Patrick Dodson: Why I've changed my mind


SOME Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people alike who support the indigenous rights agenda may be disappointed about last week's meeting with Prime Minister John Howard in Canberra. But has the Aboriginal leadership really lowered our colours and surrendered on the field of battle? If only the issues confronting the Aboriginal people were that simple.

Michael Long, who initiated the reopening of a dialogue with the Howard Government, and those Aboriginal leaders who had been sidelined from the national debate about Aboriginal affairs, have merely attempted to return the debate on Aboriginal affairs to some level of equilibrium that the reality of failed public policy has demanded of every Australian.

At a meeting with Noel Pearson in north Queensland last week -- well before the Long meeting was even agreed to -- Pearson recounted that Richard Nixon had to go to China in the early 1970s for there to be a thaw in relations between the US and China.

I find my point of historical reflection in the human engagement of Frederik de Klerk and Nelson Mandela, who both recognised the potential for bloodshed and civil upheaval that otherwise might have happened in South Africa and acted to avoid such an outcome. They compromised and negotiated knowing full well that all their constituencies would never be fully accommodated.

Nixon went to China because American industry demanded trade access to the world's largest market. De Klerk and Mandela acted to save a nation.

In Australia, the direction and emphasis of the reconciliation process and the position of Aboriginal people's unresolved issues with the nation are known points of difference between the Howard Government and Aboriginal people. We have agreed to work on what we have in common rather than what we may still disagree about, in search of a common good.

The Aboriginal people must come to terms with the Howard Government's social reform agenda in Aboriginal affairs. These are policies that stress mutual obligation and personal responsibility. I would have thought that most Australians want to see less emphasis on the latest social indicator report and more on the outcomes and solutions.

The resolution of the problems facing Aboriginal people in this country will require strong working partnerships between governments, industry and the Aboriginal people at every level.

This will require an engagement by Aboriginal people at the regional and local level. To engage with governments at every level and with their servants who are charged with delivery of services to communities and the individual people who live on these communities.

Public policy and its implementation have failed Aboriginal people in this country for many years. And many of our own Aboriginal institutions charged with the alleviation of many of the matters addressed in the social indicators have failed to come to terms with the reality of our people on the ground.

This should never be interpreted as a rejection by the Aboriginal leadership in the struggle to have Aboriginal people in this country recognised as the first Australians and their rights to practise and enjoy their language, law and culture as the indigenous peoples of the nation. These are matters for future engagement and resolution, not matters to be discarded as irrelevant leftovers of another time and political reality.

There is a lot of goodwill on behalf of governments in this arena but that alone will not bring the needed change. The depth of knowledge in the social and cultural domain that governs Aboriginal communities is not capable of being reached by public servants of goodwill. This has plagued the good intentions of policy makers in government over the years.

Mutual obligation and personal responsibility are not foreign concepts to Aboriginal social and cultural values, practice and protocols. Reciprocity is a word we understand. These are concepts fundamental to the law and culture of our people and have been for millennia.

The corruption of these values and practices has taken place over the period of bureaucratic and welfare domination over our lives. Basically from the time when we were kicked off the pastoral properties over the equal wages and living conditions issues in the '60s and instead of work governments gave us "sit down money" and shacks to live in on the fringes of the towns.

Many things appear to have become worse because we have far more corrosion of our values and ways which some of our people now think this is how we are meant to live. Exploiting the cash flow from public transfer at the expense of those in our communities most at risk, the young and the old, is not our way.

In the '70s Gough Whitlam and Malcolm Fraser agreed to legislate for a land rights scheme centered on the principles of inalienability of the land and the right for Aboriginal people to have a say about what took place on any lands returned to our ownership.

Both the Labor and Liberal prime ministers recognised the importance to our identity and the survival of these principles. Providing land justice was never taken as the final or only solution to the needs of the Aboriginal people.

A fair portion of my life was spent in defending the rights and opportunities that came from the operations of this Commonwealth Act against Labor and Coalition governments. Prime Minister Howard's desire to improve the social lot of Aboriginal people should be commended.

But it is the implementation and negotiation which have to be addressed if the policies are to achieve the desired result of lifting the Aboriginal children of this country to a shared future with all other children in this land of wealth and opportunity.

I have always been impressed with East Timor leader Xanana Gusmao who, after captivity and years of civil war, emerged from an Indonesian jail and returned to Jakarta to ensure the freedom and liberty of his nation. He sought reconciliation rather that revenge for his people and his former jailers.

The time has come in this country for all Australians to put aside our differences and to create partnerships that aspire to the national good.

Read Michael Mansell's response to Pat Dodson

go back