SUBJECT/S: Life in Parliament, Democracy, Constitutional Recognition, Indigenous incarceration rates

FIONA POOLE: 2016 it’s been a big year for many of us but there’s one man in the Kimberley that has had an extraordinary year. After decades of fighting for Indigenous Australians from outside politics, Pat Dodson is now doing it as a politician. In April this year he was approached by Bill Shorten to join Labor taking over the Senate seat left vacant by Joe Bullock. A few months later with the federal election Pat Dodson made his maiden speech in the Senate.

Audio clip:

Ngaji mingan, Mr President? How are you, Mr President?

The PRESIDENT: Gala mabu ngangan. I am good.

Senator DODSON: Yawurugun Janu buru Rubibi. I come from Broome. Ngayu nilawal Djagun. My name is Djagun. Ngayu Banaga wamba. I am a Banaga man

POOLE: Labor Senator Pat Dodson joins us now. Senator Dodson good morning.

DODSON: Good morning to you.

POOLE: Indigenous Leader to politician. Has it changed you?

DODSON: Oh, no, some people think it may, I don’t think so. It puts you in a different zone of activity and a different level of awareness. You’re probably more wanting to listen to the ABC to find out what’s going on, keep up to date with a current affairs, also the commercial channels and what’s happening more generally in the local area, beyond the town of Broome, in my case the whole of the state of Western Australia. But the discussions you have now around politics rather than about nation building or community challenges even though you deal with those issues, like suicide or unemployment, you deal with those issues as they come forward, but generally your discussions are about can we get this particular matter through this house.

POOLE: And politics is the art of the achievable and from the outside when we look into politics I think there is, within the electorate a sense of frustration that not a lot is being achieved. From the inside are you getting perspective on whether or not democracy is healthy, whether or not the system is actually working and you can achieve what you need to achieve?

DODSON:  I take a very broad view of what happens in the parliament in the sense I think it’s a very healthy indicator of our democracy where people who have very divergent views, different views, belong to different parties, maybe individuals, particularly in the Senate, and we are all required to pay respect and listen to their point of view, we mightn’t agree with it, but at least listen to them and they’ve got an opportunity to put their arguments on many different matters, whether it’s the backpacker taxes or whether it be off-shore detention or whether it be the budget matters or Indigenous Affairs.  You’ve got to listen to all sorts of views, particularly when it comes to the end point of a bill where the Senate forms a committee of the whole and you can be there until wee hours of the morning debating clause by clause aspects of a bill and ultimately the Government will lose patience or they’ve made the deal, which you see happening either on the floor, or outside of there with the cross benchers if they haven’t come to talk to Labor as we saw in the backpacker tax they’d done a deal with the Greens and no one knew about it.

POOLE: So when you entered the Senate you did say you had two particular issues you wanted to concentrate on, constitutional recognition for Indigenous people and addressing the incarceration rates for Indigenous people. How do you think you’ve gone on those two issues this year?

DODSON: I think certainly with the incarceration rates, I think we’ve heightened the awareness around the Royal Commission recommendations of 20+ years ago. The Minister has gone back and has had to re-look at those and see what the relevance is of those recommendations in contemporary times and he and I will have some discussions around that. We’ve also seen the Don Dale debacle and the Royal Commission that was set up to deal with that. So whilst there hasn’t been direct reduction to the incarceration rates there is awareness that incarceration involves many things. It involves domestic violence, because people do terrible things in their own relationships, it involves youth, and it involves suicide at one end of it. There’s connectivity between all these things so when we talk about reducing incarceration rates we are really talking about how we get people to be productive in this world and in their own chosen fields of activity. How do we do that? As well as how do we reduce people having to spend time behind bars in a prison.

In terms of the constitutional matter, I think there’s certainly been a heightened awareness around that. The debate is starting to heat up I think over constitutional recognition, there’s been discussions now around treaty. We know the state of Victoria and yesterday the state of South Australia are both going down that track. There is a lot of that ferment, or that discussion happening in the dialogues that are being orchestrated by the Referendum Council.

POOLE: The concern was when treaty resurfaced this year that it would kind of knock off the agenda of constitutional recognition and we have seen $4.4 million from the South Australian government put aside over 5 years to support the treaty process. Do you think that is going to derail constitutional recognition?

DODSON: No, not at all. Not at all. I don’t think it will. Once you start down a process, whether it’s the treaty process or you start seriously thinking about the constitution and the need for a double majority in support of a proposition you’ll see there are two different sorts of dynamics at play here. The constitution obviously is where the heads of power that a government uses when it wants to make laws and a treaty is obviously about an agreement of some type that has to be negotiated. I don’t see them as mutually exclusive, I think they’re compatible, but I think the priority at the moment is to change the constitution.

