SUBJECTS: One-year anniversary of Uluru Statement, Joint Select Committee on Constitutional Recognition. 

GERALDINE DOOGUE: A year ago today, a historic meeting of Indigenous leaders at Uluru produced their proposals to formally acknowledge the place of Australia’s First Peoples, The Uluru Statement from the Heart. One of the key proposals, an elected Indigenous Advisory Council to be recognised in the Constitution and established by referendum was rejected by the Federal Government last October. Indigenous leaders acted angrily to the Government’s dismissal of this key objective and they’ve been campaigning ever since for the acceptance of the Uluru plan. On the prompting of the Opposition Leader Bill Shorten, the Government set up a joint Parliamentary committee in March to investigate alternative pathways for constitutional recognition. The Co-chair of that committee is Patrick Dodson. He’s a Labor Senator for Western Australia, he’s an Indigenous elder and lifelong campaigner for Indigenous recognition who I think is well recognised by Radio National listeners, Patrick Dodson welcome to Saturday Extra.

DODSON: Thank you very much, Geraldine.

DOOGUE: Now you’ve seen many committees and inquiries over the years Mr. Dodson to advance the cause of Indigenous recognition, not successful. You’ve written about this very interestingly recently, but there were I think quite high hopes for this Uluru Statement and the Referendum Council Report. Were you at the time surprised by the Government’s response? Because it was really quite an out of hand rejection.

DODSON: Absolutely. The response was almost a slam into reverse from where we thought the Government was going and where we thought we were going as a Nation in terms of a response of openness and some sort of bipartisanship and multi-party approach to the hard work that had gone on since 2011 on this question of recognition for the First Peoples in the Constitution. So, not only was it a reverse crashing of the gears, but it was really an act of disrespect to the hard work that was put in through the twelve dialogues that were organised through the Referendum Council that culminated in the Uluru Statement emerging. And sure there was some variance to what people may have expected in the political circle, because most of the focus prior to that was on amending the Constitution itself (section 51, 26 and removing section 25, the race components of our Constitution and looking towards some kind of non-discrimination clause). So to find that the Voice, not so much the concept of the Voice itself because Mr. Pearson and others had been speaking about an entity prior to that, but to have it as an exclusive, entrenched proposition, I think that was a new component that probably created some difficulties for the Prime Minister. 

DOOGUE: Well I think his view was, and clearly affected by his own experience of trying to put up a Referendum about the Republic, which was so searing for him because it was rejected. And he has virtually said in effect, we cannot have a referendum that goes wrong. That will actually be counterproductive for Aboriginal people and I don’t think this has a chance of getting up. Do you have any sympathy with that?

DODSON: Look, I have sympathy with the view of losing a Referendum. But you know, I was at Barunga 30 years ago when Hawke promised a treaty for the First Nations people, I was at Uluru when the handover took place, so the whole history of disappointment on aspirations is one that seems to be the chequered

pathway which we have gone down.  The statement from Uluru was really a plea, a statement of not necessarily contrition but a statement saying ‘listen, we want to be heard and we want to work with you, and we want to find a way to build a new relationship’. Now you don’t get that offer every day of the week from the Indigenous leadership. And to reject it out of hand because you know, you have a view that a Referendum may not work, without having tested the waters in relation to that proposition, it seems to me pretty short-sighted from a national leadership point of view.

DOOGUE: So this Joint Committee that you’re co-chairing has been set up to look at all options for constitutional recognition and I think this is going to be the fifth Parliamentary committee on constitutional recognition, what are you optimistic that you might achieve?

DODSON: Look, I think that time’s a great thing. It heals a few wounds and takes a bit of emotion out of the conflicted situations, not that you would compromise over a principle. But I think there’s a lot of things happening in the political space, First Nations affairs is usually a minuscule component of that in my experience. I would hope that through the work of the Joint Select Committee we will be able to come to some consensual positions based on what people put to us and the detail around what a referendum question would look like, and what legislation might look like, and how a Makarrata Commission may or may not work, and give us some indication of how effectively Government’s are consulting them.  So I would hope, and we will do some limited consultations and we are taking submissions, that members of the Committee will look at this in as objective a way as possible, and weigh it in terms of the Nation’s best interest rather than our political party positions and put back to Parliament what the best way forward is.

