Pearson no Messiah: O'Donoghue
Stuart Rintoul

ONE of the nation's most respected indigenous leaders, Lowitja O'Donoghue, has attacked Noel Pearson, saying after he gave a ringing endorsement of the Prime Minister that "he is not our new Messiah".

Mr Pearson yesterday applauded what he called a "tectonic" shift in John Howard's approach to reconciliation and urged a commitment to a policy direction "that will survive for the next 20 to 30 years".

He said Mr Howard's speech at a reconciliation conference last week had opened the way for "an understanding on both sides that both symbols and practical change have to go together".

He described the speech as the Prime Minister's finest.

But in an angry outburst indicative of tensions in the indigenous leadership, Ms O'Donoghue, the inaugural chairperson of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission, said she thought Mr Howard's speech was "full of weasel words" and attacked Mr Pearson.

"He is obviously a brilliant young man, who has strong opinions as a result of the dysfunction within his own community," she said.

"But he is also in the privileged position of being a consultant to the Prime Minister.

"He needs to be a team player. The Aboriginal leadership would like to talk to him on a more regular basis about the policies he is espousing to the Prime Minister."

She said she was concerned that policies Mr Pearson thought would work in Cape York's dysfunctional indigenous communities were being applied nationwide, while Aboriginal affairs was now being run from within government departments filled with non-indigenous bureaucrats.

"They failed in the past and they will fail in the future," she said. "We're in a big white hole now."

Speaking at a Reconciliation Australia conference last week, Mr Howard said reconciliation was "about rights as well as responsibilities ... symbols as well as practical achievement". He thought part of the problem with earlier approaches to reconciliation "was that it left too many people, particularly in white Australia, off the hook".

Mr Howard assured indigenous leaders the Government was not seeking to wind back or undermine native title or land rights, and would "reach out (and) meet the indigenous people of this country more than halfway if necessary".

Speaking on ABC TV's Insiders program, Mr Pearson, the director of the Cape York Institute for Policy and Leadership, said the shift in Mr Howard's approach "has been fundamentally tectonic in its significance because the Prime Minister has affirmed very clearly that symbols and practical reconciliation, as he has called it, both must occur".

Mr Pearson dismissed Labor's calls for indigenous affairs to become a separate ministry, saying it was a "neither here nor there debate". He said the focus should be on reducing government involvement in Aboriginal communities, and encouraging individual responsibility.

Another respected indigenous leader, Pat Dodson, expressed reservations about Mr Howard's speech last week, telling ABC TV's Lateline program: "Well, the Prime Minister went as far as he felt comfortable. I don't know whether that's far enough ... to be acceptable to the Aboriginal leadership of this country."

Mr Dodson said he thought there were "many people surrounding the Prime Minister who seemed to be engaged in sophistry", weaving interpretations beyond his words.