The Indigenous voice to parliament is not about race, one of its leading proponents Noel Pearson says.
Supporters of a constitutionally-enshrined Aboriginal advisory body have just over two weeks to turn negative polling around and convince a majority of Australians in a majority of states to vote ‘yes’.
Members of the ‘no’ camp have decried the Indigenous voice as a divisive issue that splits Australians down racial lines.
But Mr Pearson, an Indigenous activist and lawyer, said the argument was just an attempt to engage in a culture war by conflating race and indigeneity.
“We’re not a separate race… We’re human. It’s just that we’re Indigenous,” he said.
“This is not about race. This is about us being the original peoples in the country.”
The question was about recognising the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people living in Australia before 1788, not recognising a separate race, Mr Pearson said.
“It is not inequality to recognise that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders were the owners of Australia since time immemorial, it is simply the truth.”
The campaigner used his speech to ask Australians to draw on their love of the country and vote ‘yes’.
“Empathy is so important that only love can move us now,” he said.
“We don’t need mutual affection to succeed in this referendum. We need to recognise our mutually shared love for the land.”
Mr Pearson’s speech comes after his ‘no’ campaign counterpart Warren Mundine claimed enshrining a voice in the constitution says Indigenous Australians “will always live in poverty”.
“That we’ll always need help, that we are destined for permanent disadvantage,” Mr Mundine told the National Press Club on Tuesday.
“This is exactly what people thought in the 1800s when they set up the protection regimes, when they set up segregation.
“It’s wrong to tell young people growing up in these families that they are disadvantaged because they are Indigenous.”
Indigenous people needed to also “forgive Australia as a nation” and not be trapped in “victimhood and oppression”, Mr Mundine said,
Mr Pearson did not directly address the comments but said the ‘no’ campaign was creating controversies and setting off proverbial bombs.
“What they want is simply to kill the voice proposal and to keep the country festering around issues of cultural war rather than real issues, and that’s a tragic state of affairs,” he said.
With the latest survey from Newspoll survey revealing support for the ‘yes’ vote had dropped to 36 per cent, Mr Pearson said he was both terrified and hopeful for the outcome of the referendum.
“No one wants the invitation of friendship and love to be unrequited. One may sometimes feel it would have been easier to have never extended the hand of invitation from the heart,” he said.
“But whether out of naivete or fate, we have to ask Uluru’s question: will you walk with us on this journey to a better future?”
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