Koori History Newspaper Archive

Pause for thoughts

Canberra Times: - Saturday, January 31, 2009

Mick Dodson is not a person to be rushed into word or deed.

The 58-year-old Yawuru man from Broome speaks slowly almost painfully so and his responses to questions come only after lengthy internal deliberations which sometimes leave the interviewer wondering whether he plans on answering at all.

Even the weight of a national media scrum which descended on him the moment he was announced Australian of the Year last Sunday has not forced him into prematurely defining his agenda for the next 12 months.

Will the outspoken Aboriginal activist and academic even have an agenda while he holds the prominent title? You bet.

''I rather flippantly said the other day I had no bloody idea what I want to do with the job, but really, I have lots of ideas. I just don't know how I am going to achieve them yet,'' says a rather weary Dodson, who has not had a moment's pause since hearing his name echo down Federation Mall in the heat of last Sunday evening's nationalistic festivities.

He's been getting some help in these early weeks of assuming the title the Australia Day Council springs into action, providing support staff to usher Dodson through a heavy schedule of appearances.

And he has just over a fortnight to get his head around what it will mean to be Australian of the Year and where he wants to take it, before outlining his ideas to the nation via an address to the National Press Club on February 17. While Dodson jokes that he doesn't want The Canberra Times stealing the march on his vision, he will reveal one lofty desire after a long and particularly considered pause.

When asked to imagine himself 12-months on having achieved his ultimate ambition Dodson says, ''I reckon it would have to be that every Aboriginal kid wants to go to school in 2010 and will get into a school a good school and get a quality education.'' ''If I didn't have the education I had, I wouldn't be here today.'' Dodson was just nine when his white father was found shot dead. Just months later, his Yawuru mother died and Dodson was taken in by his aunt and uncle in Darwin before being sent to board at the Catholic Monivae College in Victoria.

He readily admits it was the making of him and his similarly accomplished brother, Pat.

Dodson wants all indigenous children to have the same educational opportunities as he did. Some might even say he wants an indigenous education revolution.

And he's unlikely to get any argument from Prime Minister Kevin Rudd a man who won the election with the promise of an Australia- wide education revolution and who has promised to close the gap on indigenous outcomes across a range of life experiences, including education, health, life expectancy and employment.

It's clear Dodson and Mr Rudd are simpatico on many of the most pressing issues facing indigenous Australia today save for that first, immediate disagreement on changing Australia Day from January 26.

In the press call after the award ceremony, Dodson said the date represented a ''day of mourning'' for Aboriginal people and was immediately rebuffed by the Prime Minister, who offered ''a simple, respectful but straightforward no.'' Dodson says he was merely calling for a conversation on the date before the media jumped all over the issue.

''No, I never said I wanted to change the date. I said we should have conversation about it because many Australians not just Aboriginal Australians are uneasy about January 26. So let's have a yarn about it and listen to all points of view. It may transpire we come to an agreement if we could accommodate this and that, then January 26 could be OK, or perhaps we should look at another date.'' Dodson adds that an Australia Day date change has been part of the ALP's National Platform for the past two elections and it has, although by a very circuitous reference.

When pressed as to whether he personally feels another date would be better, Dodson says ''possibly''.

While Mr Rudd may want to put the issue to bed, it's unlikely Dodson will let it go without at least getting the conversation going.

Dodson is the eighth indigenous Australian of the Year, following winners such as Neville Bonner, Lowitja ODonoghue, Galarrwuy Yunupingu, and Cathy Freeman. But there is perhaps a bigger expectation than with other recipients that he will use the position for direct agitation.

Indigenous activism just like any politics is, however, rife with factionalism and division.

Questions have already been asked as to whether Noel Pearson or Warren Mundine both of whom come from the school of practical (and often confrontational) reconciliation favoured by the Howard government would not have been better choices for the job.

Dodson is seen by some as being too heavy on symbolism and less hands-on in improving the everyday lives of his people. Others think Dodson has sold out to a Government keen to be seen doing the right thing by Aboriginals if only by tokenism.

Of course, being knocked as Australian of the Year is as much a part of the job as being nominated. Dodson did have to think long and hard about accepting the gong, knowing it may lead to bigger things.

''I did have some apprehension about accepting it, based on a number of things and the whole meaning of Australia Day being part of that. I also had the feeling, well, 'I am nobody special, why should I get this? I am just going about my business and others are perhaps more worthy'.'' Dodson said he conferred with his wife and three children and they said ''go for it''.

''I don't take it only as a personal accolade but on behalf of all the indigenous people I have been speaking for.'' Dodson has been speaking in the arena of Australian race relations since he completed his law degree at Monash University in 1978 and became the first indigenous Australian admitted to the Victorian Bar. He began work with the Victorian Aboriginal Legal Service in 1976, joined the Northern Land Council as senior legal adviser in 1984 and became its director in 1990.

He was Australia's first Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner with the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission, between 1993 and 1998.

At an international level, he campaigned to put the human rights of the world's indigenous peoples on the United Nations' agenda and participated for over a decade in bringing the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples to fruition.

Now he is director of the Australian National University's Centre for Indigenous Studies and chairman of the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies.

Dodson experienced enormous personal upset working as counsel assisting the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody between 1988 and 1990 and co- authoring the Bringing Them Home report after the inquiry into the Stolen Generations.

The failure of the Howard government to deliver a national apology to families affected by the forcible removal of children was just one of a number of moral outrages it perpetuated against indigenous Australians, according to Dodson.

His personal animosity towards Mr Howard was undisguised and he spent much of the last four terms of government out in the cold.

Now he says ''All hail Kevin Rudd''.

''My view is Rudd is displaying some leadership in indigenous affairs and is committed to getting Consitutional recognition and acknowledging the history and place of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders in Australia.

''There are other philosophical and symbolic things the Government could do and I am confident Kevin Rudd will embrace these things.'' Since Mr Rudd delivered the apology to the Stolen Generations last February as a priority of the new Labor Government Dodson says ''the atmospherics have changed. We're now allowed to speak out freely about a range of things and it makes working with the Government so much easier.'' Dodson will doubtless speak freely of his concerns over Labor's continuation of the Howard government's Northern Territory intervention something Dodson has described as ''storm trooper tent diplomacy'' and says defies both Human Rights obligations and the Racial Discrimination Act.

''Mr Rudd knows my views well on this issue,'' he says dryly.

It is clear that this year when he is good and ready many more conversations are going to be instigated by Mick Dodson.