Aboriginal leader Noel Pearson says he regrets Tony Abbott’s prime ministership being cut short, given the former leader’s commitment to Indigenous issues.
Mr Abbott declared himself the “Prime Minister for Indigenous affairs”, visited two remote communities and brought many Indigenous affairs public servants into his department.
Delivering the first National Press Club address of 2016, Mr Pearson also praised current Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, but said Mr Abbott had started to make changes and would have achieved more.
“It was cut short. I think there’s been few people more genuinely signed up to our cause than him. I regret his passing,” Mr Pearson said.
“It was essential that a conservative start the kick-off. I’ve always believed that. [Former United States president Richard] Nixon had to go to China and a conservative had to kick this ball along the road.
“We now have the blessing that the current Prime Minister is a long supporter of a new relationship with our people … so in some sense we’ve got the best of both worlds.”
In a wide-ranging address, the eminent Cape York leader declared Indigenous affairs was in “deep crisis”, and urged politicians to strive for the “radical centre” in Australian politics.
Mr Pearson said the left and right of politics were continually at war and could not find policy solutions.
“If politics is necessarily about tension and struggle then the radical centre is the highest compromise,” he said.
“The glaring omission in Australia’s political landscape is the absence of political representation hunting for that centre.
“We need a new democrat with new philosophy, with a higher purpose than simply keeping the bastards honest. We need a great connector between the red and the blue.”
Mr Pearson named South Australian senator Nick Xenophon as the politician closest to his ideal centrist.
He also slammed the speed of progress in Indigenous affairs.
“Make no mistake: Indigenous affairs is in deep crisis,” he said.
“We are seeing good things in isolated areas but not seeing the tectonic shifts that are needed.
“The current situation is one where the investment today in Indigenous affairs is $34 billion per annum sunk through government departments, outsourced to NGOs and for-profit organisations.
“That $34 billion a year is not yielding the kind of return that I saw in ATSIC’s day,” he added, referring to the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission abolished under the Howard government.
Mr Pearson said he was very optimistic that Indigenous people would be acknowledged in the constitution.
Mr Pearson is a member of the recently-formed bipartisan Referendum Council that will advise Parliament later this year.
He called for a centrist position to be found that is acceptable to all sides of the recognition debate, including constitutional conservatives.
“Too much left won’t work, too much right won’t work, too much overreach won’t work and too much miserable under-reach will not either,” he said.
“The window of constitutional opportunity is extremely narrow between left and right.
“The challenge is to produce a model and prosecute a politics capable of spearing through that window.”