Noel Pearson (Australian lawyer)

Noel Pearson (Australian lawyer)
Noel Pearson in February 2010

Noel Pearson (born 25 June 1965) is an Aboriginal Australian lawyer, academic, land rights activist and founder of the Cape York Institute for Policy and Leadership, an organisation promoting the economic and social development of Cape York.

Pearson came to prominence as an advocate for Indigenous peoples' rights to land - a position he maintains.[1] Since the end of the 1990s his focus has encompassed a range of additional issues: he has strongly argued that Indigenous policy needs to change direction, notably in relation to welfare, substance abuse, child protection, and economic development. Pearson criticises approaches to these problems which, while claiming to be "progressive," in his opinion merely keep Indigenous people dependent on welfare and out of the "real economy." He outlined this position in 2000 in his speech, The light on the hill.


Life and work

Early life

Pearson was born in Cooktown and grew up at Hope Vale, a Lutheran Mission in the Cape York Peninsula. He is the son of Glen Pearson, from the Bagaarrmugu clan, and Ivy Pearson, from the Guggu Yalanji peoples.[2] His brother is Gerhardt Pearson. After attending primary school in Hope Vale, Pearson became a boarder at St Peters Lutheran College in Brisbane.[3] Pearson completed a history and a law degree at the University of Sydney. His history thesis focused on the Hope Vale Lutheran Mission, and was published by the History Department in "Maps Dreams History."


In 1990 Pearson co-founded the Cape York Land Council, where he was Executive Director until he resigned in 1996. Pearson's first official appointment was to a Queensland government taskforce which was formed to develop land rights legislation. He was also a legal advisor for the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission. In 1993 Pearson acted as representative to the traditional owners in the first land claim to the Flinders Island and Cape Melville National Parks, a claim which was successful, although the owners have yet to receive title. He continues to advise a number of Indigenous organisations in Cape York.

Following the Mabo decision of the High Court of Australia Pearson played a key part in negotiations over the Native Title Act 1993 as a member of the Indigenous negotiating team.[4]


On 12 August 2000, Pearson delivered the Ben Chifley Memorial Lecture, with the title, The light on the hill. It contained an important statement of his transformed views on Indigenous policy.

In 2004 Pearson became the Director of the Cape York Institute for Policy and Leadership.

On 15 December 2006, Pearson publicly criticised the Queensland Director of Public Prosecutions, Leanne Clare, in relation to her decision not to press charges against the police officer involved in the 2004 Palm Island death in custody of Palm Island resident Mulrunji.[5] On 26 January 2007, Pearson welcomed the decision to prosecute the officer, after the inquiry by Sir Laurence Street found there was sufficient evidence to press charges. Pearson also argued, however, that a 20- or 30-year plan was necessary for Palm Island.[6]

On 11 May 2007, Pearson and Indigenous Affairs Minister Mal Brough launched a new welfare scheme for Pearson's home town of Hope Vale. The scheme offers funds for home improvements, and low interest loans for home ownership.[7][8] On 24 May, Pearson published White guilt, victimhood and the quest for a radical centre, a lengthy account of his understanding of the challenges of policy formulation and enactment.

On 19 June 2007, Pearson launched a report by the Cape York Institute, From Hand Out to Hand Up, on welfare reform. The report was welcomed by Indigenous Affairs Minister Mal Brough.[9][10]

On 17 September 2007, with Prime Minister Howard facing probable electoral defeat, Noel Pearson sent him a 6000 word letter, arguing that Howard's best chance at re-election was to make a dramatic gesture in relation to reconciliation with the Aboriginal population. Pearson argued that Howard needed to promise a referendum on recognition of the indigenous population, and also that Howard was in a unique position to affect the course of indigenous relations, but only if Howard "bared his soul" to the Australian electorate.[11] Howard accepted Pearson's advice, and on 11 October announced plans for a referendum, but was nevertheless comprehensively defeated at the election.[12]

On 24 November 2007, the day of the Australian federal election, Pearson strongly attacked the opposition leader Kevin Rudd for reneging, two days before the election, on his commitment to seek constitutional recognition for Indigenous Australians.[13][14][15][16] Rudd had initially pledged bipartisan support for John Howard's proposal, made on the first day of the election campaign, to pursue a referendum recognising Indigenous Australians, but it was reported on 23 November that Rudd had stated that, should he win the election, he was "unlikely to pursue Mr Howard's plan for a reconciliation preamble."[17] The day after Rudd won the election, Labor Senator Penny Wong defended their policy of concentrating on practical rather than symbolic measures, aimed at narrowing the gap between Indigenous and other Australians.[18]

