floor tiles, and sandstone blocks for the Great Hall were sourced, as well as the traditional custodians of the land on which it was built.

Over 500 guests, including indigenous leaders, academics, psychoanalysts, lawyers, and prominent figures from public life filled the Great Hall. All reported enjoying the conversation between Mr Pearson and Professor Lear, and only regretted that it did not continue for even longer.

Mr Pearson and Professor Lear mingled with guests in the Quadrangle after the formal part of evening, in which they discussed the influence of Professor Lear’s book, Radical Hope: ethics in the face of cultural devastation, on Mr Pearson’s Quarterly Essay, Radical Hope: education and equality in Australia. Professor Lear shared his experience of the Crow people in North America, and Mr Pearson reflected on the significance of this for the current discussion about Indigenous recognition in Australia—a topic he has discussed at length in his second Quarterly Essay, A Rightful Place: race, recognition and a more complete Commonwealth.

Responding to their conversation, Professor Langton spoke of her people’s experience of discrimination and dispossession, and the need that this creates for recognition.  Pamela Nathan, a psychotherapist from Melbourne, shared insights from her clinical work with indigenous people.  The University of Sydney’s Professor Duncan Ivison concluded with some observations drawn from political philosophy.

Educating About Recognition builds on CEFA’s previous work in this area.  Professor Patrick Dodson, co-chair of the recently announced Referendum Council, praised the Governor-General’s Prize earlier this year, saying that it is “a remarkable contribution to the complex, difficult and necessary debate about how we in this country come to recognise the first people in our Constitution.”  CEFA remains committed to stimulating such informed debate in all sections of the Australian community.

Kerry Jones, chief executive of CEFA, was thrilled with the success of the event, which she sees as reflecting the kind of outreach work that will continue to grow as CEFA establishes its proposed Australian Constitution Centre at Old Parliament House, Canberra. 

“Too many Australians feel cynical about their role in the democratic process. The proposed Australian Constitution Centre will reverse the disillusioned attitudes that threaten our democracy,” Mrs Jones said.

Noel Pearson has also lent his support to CEFA’s proposal, explaining, “The new Australian Constitution Centre will have an important role to play in educating the public about the need for indigenous constitutional recognition. Australians should be aware of the triumphs of our constitutional heritage, as well as the injustices. Learning from this history, we can find ways to become a fairer and more inclusive nation.”