News & Current Affairs
16 March 2015
by Michael Gordon
Patrick Dodson's heartfelt plea to Tony Abbott: Change course on indigenous policy before it's too late
Senior Yawuru men Patrick Dodson, Neil McKenzie and Lalga Djiagween with young Yawuru men discussing ceremonial sites at a meeting tree near Broome.
Patrick Dodson, one of the country's most respected indigenous leaders, has issued an urgent plea to Tony Abbott to change track, warning that the fate of the referendum on recognition of the first Australians hangs in the balance.
Mr Dodson issued his plea near a sacred law ground of his Yawuru people in Broome, before privately addressing a group of young men on their responsibilities and obligations after passing the first stage of ceremony.
He called on Mr Abbott to convene a meeting of indigenous, political and industry leaders to set a new course based on engagement and end what he called the domination of "pre-Mabo thinking" in indigenous policy. It came after the Prime Minister' outraged many this week with his description of indigenous Australians who lived in remote communities as making a "lifestyle choice".
"If this was happening in any other sector of Australian society, I'm sure there would be some bringing together of the main stakeholders in the equation for some discussion about an agreed approach," Mr Dodson told Fairfax Media.
"Unless he takes that step – and I know Bill Shorten has been asking for such a meeting to mull over the multiplicity of issues that have now been opened up – I can't see any way forward.
"In fact, I tend to be a bit despairing of our capacity to change the Constitution to recognise Aboriginal people because there is far too much anger and frustration in the Aboriginal community now."
A passionate supporter of recognition, Mr Dodson said he feared that indigenous people would fail to see value in it against the backdrop of cuts to programs, especially those supporting indigenous rangers and legal services, and the push to cut funding to remote communities.
"If moderate indigenous voices make their concerns known, many of the well-disposed Australians will say, 'If the Aboriginal people don't see much advantage or opportunity or progress in the recognition, why should we bother to take that step?'
"This is a serious matter. If you are going to recognise Aboriginal people, what is the substance of it? The substance we are seeing at the moment is this: 'We're going to close down communities, force you into assimilation kind of activities, deny your right to have sites protected, and reject your cultural base to exist.
"It's an appalling concept to be saying we want to recognise your culture and your ancient history and your continuing existence when, in fact, that continuing existence is one that, in reality, you are trying to wipe out."
Mr Dodson, 67, was the founding chairman of the Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation and became known as the "father of reconciliation". He was also a commissioner for the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody.
After some four decades of advocacy for his people, Mr Dodson confessed he had never felt so disheartened at the direction of policy.
"I've normally been a fairly optimistic sort of individual in relation to Aboriginal affairs because there was always an avenue for dialogue with whoever was running the country, whether it was the Liberals or the Labor Party.
"Now you can't even have the debate."
He called on Mr Abbott to re-engage with indigenous leaders, saying the convening of a meeting was the crucial first step.
"We've got to get away from just thinking about program and policy and start thinking in terms of a relationship.
"Does Australia want to have a relationship with Aboriginal people, or does it not? Or does it simply want to improve the management and control systems over the lives of Aboriginal people? That's the seminal issue.
"Everything to date has been about management. How do we keep them in the reserves, isolated from the public? Then, how do we force them into some form of assimilation? And now? No one knows where it is going now.
"It's a full-on assault on those areas where languages and cultures at least have been sustained. That's a recipe for disaster because there is no evidence that people in the cities and the towns have fared any better."
Mr Dodson expressed doubts as to whether Mr Abbott was up to the task, saying the Prime Minister's remarks about those living on remote communities exercising a "lifestyle choice" highlighted his lack of understanding.
"I don't think he's capable of it, despite his good wishes or his best intentions. He just doesn't have knowledge and without knowledge he's not going to be able to do much to take the country forward around indigenous relationships and non-indigenous relationships. That's the sad part about it."
Mr Dodson said he had only met Mr Abbott once, at the launch of the Recognise campaign at Parliament House. "All I said to him was, 'Pleased to meet you, Mr Abbott.' He just sort of nodded and gave me a grin."
The biggest cause for optimism was the passion of indigenous people to preserve their culture and the quality of those who would lead their people in the years ahead, including those Mr Dodson addressed at the foot of a tree at a place called Kunin on Saturday.
It was a very private occasion, but Mr Dodson told Fairfax Media his message was that this was just the start.
"It's not just, 'I've graduated from law school today.' No, you're just beginning law. You might have graduated from one stage in this, but you're just beginning. This is a lifetime activity to help educate people and bring them along and defend the country when there are threats to it."