On 12 February 2008, the eve of the parliamentary apology to the Stolen Generations, Pearson explained his own complex and conflicted views on the question of an apology.[19]

Pearson argued in August 2008 that welfare benefits should not be granted to indigenous Australians under the age of 21.[20]

In April 2009, Pearson went on temporary leave from Director of the Cape York Institute he had established in 2004 (though claimed at the time he was stepping down altogether). Pearson objected to legislation introduced by the Queensland government declaring certain rivers on indigenous land to be "wild rivers." He stated that he felt this legislation, which would make economic development of the river areas difficult or impossible, was an attempt by the Anna Bligh government to maintain close links with the Australian Greens for electoral purposes, and that it ran counter to the interests of the local indigenous population. He stated that he had therefore decided to resign his Directorship in order to return to the land rights issues which had formerly been his major preoccupation. It was later revealed that Pearson in fact did not step down from the Directorship and only took temporary leave.[21][22]

In 2009 Pearson published a collection of his writings under the title Up from the Mission: Selected Writings as well as a Quarterly Essay titled Radical Hope: Education and equality in Australia.

Views on reforming Australia’s Constitution

Pearson has called for constitutional amendments in two areas, "one symbolic and the other substantive":

  • Firstly an appropriate preamble [recognising Indigenous people in the Constitution]
  • Secondly a new head of power which provides constitutional authority for the proposed national agreement along the lines previously proposed by the Makarrata Report of the Senate Legal and Constitutional Affairs Committee in 1983."[23]

In April 2008, after attending Kevin Rudd's Australia 2020 Summit, Pearson argued that any proposed constitutional reform aimed at recognising indigenous Australians must be in a form acceptable to a wide range of the Australian population. He therefore indicated his belief that a "domestic agreement" would be preferable to a treaty between sovereign states.[24][25]

Support for the NT Intervention

On 20 June, Pearson argued for the necessity of intervention in relation to Aboriginal child sexual abuse.[26] On 21 June, in response to a report entitled "Little Children are Sacred," Australian Prime Minister John Howard declared that problems of child abuse in Northern Territory Aboriginal communities had reached a crisis point, and he initiated the "national emergency response". The response involved a series of interventions including, among other things, the suspension of the Racial Discrimination Act, compulsory management of Aboriginal people’s income, the deployment of police and health workers, abolition of the permit system, compulsory acquisition of Aboriginal land and a ban on alcohol.[27] Pearson indicated qualified support for these measures,[28][29][30][31] but has received some criticism for doing so.[32][33] On 18 July, the Indigenous Affairs Minister announced that the federal government would fund the welfare reform trials in Cape York recommended in From Hand Out to Hand Up.[34]

Pearson’s position on the intervention found both support and opposition from other Indigenous leaders and members of the Australian community. On 30 November 2007, leading Indigenous academic Marcia Langton argued for the necessity of the emergency response in the Northern Territory. Langton supported Pearson's suggestions to shut down alcohol outlets and establish children's commissions and shelters in each community.[35] On 7 December, on the other hand, Philip Martin, who worked on the Welfare Reform Project in Aurukun for Pearson's Cape York Partnerships between November 2006 and May 2007, argued that Pearson's welfare reform approach cannot work unless other problems, such as inadequate policing and housing, are also addressed.[36]

It was reported on 20 September 2007 that on 12 August Pearson had brokered a secret meeting between Mal Brough and Northern Territory Indigenous leader Galarrwuy Yunupingu. At the meeting Yunupingu changed his position in relation to the Northern Territory emergency response: rather than opposing the measures, Yunupingu decided the intervention was instead an opportunity for the Indigenous community. Yunupingu also signed a memorandum of understanding regarding a 99-year lease to be held over his community of Gunyangara (Ski Beach) in Arnhem Land. He also agreed to set up a council of elders in the Northern Territory to advise the government on the course of the intervention.[37][38][39][40][41]

Yunupingu has since reversed his position on the intervention, saying that it has failed [42] and is "It is now three years old but it hasn't made Aboriginal people any richer or healthier or happier. It is really and truly dragging people down to create more misery… Let's start again." [43]

Speaking in response to the Aurukun rape case involving a 10-year old girl, Pearson said on 12 December 2007 that the case was "the tip of a tragic iceberg," and that there should be no hesitation in taking Aboriginal children out of dysfunctional and dangerous family circumstances.[44][45][46] He did not, however, support calls to extend the Northern Territory emergency intervention to Queensland.[47] Pearson argued on 15 December that the sexual abuse of Aboriginal children may be lessened by establishing a "Families Responsibilities Commission" charged with making decisions about whether welfare recipients are fulfilling their obligations.[48] Prime Minister Rudd ruled out extending the intervention to Queensland in the near future,[49] but stated that he was in discussion with the Queensland government about Pearson's proposal for a "Families Responsibilities Commission."[50]

