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'No takes you nowhere' — Pat Dodson's address at the National Press Club
On Saturday, Australia is deciding a referendum aimed at acknowledging indigenous people in the nation's Constitution and establishing an advisory 'Voice' to parliament.
Dear Speakola subscriber
I voted ‘Yes’ in referendum early polling yesterday, not because of some sanctimonious notion of ‘the right thing to do’ but because I think more participation in the process increases the likelihood of better governance and better outcomes for indigenous Australians. I also think the current outcomes are unacceptable, and recognition and a Voice will provide hope and better law making. As a fan of our Westminster system, I’m comfortable that an advisory body is never going to threaten the supremacy of parliament, or the strength of our democracy. In the process of voting ‘Yes’, five election officials made exactly the same joke in my direction, which I wrote about on my personal blog.
I’m wary of preaching, because I think the ‘No’ campaign have fed off a frustration many Australians have with moral righteousness and identity politics. But the legal wrong here is clear cut. Indigenous people weren’t left out of the Constitution to make our founding document colourblind. They were left out because government policy of the day was to, where possible, erase the fact of prior indigenous possession from public consciousness. The first law the newly created Australian parliament passed was the White Australia Policy.
We actually aren’t that country now. We abandoned terra nullius for the cruel lie it was. It’s time to update our terra nullius Constitution.
Senator Dodson’s National Press Club remarks today were terrific. I cut out the fifteen minutes that most affected me and which were relevant to the decision at hand.
I’ve been very worried about the temperature of this campaign, and where we are as a nation. This constitutional change should have had bipartisan support, as the 1967 referendum did. The Liberal Party have whipped up disinformation and fear in the chase for a politcial win. I worry about the lasting impacts, especially glancing across to the Republican primaries in the USA. We have to speak to each other better.
Yours in Yes!
Below is a part transcript of the address, relating to this ABC audio. The interviewer is SBS’s Anna Henderson.
Senator Patrick Dodson (00:00):
But what drives me is the ongoing injustice that I see, the out of home placements of our kids, the high levels of incarceration, the high levels of suicide that we see amongst our young people. The awful living conditions and poverty that I see, the lack of hope that I see in the streets in my own hometown, in Broome, the awfully frustrating changes that are needed in the criminal justice system and the so-called benefits that we should be enjoying are not being delivered. And that's what drives me. So we need to change. We need to have an effective voice to the Parliament. We need to have recognition as the First Peoples. You can't live in your own country and not be recognised. And that's the challenge for us as Australians. After the vote on October the 14th, people are going to have to look in the mirror and say, what have we done? And why have we done what we did? And where's it going to take us?
And we can look backwards and we can look at the history. I won't go back to Captain Cook and his instructions, but I'll go back to the Day of Mourning 1938, when Mr. Cooper and Ferguson and Patten and Pearl Gibbs and many others, Sir Doug Nicholls and others, all gathered at Latreuse(sp?) and threw a wreath into the ocean at that time, in acknowledgement of the way that Aboriginal people were being treated by the settlers. But out of that came the positive request that Mr. Cooper put to the Prime Minister Lyons — that there ought to be someone in the federal parliament that looked after the affairs of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. That never happened, of course, because in 1938 there was no clear head of power that the Commonwealth had any responsibility for the Aboriginal people. That came in '67 when the Australian people voted overwhelmingly in support of a change to our constitution that made it clear that the Commonwealth could make laws for the Aboriginal people, including every other race of people under Section 51 (xxvi).
So what drives me is the need for us to acknowledge the Aboriginal peoples as the First Peoples. Not that they have special privileges, but there are injustices that have to be fixed, as a consequence of the settlement that has taken place and the way in which that settlement has happened.
We know from our High Court, our own High Court in Australia, that made it clear that the legal fiction of terra nullius was a lie, deliberately constructed to dispossess and displace the Aboriginal people, and enable governments of the day to use us as the play tools for their particular purposes.
Now, what drives me is to stop that nonsense, to give the Aboriginal people their voice so that they can also take responsibility for the direction of the future. And we're seeing that some of that direction is to be participants in the society.
This is not about separatism, this is not about elitism. It's not about special privileges. It's about being able to navigate the course under our direction and under our judgement and under our responsibilities and our accountabilities.
That's what's being asked for. And we ask the Australian people, the decent good people in this country — and that's all Australians, I'm not separating anyone out here — all Australian people, to support the simple proposition, a very humble proposition, to create the recognition of the Aboriginal people in the Constitution and to give them an instrument, a voice, a body through which they can say to the parliament and to the executive what the concerns are and what the ways forward are — for us to go.
Because we're bogged down in a cul-de-sac of going nowhere at the moment. We know that from the Closing the Gap statistics and all the other social indicators, we're going nowhere. And the ‘No’ campaign wants us to stay there. We can't afford to stay there because that doesn't take the country forward. It doesn't redress the serious problems that the Aboriginal Torres Strait Islander peoples live under every day of the week.
