Subjects: Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s offer to appoint Tony Abbott as special envoy for Indigenous affairs, Constitutional recognition, and Guardian investigation into Indigenous deaths in custody. 

PATRICIA KARVELAS: Senator Pat Dodson is Labor’s spokesperson on Indigenous affairs and known as the Father of Reconciliation, welcome to RN Drive.


KARVELAS: You’ve been very critical of the decision to offer Tony Abbott this envoy role, what are your chief concerns?

DODSON: Well we don’t know what it’s going to do. The First Nations people have asked the Government for a voice and we get Tony Abbott! I mean I’ve dealt with about seven or eight Prime Ministers now and now we have a new one. You know, First Nations people have been asking to have a voice where their views are put forward themselves rather than by some sort of intermediary whose record quite frankly is appalling.

KARVELAS: As Prime Minister Tony Abbott was widely criticised as not being consultative enough on his approach, others have said good things about him, he spent a week in communities and said he wanted to be the Prime Minister for Indigenous Affairs. Is the story so clear cut in terms of his record?

DODSON: Well he cut 500 million off the budget for First Nations people. He basically called people who live in the outback communities, the remote communities of Western Australia as making a ‘lifestyle choice’ and that those communities ought to be closed down. He’s taken a view on the voice proposition that came from Uluru as not really needed and he’s not been supportive of the constitutional guarantee. He’s basically taken a view that places like Sydney didn’t have Aboriginal people living there. So he hasn’t been overly empathetic and he hasn’t been overly constructive and positive in the period that I’ve been in the Parliament.

KARVELAS: The move has received a pretty cool response from a lot of people but interesting also from the Minister for Indigenous Health Ken Wyatt who is of course Indigenous. What did you make of Ken Wyatt’s comments because he gave it a pretty lukewarm response? 

DODSON: Well, Ken’s got to deal with his party and I wouldn’t know what to do if I was in Ken’s position, given the antics of the last week or so and the roles that various people have played. But quite frankly the time has passed I mean this is a matter now for the new Prime Minister. He’s got a great opportunity to seriously take First Nations people’s concerns seriously. I’ve been part of a Joint Select Committee with Julian Leeser working on how best to recognise the First Nations people in the constitution. We’re continuing that work and hopefully there will be some positive responses from the new Prime Minister in relation to the propositions that have been put already from the Uluru Statement for a Voice and for a Makarrata Commission, truth-telling and agreement making and for a referendum process to entrench that. In addition to the many other things that need to be done. But in the short term, a voice for the First Nations people has got to be critical.
KARVELAS: Nigel Scullion has been kept in the Indigenous Affairs portfolio he’s actually been in that role for an incredibly period of time now. Are you expecting changes in the Government’s approach in this area?
DODSON: Look I have no say in what the Government does and given its antics in the last week anything is possible. I presume Nigel will be the Minister when we come back to Parliament. I know he’s got a passion in this field. He and I don’t always see eye to eye, but on the other hand he’s been trying his best I think to get things done and hasn’t been successful. We’ve been going backwards and forwards over remote housing funding agreements in Western Australia. We’re going to lose 100 million dollars out of that in Western Australia and that’s a big impost and a big impact on people who live in remote parts of Western Australia. Now Nigel says he’s had a fair crack at that but he hasn’t been able to get past the treasurer as he was then, now the Prime Minister and others. So I don’t know where these things go on their side of the fence. I know Labor’s pretty committed. Bill Shorten will certainly be up for a voice, he’ll certainly be up for the referendum question and certainly up for truth-telling and for Makarrata.
KARVELAS: And on Scott Morrison’s position on a Voice to Parliament, that model proposed by the Uluru statement. I mean there is no evidence is there that the Government is going to change its position and that constitutional reform will happen.
DODSON: Well I agree it’s hard to see that. You’ve got Mr Angus Taylor’s opposition to it, the response to Linda Burney’s response to the Uluru statement which shows quite negative attitudes and you’ve got Tony Abbott’s position. There is no clarity what the current Prime Minister thinks. So you do have a very hard working member in Mr Leeser and those people who have been sitting on the Joint Select Committee and we’ve got further work to do and we’ll do our best. But I would hope that First Nations affairs get better treatment under the current Prime Minister.
KARVELAS: Also on another big story today a major investigation by the Guardian has examined every Indigenous death in custody in Australia for the last decade. There have been 147. They have found huge differences in the treatment received by Indigenous people. I imagine Pat Dodson that this did not surprise you?
DODSON: Well what did surprise me is the lack of updated data. I thought that this would’ve been maintained given the expense that went into the Royal Commission some 30 years ago and the need for data that was highlighted at that time. I congratulate the people from the Guardian who’ve done this work and have had to trawl through 100 or so coronial enquiries to extract the data. It is appalling that we’ve had 140 or so further deaths in custody, primarily because of medical reasons and the lack of real medical attention when people are taken into custody so these are possibly preventable things. We need to seriously look at the medical treatment angle of what happens to people when they are taken into custody, both in prison and in lock ups. We know from the terrible example of Ms Dhu in Western Australia that there is a real lack of attention there is something that leads to the police themselves getting a bad record despite the many good efforts that some of them are trying to make. But medical matters are well known.  We have a national day when we report on many of these things about closing the gap and police officers, health workers, health professionals and others should be well aware that it’s not just somebody that’s done something wrong taken into custody but it could be someone with a serious medical condition. The other factor of course is the high-speed chases that are the other cause of deaths so that policy needs a bit of a review as well. And taking so much time for coronial enquiries to be undertaken and to report back to families who live with the uncertainty about what happened to their loved ones once in custody. So there are a whole lot of things that need to be moved upon, the custody notification matter that the Federal Government to its credit offered to undertake needs to be implemented and undertaken as quickly as possible to help in this field. New South Wales has shown quite clearly that it has good impact and has worked reasonably well in that state. So there are some positives that these journalists have produced, some sad things about the deaths and some repetitive things we should have learned from the Royal Commission.
KARVELAS:  Pat Dodson thanks you so much for your time.
DODSON: Thank you.
KARVELAS: That’s Labor’s indigenous affairs spokesperson Senator Patrick Dodson.

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