The Wild Rivers debate

On 14 November 2007, it was reported that Pearson had accused the Queensland government of Anna Bligh, and the federal Labor opposition led by Kevin Rudd, of "selling out Aborigines," saying that a plan to prevent development of the Cape York region was a bid to gain Greens preferences. Pearson argued that at the very moment when welfare reform was being attempted in Cape York, economic opportunities for the Aboriginal population would be "shot down" by such a move.[51]

Articles and addresses














Collections of articles

Profiles and interviews

Short biographies


  1. ^ Pearson, N (2010, 29 May) Promise of Mabo not yet realised The Australian, retrieved from
  2. ^ Pearson, Walking in two worlds, provides further information about his family and community.
  3. ^ Cape York Institute for Policy and Leadership.
  4. ^ Gary Foley, The road to native title: The Aboriginal rights movement and the Australian Labor Party, 1973–1996.
  5. ^ DPP labelled incompetent after Palm Is charges decision.
  6. ^ Pearson calls for 20-year strategy.
  7. ^ Govt launches radical Indigenous welfare plan.
  8. ^ Hope for Pearson's great expectations.
  9. ^ Brough backs indigenous welfare overhaul.
  10. ^ Pearson defends Aboriginal welfare plan.
  11. ^ Paul Kelly, Howard's epiphany.
  12. ^ Michelle Grattan, Misha Schubert & Katharine Murphy, Howard's 11th-hour rethink on reconciliation.
  13. ^ Padraic Murphy, Rudd betrayed us, says Pearson.
  14. ^ Paul Kelly, Pearson's dread of Rudd in power.
  15. ^ Pearson, Noel Pearson's statement on Kevin Rudd.
  16. ^ Pearson, Reconciliation U-turn shows leader's true colours.
  17. ^ Paul Kelly & Dennis Shanahan, Rudd to turn back boatpeople.
  18. ^ Labor stands by 'practical' Indigenous policy.
  19. ^ Pearson, When words aren't enough.
  20. ^ Patricia Karvelas & Padraic Murphy, Ban Aboriginal dole until 21, Noel Pearson pleads.
  21. ^ Tony Koch & Sarah Elks, Noel Pearson quits institute to fight wild rivers battle.
  22. ^ Evan Schwarten, Revolt on Cape York over wild rivers.
  23. ^ Pearson, N (2010, 14 January) Reconciliation must come with the republic, The Australian, retrieved from
  24. ^ Natasha Robinson & Patricia Karvelas, Forget a treaty, say Pearson, Yunupingu.
  25. ^ Pearson, No progress without wide support.
  26. ^ Patricia Karvelas, Pearson's challenge: spend a week watching indigenous abuses.
  27. ^ Patricia Karvelas, Crusade to save Aboriginal kids from abuse.
  28. ^ Pearson fears for Indigenous parents' freedom.
  29. ^ Noel Pearson discusses the issues faced by indigenous communities.
  30. ^ Pearson, Politics aside, an end to the tears is our priority.
  31. ^ Tony Koch & Dennis Shanahan, Get parents who shield abusers: Pearson.
  32. ^ PM accused of black land grab.
  33. ^ An interview with Gary Foley: history will judge Howard's reforms.
  34. ^ $48m pledge to Cape York welfare.
  35. ^ Marcia Langton, It's time to stop playing politics with vulnerable lives.
  36. ^ Philip Martin, Welfare is not the key.
  37. ^ Top leader now backs Territory intervention.
  38. ^ Indigenous leader signs 99-year land lease to Govt.
  39. ^ Paternal feelings help thrash out pact for nation.
  40. ^ Galarrwuy Yunupingu, The challenge begins.
  41. ^ Whose coup? Canberra and clan both celebrate a deal.
  42. ^
  43. ^
  44. ^ Pearson calls for end to passive welfare.
  45. ^ Padraic Murphy & Tony Koch, Family's warnings ignored.
  46. ^ Take the children: Pearson.
  47. ^ Pearson seeks inquiry into 'cover-up'.
  48. ^ Pearson, Blame game ends here.
  49. ^ Rudd rules out extending NT program.
  50. ^ Dennis Shanahan, Indigenous 'challenges' on COAG agenda.
  51. ^ Tony Koch, Labor accused of selling Cape down the river.

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