DOOGUE: So you need it to be bipartisan don’t you?

DODSON: Well we need it to be multi-party. We have two non-Labor and Liberals on there, we have two independents, or two other cross-party members on our Committee. And ultimately you need cross-party support if you want to get legislation through in the Senate of course. So it’s a challenge to the Parliament and a challenge to our national integrity, to our national sense of honour, our national sense of pride. So the First Nations people have done as much as they can do in the sense of making a plea on the basis of ‘lets restart the relationship’ and ‘we want a say in how we’re being affected.’ 

DOOGUE:  So there are people like Ken Wyatt and Nigel Scullion who have both said they see virtue for instance in simply appointing, Parliament appointing, an Advisory Council which would avoid the long, difficult and uncertain process of Referendum. Does that appeal?

DODSON: Well no, I think the point that’s made by the question of referendum and entrenchment is the long negative history of voices that have been appointed or even elected in the past, through the NAC or ATSIC or things like that. The insecurity around the proposition of having an interface with the Parliament is what’s motivated the people to say that we want it entrenched.

DOOGUE: So you think that the fact that ATSIC was turned over for instance when the Howard Government came in, that’s the sort of thing that has informed the sense that it has to be more embedded and permanent.

DODSON: Absolutely. Otherwise it just becomes a play tool of the Parliament, whoever is in Government. Because if you start getting critical or stroppy with the Government they are going to get rid of you, and that’s what has happened in the past. So the Leaders have come to the view that we need to have something in the Constitution that at least requires the Parliament to consider putting in place a voice to the Parliament. Not that it would ever assume sovereignty of the Parliament, but that it would be a voice that could be legislated and the legislation be negotiated with First Nation Leaders. So it’s a very simple proposition and a very important one if we are going to go forward.

DOOGUE: Yes, but if I could just put the point of view that there could be a lot of Australians listening saying look at the divided sort of ridiculously sort of rancorous politics we have at the moment, which is not in the national interest a lot of people feel. Is there not a risk that by coming in the way you’re planning with the best of intentions we end up with another area of adversarial conflict which surely is the last thing we need.

DODSON: Well no, look I’m not saying…I know that there are those who think the first step to be taken is getting a referendum in place. There are other propositions about legislation and as you’ve mentioned, the Indigenous Affairs Minister is talking about appointments or some kind of appointed body. They’re all important options. I’m not ruling them out. I’m just saying that the people have asked that this be entrenched and that there be a Head of Power entrenched for the Parliament to use to set up a Voice. Now, I’m not like a rabbit trying to run back into the fire having escaped from the woodheap. I understand that we have got to have a result in the Parliament. This is now the onus of the Parliament. The First Nations have done their job.

DOOGUE: Well why. Why does it need to be so clearly stated like this? What is it going to deliver to First Nations people in your view?

DODSON: Well it will deliver to them the aspirations that underpin the Uluru Statement. The creation of an entity, a body, a Voice that could interface with the Parliament.  They would be as part of their aspirations be part of the drafting and negotiations over the Legislation and so the structuring of how programs and policy gets delivered, to deal with all those terrible social inequities we know about, can in fact be managed or be in the hands – in the driving seat – of Indigenous people. You know it will deliver a lot, and as an appointed body you simply are there to give advice and no one has to take much notice of you. You’ve got an appointed body now. They weren’t even consulted when this was dismissed, as I understand it. Being appointed doesn’t guarantee you have any effectiveness. 

DOOGUE: And the Labor Party I think has just yesterday affirmed its support for a two-step process - A Council appointed by Parliament and then a Referendum. So Labor, and obviously you represent Labor, hopes that this will build public support. Is that how you are seeing it?

DODSON: Well we’re looking at all ways to go forward, and we will do that in negotiations with First Nations peoples, in terms of the details. But absolutely we’ve said and the Leader has said that in power we would Legislate an entity into existence and then once people get used to how that works we have to go back to that experience (I mean we’re going back t the sixties almost here). But we would go back, under that experience, to the question of entrenchment.

DOOGUE: Patrick Dodson thank you very much indeed for joining us, I do appreciate your time.

DODSON: Thank you, Geraldine. 


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