Pearson is suddenly everywhere.
And he wants to talk about his love, faith and trust that Australians will vote Yes.
He’s swapped Boyer lectures delivered in his sonorous baritone for commercial radio interviews with Ben Fordham on conservative Sydney radio station 2GB (owned by Nine Entertainment, also owner of this masthead).
He’s talking to punters at train stations in Melbourne, standing on street corners handing out fliers with Greens senator Sarah Hanson-Young in Adelaide and visiting Sydney’s Bondi Beach with independent MPs Allegra Spender and Alex Greenwich.
Since July 9, Pearson has attended 62 events across every state and territory in Australia to advocate for a Yes vote and for his people to finally be recognised in Australia’s Constitution, 122 years after it came into effect.
The campaign for the Voice has transformed Pearson and demanded he use his own voice more than he ever has before.
For Pearson, the question of whether or not Australians should vote Yes for the Voice to parliament boils down to 92 words, as he recently told ABC journalist Lisa Millar.
“I was up in Newcastle talking to the Catholic Diocese, [and] a kind of bingo moment occurred to me that we have to teach people what the words of the amendment are,” he said.
“That should be the starting place and the ending place of our conversations about this referendum. And when you read the provision, it’s 92 words. They’re very simple. What you read is basically what it means and all of a sudden, the light starts switching on.
“I’ll just tell you what the first line is: ‘in recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples as the first peoples of Australia’ … I think that acknowledgement is magnificent and I think the Australian people will say, ‘yeah that recognition is an important step for the country to make’.”
So, why did Pearson decide to shift gears and embrace the love?
He says that, early on, there was a sense that a referendum victory “would just fall into our lap” but as the months ticked down and the polls began to dip it became apparent that was not going to happen.
After years of lobbying successive governments in the cause of meaningful recognition, Pearson had thought: “I’ll participate, do the usual stuff I do like write articles and give speeches and have a few days a week on this.
“And then I realised this thing needs to be fought for and if I’m looking around, I see Thomas Mayo [for example] working his arse off, doing the yards, as he has for a year,” he says.
“I’m thinking I just can’t do the intellectual thing, the philosophical thing. I have actually got to get my RMs on and shave some of the leather off them.”
In other words, securing a referendum win was going to be a bare knuckle fight, perhaps the most consequential of Pearson’s life – and he had to be in it, fully.
A source in the Yes23 campaign, who was not authorised to speak publicly, concurs.
“It just clicked that it’s crunch time, now or never. He genuinely wants to lead from the front on it and it has been pretty impressive,” the source said.
“He’s visiting mosques, temples, school students, community gatherings – in the past it was all big keynote things. Now it’s on the ground campaigning. And he genuinely flips votes when he speaks to people.
“We realised we had a strength with our ground game and that we needed key people out there. It’s an effort across the board. Thomas Mayo, Rachel Perkins, Dean Parkin, the Uluru Dialogue people led by Megan Davis. Noel draws the crowds but we have others out there.”
A prominent Indigenous leader, who asked not to be named so they could speak freely, admitted that Pearson could be “cranky” at times and conceded that his interventions on Dutton, Price and Gooda had been damaging to the Yes campaign.
But clearly, they add, something has clicked for Pearson in the past three months.
“He has thrown his heart and soul into it. I don’t know if someone pulled him aside or if it just came from him. He knows what needs to be done,” they said.
Indigenous leader Tom Calma, who co-authored with Marcia Langton a report that proposed a Voice design, has clashed publicly in the past with Pearson. But he, too, praises his campaign efforts.
“He has been a significant contributor over time and his intellectual nous is very credible,” Calma says.
Pearson has told colleagues that if the Voice is defeated, a generation of Indigenous leaders including himself will exit the stage, their hopes dashed, and that it will be for the next generation to take up the cause.
But while the Voice referendum is still in play and the possibility of a Yes vote to recognition remains alive, it’s clear that Pearson is putting his heart and soul into the campaign.
Cut through the noise of federal politics with news, views and expert analysis from Jacqueline Maley. Subscribers can sign up to our weekly Inside Politics newsletter here.
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