Black leaders offer new accord

Paul Kelly, Editor-at-Large
December 04, 2004

AUSTRALIA'S two most influential Aboriginal leaders, Patrick Dodson and Noel Pearson, have come together to make a joint appeal for a new dialogue with John Howard, based upon the principle of mutual obligation.

Both men went public yesterday in interviews with The Weekend Australian seeking to redefine relations between the Howard Government and indigenous Australians.

"We want to reopen the dialogue with the Prime Minister," Mr Dodson said yesterday. "Such a dialogue would be about clarification and trying to find common ground with him in the social arena.

"The perception that some people have, that we are only concerned with the symbolic issues, is a misconception.

"The mutual obligation stuff has a lot of resonance within Aboriginal culture and within Aboriginal notions of kinship. This concept has a grounding within our culture and society.

"It is not just a Western concept and this is how we need to see it.

"I am sure we can work with John Howard."

This spirit of engagement was reflected yesterday when footballer Michael Long and leaders Patrick and Mick Dodson met the Prime Minister in Canberra.

During the meeting Mr Howard explained his mutual obligation policy, and Patrick Dodson said there was no conflict over the principle.

Meanwhile, Mr Pearson told The Weekend Australian: "We have to see the Howard prime ministership as an opportunity rather than as a threat to indigenous Australians.

"We must see the strength of Howard's position and the confidence that people have in him as an opportunity for our people. We need a leader who can bring rural and regional Australia along on indigenous issues.

"It had to be Nixon that went to China and we have a Nixon who can help us and we need to respond to that.

"There is no argument with the principle of mutual obligation if we are going to get things fixed. The mistake we made in the past was to think indigenous salvation came from legal and political acts. This is part of it. But we must assume responsibility and recognise these things are achieved through social and economic progress.

"You don't need to tell a parent who works that they need to wash their kid's face or feed their stomach."

This is a new position for indigenous Australia. It follows eight years of stormy and futile efforts to deal with the Howard Government.

Mr Pearson calls it "a new radical centre". It is a fusion of two competing paradigms based around rights and responsibilities where Mr Dodson and Mr Pearson have been the symbolic figureheads emphasising different positions. The new Dodson-Pearson concord follows a two-day meeting of a dozen indigenous leaders at Port Douglas late last month at Mr Pearson's instigation. The November 26-27 meeting took a strategic decision to engage with Mr Howard and to reposition the debate about indigenous Australians.

Mr Pearson said the Queensland meeting was a "milestone". He called it a "turning point in the psychology of the nation's indigenous leaders".

Mr Dodson said "it was one of the most important meetings I've attended" and that "it was vital for me to get to the depths of what Noel has been talking about".

Asked about his past and often bitter experiences with the Prime Minister, Mr Dodson, former chairman of the Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation, said: "We are prepared to move beyond the past. We want to put our people first, not ourselves.

"We want to explore with the Prime Minister the social conditions of our people to see that they are improved. Collectively, we have the foundation now for a serious search for practical solutions."

This rethink by Aboriginal Australia follows Mr Howard's election win and his determination to pursue a new indigenous agenda to end passive welfare, advance mutual obligation and seek new relationship with indigenous communities on this basis. Both leaders are realistic about Mr Howard's position.

"Howard won't be convinced by some gala event, by one moment on one day that reconciliation is achieved," Mr Pearson said.

"I'm not naive enough to think he will come over to our rights agenda," Mr Dodson said. "But for the remainder of his prime ministership that's not what we are about. What we are concerned with now is the social agenda. We want to see progress here over the next three to six years."

One result from the Port Douglas meeting is an effort to transform the atmospherics and priorities within indigenous communities. Mr Dodson talked about "the start of a new form of pragmatism".

There is a recognition that many leaders stayed frozen for too long over the Keating rights agenda.

"It is not for us to be aligned with any political party or its position," Mr Dodson said. "I think that was the perception, though we never saw it that way ourselves.

"I think the meeting was enormously significant," Mr Pearson said.

"I've been running on the responsibilities agenda since the 1998 election because I believed the only way to get things back on track was to put a lot of weight on responsibility, so I decided to tack hard to the right after 1998.

"The point is that a lot of the rights we seek cannot be secured unless we also accept the responsibilities.

"Progress isn't made just through a political settlement. The mistake we made in the past is that we didn't get the basic building blocks in place -- like education and work -- and we went through one cycle of welfare after another."

Asked about his meeting with Mr Dodson, Mr Pearson said: "This is an important understanding we have reached as individuals.

"I am just an individual, as is Patrick. But indigenous people look to Patrick to give a message and the relationship between Patrick and the Prime Minister is pivotal. Whether we make much progress over the next three to six years depends very much on both men."

Mr Pearson said the breakthrough at Port Douglas "came when Patrick said that mutual obligation had an analogue in Aboriginal culture and that it is called reciprocity. So in our culture there is no argument with the principle of mutual obligation. It is an identity known to Aboriginal people."

Asked about future dialogue with Mr Howard, Mr Dodson said the "avenues to government are manifold". He was dubious about the utility of Mr Howard's new advisory council on indigenous affairs, and Mr Dodson and Mr Pearson aspire to a conversation with the Government beyond the council itself.

"If the Prime Minister is happy to meet with us from time to time outside that council, then we will do that," Mr Dodson said.

The leaders at the Port Douglas meeting also included former Kimberley Land Council director Peter Yu, Central Land Council director David Ross, the University of Melbourne's Professor Marcia Langton, South West Aboriginal Land and Sea Council chief executive Darryl Pearce, the Cape York Land Council's Richie Ah Mat, and Tanya Hosch from the Indigenous Representation Group.

Their re-think is driven by two factors. First, a recognition there must be a dialogue about Mr Howard's agenda and second, an acceptance that dialogue is the key to influencing Mr Howard's new policies.