Noel Pearson’s rousing eulogy at the Gough Whitlam memorial service is being hailed by some as one of the great Australian speeches.
Addressing mourners gathered inside and outside the Sydney Town Hall for the service, the Cape York Group chairman, repeatedly referring to Whitlam as “this old man”, spoke provocatively about the Indigenous struggle and the controversial Labor prime minister’s role in its advance.
Expressing anger, hope and humour, Pearson praised Whitlam’s vision in advocating equal opportunity and the proper recognition of the Aboriginal cause.
He began by comparing his own upbringing with the standing of Indigenous Australians today, thanking ‘this old man’.
“For one born estranged from the nation’s citizenship into a humble family of a marginal people, striving in the teeth of poverty and discrimination, today it is assuredly no longer the case,” Pearson said in a deliberate, rhythmic tone, adding, “This because of the equalities of opportunities afforded by the Whitlam programme.”
“Raised next to the woodheap of the nation’s democracy, bequeathed no allegiance to any political party, I speak to this old man’s legacy with no partisan brief. Rather, my signal honour today, on behalf of more people than I could ever know, is to express our immense gratitude for the public service of ‘this old man’,” he said.
Pearson went on to vividly describe his early life on a Queensland reserve, living under the racially discriminatory policies of then state premier, Joh Bjelke-Petersen.
He likened Whitlam’s passing of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders Queensland Discriminatory Laws Act in 1975 to the passage of the US Civil Rights Act in 1964, saying it finally outlawed “the discrimination my father and his father lived under since my grandfather was moved to the mission as a boy, and to which I was subject the first 10 years of my life.”
In a subtle nod to US civil rights champion, Dr Martin Luther King, Pearson added, “We were at last, free from those discriminations that humiliated and degraded our people.”
Pearson mused about how impressed he was, and still is, by Whitlam’s dedication to the cause of Aboriginal equality and respect.
“I don’t know why someone with this old man’s upper middle-class background could carry such a burning conviction that the barriers of class and race of the Australia of his upbringing and maturation should be torn down and replaced with the unapologetic principle of equality,” Pearson said.
And he noted that Whitlam himself “never suffered discrimination but understood its malice”.
The Indigenous leader also recognised the Whitlam government’s own struggles, but argued that ultimately its years in power were a “textbook case of reform trumping management”
“The cosmopolitan Australia finally emerged like a Technicolor butterfly from its long dormant chrysalis,” he said, triumphantly.
He then went on to mock Gough Whitlam’s latent detractors by evoking a farcical scene from the Monty Python movie, Life of Brian.
View the excerpt from Pearson’s speech where he channels Monty Python:
“And what did the Romans ever do for us, anyway?” he asked, to chuckles from the crowd, before tearing off into a one-and-a-half minute long list of progressive Whitlam government initiatives, most of which persist in some form today, to repeated cheers and applause from members of the crowd.
“Apart from all of this, what did this Roman ever do for us?” Pearson then asked.
Pearson closed his powerful tribute to ‘this old man’ by lauding Whitlam for bridging much of the gap of understanding between Indigenous Australians and the rest of the nation.
“Only those born bereft truly know the power of opportunity. We salute this old man for his great love and dedication to his country and to the Australian people. When he breathed he truly was Australia’s greatest white elder and friend without peer of the original Australians,” he concluded.
The speech was followed by musicians Paul Kelly and Kev Carmody performing their Aboriginal land rights anthem, From Little Things Big Things Grow, to which the gathered crowd were invited to sing-a-long.
View the speech in full, posted by the ABC on YouTube, top.
Pearson’s speech at Whitlam memorial hailed as one of the greats
Political commentators and the general public alike were quick to join a chorus of praise on Twitter for the eulogy.
“I am absolutely blown away by Noel Pearson. Such power of words. A fitting tribute to Whitlam one of Australia’s finest orators,” Tweeted renowned journalist, Paul Bongiorno.
“I suspect Noel Pearson’s speech might be spoken about for years to come,” said Mark Burrows of Nine News.
“Fantastic speech from Noel Pearson – listing just about ALL of Gough’s achievements! He’s truly done that “old man” proud,” posted Amanda Mack.
“Noel Pearson doing a magnificent job. Pulling no punches.” Brian Mitchell, a Labor candidate in Tasmania, Tweeted.
“Absolutely blown away by the power of Pearson,” Joe from Sydney said.
“This speech by Noel Pearson will go down in history as one of the best ever political speeches of our time,” posted Suzanne Smith of the ABCs Foreign Correspondent.