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Aboriginal leader believes Liberal Party's stance on Mabo is linked to a racist ideology -

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GERALDINE DOOGUE: The Federal Opposition stance on Mabo was attacked this afternoon by Noel Pearson, Director of the Cape York Land Council and a key Aboriginal negotiator who influenced the Keating government's policy response to the High Court's decision. In a wide-ranging speech to the National Press Club in Canberra, Mr Pearson lamented notions of racial inferiority rooted in a violent past which he suggested still infect Australia's national psyche. Noel Pearson is in our Canberra studio and he's talking to Paul Lyneham in Melbourne.

PAUL LYNEHAM: Noel Pearson, welcome to the program.

NOEL PEARSON: Thank you.

PAUL LYNEHAM: To what extent do you think the Mabo debate is being influenced by the fact that many Australians still regard Aborigines as racially inferior?

NOEL PEARSON: I think the notion that Aboriginal people are inferior and therefore not deserving of rights to land is still baggage which lies on the shoulders of a lot of Australians.

PAUL LYNEHAM: And it's influencing the debate right now, do you think?

NOEL PEARSON: I think the fanatical right-wing views that have been expressed recently are an indication that that kind of racial ideology is still very much a part of the kind of recesses of the national psyche.

PAUL LYNEHAM: How important are politicians, then, in this environment?

NOEL PEARSON: Well, I think politicians are absolutely critical because they provide the kind of leadership necessary in order for the country to break that psychological barrier and finally come to accept that Aboriginal and Islander people are in fact equals and not inferior.

PAUL LYNEHAM: Given that the politicians are so important, how is it smart for you to describe the Liberal Party as rabble?

NOEL PEARSON: Well, I think the lively description of the Liberal Party in my talk today is justified, given the fact that we've had over twelve months of the court's decision, twelve months for the Liberal Party to produce something more than intelligent thought processes, but actually to come out and educate their constituency and the rest of the Australian public about the desirability for recognising the High Court's decision.

PAUL LYNEHAM: Isn't it natural, though, for people to fear about the future security of land title and the economic development of Australia when they're told that vast chunks of the country could be somehow put off limits to them?

NOEL PEARSON: Well, that's what they're being told and that's what I'm concerned about. I don't think it's responsible for politicians on both sides of the House but particularly the problem has emanated from the conservative side of politics. I don't think it is responsible to raise that kind of fear because the fact of the matter is that the Mabo decision is a very limited decision; it's going to accrue rights to a very limited proportion of the Aboriginal and Islander population. We're talking about remnants rights and I don't think it's responsible at all for the conservative side to beat this Mabo issue up as some kind of horrifying death knell for the Australian economy.

PAUL LYNEHAM: Well, the historian, Geoffrey Blainey, Ian McLachlan from the Liberal Party - are they being racist?

NOEL PEARSON: I think if you trace back the logical consequence of their view - that is, that because Aboriginal and Islander people are of a particular race their property rights should not be respected - I think that's definitely a racial view.

PAUL LYNEHAM: And to want a referendum rather than just accept at face value the High Court decision - is that racist, in your view?

NOEL PEARSON: Absolutely. Absolutely.

PAUL LYNEHAM: Bronwyn Bishop says: What's wrong with a touch of democracy?

NOEL PEARSON: Well, a touch of democracy where 98 per cent choose what should be done about the rights of 2 per cent - I think we're hearing echoes of the kind of proposals discussed in the middle of Europe in the 1930s.

PAUL LYNEHAM: The ambit claims made by some Aboriginal groups - do you think they're very helpful to your side in this discussion?

NOEL PEARSON: I don't think - and I've previously expressed my reservations about ambit claims. I think the High Court's decision does afford limited rights for people to pursue property rights. I think there's been problems on both sides of the debate since the High Court's decision came down. However, I think the ambit claims have been used by those who should know better in order to obliterate the few rights that we do have under the High Court decision.

PAUL LYNEHAM: And your statement today that Mabo has laid the basis for some future form of self-government within the nation - that's going to unsettle the horses as well, isn't it?

NOEL PEARSON: I think it's nothing to be alarmed about. There's discussions particularly taking place in the Torres Strait where the real agenda is self-determination for the indigenous people of that region. You have to recall the fact that there are self-determination arrangements.

PAUL LYNEHAM: But should we have self-determination in the Kimberleys, see Australia become a sort of Balkans?

NOEL PEARSON: Well, I think that's a bit rich to refer to the Balkans. But we have self-determination for people, white people, on Norfolk Island, and I don't think that the reasonable desire of people in the Kimberleys or in the Torres Strait for greater self-determination rights should be put aside under some kind of ethnic hysteria notion that we're dividing up the country.

PAUL LYNEHAM: And Sir Arvi Parbo's comment today that if Western Mining can't find room to grow in Australia in a sort of Mabo environment, it will find somewhere else to grow?

NOEL PEARSON: Well, I think similar comments have been made by John Ralph. I think that the mining industry in Australia should be understood as being owned by the nation as a whole. It's not owned by the mining lobby or the large companies. I think that native title and a boost in the resource industry are both compatible notions.

PAUL LYNEHAM: And finally, what do you say to those who say: 'Look, Aboriginal people are about 2 per cent of the population; they've already got far more than 2 per cent of the land mass; fair's fair'?

NOEL PEARSON: Well, I would point out to them that what Aboriginal people do own now is the desert - inhospitable, unwanted areas of the country which happen to represent their traditional lands. The Pope said very clearly to the Australian population in 1986, to restore rights to people who never freely gave them away in the first place is not racial discrimination.

PAUL LYNEHAM: Noel Pearson, thanks for your time.