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Steven Marshall looks to lessons from Noel Pearson

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Steven Marshall says his focus as Aboriginal Affairs Minister will be on capacity-building rather than welfare, with the Premier citing inspiration from Aboriginal leader Noel Pearson, with whom he met for the first time this week.

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Marshall, who decided to take on Aboriginal affairs as Premier to ensure continuity in the post after a revolving door of ministers under Labor, told InDaily that he was in “awe” of Pearson’s Lowitja O’Donoghue Oration, delivered in Adelaide this week.

The pair plan to continue their discussions, particularly about Aboriginal education.

The Cape York lawyer’s speech for the Don Dunstan Foundation on Tuesday outlined a proposal to resurrect Aboriginal hopes for constitutional recognition – a year after the Federal Government rejected the Uluru Statement’s call for a constitutionally-enshrined indigenous voice.

“I was in awe of his presentation,” Marshall said today.

The Premier also had the chance for discussions with Pearson at a lunch, during which the pair discussed how to close the gap between indigenous and non-indigenous communities, particularly the importance of improving educational outcomes.

“This was my first meeting with Noel Pearson but I certainly will be catching up with him again. I think there’s a lot we can learn.

“He was very keen to continue discussions. In particular, he wants to talk to us about what we can do with education.”

Pearson has spoken extensively over the years about the need for Aboriginal people to take greater charge of their own destinies and the dangers of what he has called “passive welfare“.

It’s a message that resonated with Marshall, who said that Pearson told him that welfare can hold Aboriginal communities “down”, while economic participation can “lift them up”.

The Premier said he was particularly concerned about some remote Aboriginal communities, where the gap in health, education and economic outcomes remained unacceptably wide.

He sees increasing economic participation as a key strategy.

“Building capacity will be a major focus of this government,” he said.

From July 1, Marshall will bring the Aboriginal Affairs and Reconciliation Division into the Premier’s Department, as part of a raft of machinery-of-government changes. The previous government had moved the public service unit into the Department of State Development.

Marshall said, however, that the role of improving outcomes for indigenous South Australians required coordination across all departments.

“I think that taking responsibility for this portfolio as Premier will give us an opportunity to develop a state-wide plan for Aboriginal people,” he said.

Pearson’s speech this week outlined his proposal to resurrect constitutional reform, using the agency of a joint parliamentary committee which is looking at new ideas.

His proposal outlined the three main elements which had been foreshadowed in the Uluru statement – a constitutionally-enshrined Indigenous “voice” that he insisted would not  be a “third chamber of parliament”, but would contribute to the national policy debate and seek to have an influence from outside parliament; a “Makarrata Commission” to oversee agreement-making between governments and First Nations; and a “declaration of Australia and the Australian People”.

On the latter point, Pearson produced a draft text, which he said should bring together “the three parts of the one Australia: its Indigenous heritage, its British institutions and its multicultural migration”.

His words acknowledge that Australian history is “replete with shame and pride, failure and achievement, fear and love, cruelty and kindness, conflict and comity, mistake and brilliance, folly and glory”.

“We will not shy from its truth. Our storylines entwine further each generation. We will ever strive to leave our country better for our children.”

He said the upcoming 250th anniversary of James Cook’s 1770 voyage along the east coast of the continent was an opportunity to transcend past debates about the nation’s history.

“We can’t just pull out the gurneys and start hosing the pigeon manure off the sundry desultory busts and statuary of the great Captain, from Botany Bay to Cooktown, and expect the country to come to proper grips with its meaning for us in the 21st Century,” he said.

“We can have a conflagration if we don’t see what is before us, or we can use transcend it.

“To my mind, the 250th anniversary of the voyage of James Cook provides us with the opportunity to do that which was not done in 1770: for us to treat with one another in relation to the 250-year-old question of finding a rightful place for an old Australia within the new.

“This we did not do in 1788, 1901, 1938, 1970, 1988 or 2001, and we left history unresolved. Let us not kick the can down the road again in 2020. Let us use Cook’s 250th anniversary to commence a process of treaty between the First Nations of this country and the Commonwealth of Australia.”

Marshall has made it clear he won’t be continuing the state-based treaty process begun under the previous Labor State Government.

You can find the transcript of Pearson’s speech here.

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