POOLE: If it is a priority then why hasn’t the government passed a bill and set a date?

DODSON:  Well I think partly because the Government and the Opposition, our party, have agreed on a process that has put in place the Referendum Council that has been given the opportunity to go and consult with Indigenous communities and to come back hopefully with some consensus as to how they would like to see that constitutional power embedded in the constitution. Obviously that raises many other issues in the community which they will have to deal with and the government will have to deal with going forward.

POOLE: Now you’ve been called part of the fab 5 Senator, there is you along with Jacqui Lambie, Malarndirri McCarthy also Linda Burney and Ken Wyatt. The Fab Five, that’s what you’ve been coined. Are you all working together on Indigenous issues? How do you support each other there in parliament?

DODSON: We’re a loose coalition let’s say that. We’re not as tight as you are within a party arrangement. We do come together to mutually support each other despite our differences we have. We do try to find common ground where we can, on big issues like the constitutional recognition matter for instance. Also on matters where Ken Wyatt has portfolio responsibilities in health, particularly in Western Australia, matters that I can raise with Ken about the concerns we’re getting from various delegates or different groups of people coming to see us. So it’s a way to break down the adversarial political cut and thrust, who wins what and takes it away, is how do we find common ground when it comes to Indigenous Affairs. How do we find the common ground, how can we show that politics in this arena can be done a bit better and go back in some ways to the politic that arose after the 1967 referendum when there was really bipartisanship that led to good public policy.

POOLE: And Ken Wyatt is from the Liberal Party, you’re from Labor, you find that you can find that common ground?

DODSON: Oh, yes we have a lot in common as Indigenous people of course, and some of us have known each other outside parliament but we also come with the responsibilities we now bear in the parliament and the party platforms that we all adhere too, but within that there’s room to manoeuvre and that’s one of the wonderful things about being in the parliament you can manoeuvre with people on the other side and my position is that I’ve been not only in a loose affiliation with those groups but also sitting on other committees of the Senate. The Legal and Constitutional References Committee for instance, which has looked at the Nauru and Manus Island situation, mind you we can’t go and hold meetings over there which is a bit absurd in many ways. The parliamentary committee of the Senate not being able to go there and hold meetings yet bureaucrats can go in and out of there as much as they like.  We also inquire into what happens to people who have mental difficulties or psychological difficulties and can’t plea and end up going into custody.

POOLE: And is that how your day unfolds in parliament, because a lot of us would be asking what do politicians really do Senator Pat Dodson, on committees you’re obviously sitting for about 70 days a year, what do you really do?

DODSON: What we do is we try to facilitate legislation through the parliament, that’s the essence. We also try then try to respond to references that are given to us by the Senate if we’re on a committee, we have to find hours and time, amid all the busy schedules that members of parliament have, to meet and deal with those things, to take submissions and have people come and put submissions to us, plus deal with the horarium of the day which is prayers at the start, bills that are being tabled, reports that are being presented, there’s question time then there’s opportunities to speak to those things, there’s greater debates on different things and then there’s variations.

POOLE: You know when you first went to Canberra you mentioned in an interview that when you first walked into the Senate you never quite felt comfortable. After a year there how do you feel now?

DODSON: Oh I feel a lot more comfortable. I’m far more familiar with the process,not as intimidated by the procedural antics that go on because it’s a bit daunting when you first walk in there and there’s people shouting, particularly in question time, people shouting and carrying on and you don’t know what’s going on and the President’s trying to get order and people on our side are shouting and you think well what is this all about? Where does this distil into a focus point that gets a decision? It never does in question time of course, it’s not designed for that, but there are other forums of the Senate where you do get to focus and you do have to make decisions and you do have to adopt positions and there are votes that are called and if you’re in the chamber you’re there, but if the bells ring you’ve got to rush to the chamber and be there for the vote and that’s how decisions get made. The Senate has a quirky thing which I found out which I never thought was part of our democracy. People can be outside the Senate in one case, and they can register a vote even though they’re not in the chamber.

POOLE: What by pigeon?

DODSON: Yeah well by smoke signal or something … by ringing up the Whip I presume, and that can be taken on board by the Senate as to whether they’ll permit it or not, whereas in the Reps that won’t happen. If you’re not in the House you’re dead. In the Senate they’re a bit more civilised and that underpins democracy as well. I mean sometimes it works in favour of the Opposition sometimes it works in favour of the Government.

POOLE: Thank you Senator Pat Dodson, great to have you in the studio today. Thank you for coming in and giving us your time, I know you’ve got a very busy schedule and we look forward to catching up with you in the New Year and find out what the year ahead holds.

DODSON: Thank you very much and thank you for the good work you do at the ABC.


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