Anna Henderson (04:15):
[A question about Deaths in Custody Royal Commission]
[Dodson navigates what for mine is a diversion, then gets back to it]
But today, we're not talking about the Royal Commission. Today, we're talking about the referendum. Today we're talking about a vote that the Australian people will cast a very important vote, the most significant vote they're going to make for a very long time on this matter. And that vote will determine what we as a nation are going to stand for. What are we going to stand for in relation to the First Peoples of this country? And how you cast your vote is terribly important. And then on the day after, have a look in the mirror and ask yourself, how's this going to impact your kids and yourself going forward? Are we going to go forward? Are we going to go backwards? Or are we going to cop more of the same? Are the Aboriginal Torres Strait Islander people going to be at the table? Or are they going to be picking up the crumbs as we have been for the last 200 years? So are we going to be at the table making decisions, or picking up crumbs that fall off the table of those that make decisions about us.
Anna Henderson (06:54):
When we travel around the country. Speaking to people who are undecided, one of the key cut through messages that they have taken in from this campaign is lack of detail. 'We don't know', they say, 'what we are voting on'. Do you think it would've been easier if draft legislation could have been put forward? And can you explain that decision-making process and why there isn't more detail behind the question and the pages of information that have been provided so far?
Senator Patrick Dodson (07:25):
Well, the constitution is about principle. It's about principles that parliaments or governments use to make legislation upon. And if their legislation is not acceptable to the public, or some section of the public, they have a right to challenge that in the court. Now, you don't put detail in the Constitution. And so what we are talking about in this referendum is putting a principle, the principle of recognising the Aboriginal Torres Strait Islander peoples as the First Peoples, and then a principle that allows them to have a Voice that makes recommendations. It doesn't bind the Parliament, it doesn't control the funds, it doesn't set up the programs. It simply gives advice to the executive and to the parliament on the better ways to do things with the public funds that are put towards programs and other factors.
Now, if you want to walk away from that, then you're left with the hands of the politicians making the decisions. You're left with the bureaucrats determining and deciding how the lives of Aboriginal people are going to be controlled. And you're left to the whim and fancies of the greatest lobbyists around the country that want to determine how their futures are going to be lived out in this country.
Anna Henderson (08:43):
The debate and the tenor of debate has been divisive, at times racist, and it has caused a lot of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people who've stepped forward to promote a yes campaign personal hardship because of the way they've been treated in the public discourse. You've been watching all of that. What do you make of it?
Senator Patrick Dodson (09:03):
Well, it saddens me. It seriously does sadden me that that division and acrimony has crept into the debate. But what further worries me is this goes to the very fabric of our civil exchanges as a democratic nation. This is not just about the Aboriginal referendum here. This is about the nature of our civic society. This is about how the polity of our country is governed and run, and this will affect us, into the future, as the modus operandi of what and who is accountable in the way they conduct public discourse. And that's the bigger worry. And most people haven't woken up to that as yet, I don't think, because it's so obfuscated in the process.
But it does worry me that there's no baseline here. This is run through social media. You can say anything. It's deemed to be truth. It seen to be of value. There's no weighting of the arguments. There's no real analysis of the arguments. There's no historical dimension, there's no acceptance of history. There's no acknowledgement of the legacy that history has created. There are consequences from colonisation. There are serious consequences.
Anna Henderson (10:21):
Well, let's address that because at the National Press Club, it was the Shadow Minister for indigenous Australians Jacinta Nampijinpa Price, who said on that platform she didn't think there were negative impacts from colonisation. What's your response to her view?
Senator Patrick Dodson (10:38):
Well, I look to the serious social dislocation on many of the social indicators that Aboriginal people now sit in. Now, if we were in the Promised Land that some people might want to suggest we're in, then why are we having such high rates of suicides? Why are we having so many of our kids being taken away and put into out of home care? Why is there so much domestic violence and internal violence within our societies? Why are we living in poverty? Why are we still suffering from mental health problems? And why are our kids the victims of drug and alcohol opportunities that society offers? So we're not in the Garden of Eden here.
These are the consequences of how we came to be colonised and they have to be dealt with. And so the benefits that have come through civilization, or through colonisation ... are well and good, they're good things. No one's denying them. But there are legacy issues, and responsibility and accountability issues, for how you've taken someone else's country, and subjugated them to the policies that you have. Assimilation, control, management, domination, determination of their futures, taking kids away, stolen generations, all of those things have consequences from the first point of taking their lands and subjugating them to the policies of government — to achieve the objective, which is the benefits that the society now enjoys.
Anna Henderson (12:25):
When the National Party came out very clearly and said they would be campaigning for a ‘No’ vote, and then the Liberal Party followed and said very clearly they would be campaigning for a ‘No’ vote. With your deep understanding of the history of constitutional change in this country, at that point in the process, did you ever think it would be better to hold back and not proceed with this referendum now,
Senator Patrick Dodson (12:49):
I paused for a moment because I thought, well, yes, that'd be something to do. But then I said, well, this question of recognition goes back well before my time. It goes back to the leaders that I've admired, Vincent Lingiari, the Mr. Coopers, Mr. Ferguson, Patten, Pearl Gibbs, Doug Nicholls, the Pilbara Strikers. It goes back a long way, of struggle for recognition. And I've been party to, and I've had the privilege to be on committees where we've tried to grapple with this. I chaired the Reconciliation Council for six years of its existence, trying to find common ground. I worked with the wonderful. deceased now, Rick Farley — trying to find common ground between aboriginal people and pastoralists and many other industry groups, miners and others.
So the importance of recognising the First Peoples in this country is significant for the nation. It's a significant matter for the nation, not just for the Aboriginal people. And that's what people are going to have to ask themselves on the 15th of October, Have we dealt with this legacy issue of denying the First Peoples of this country or have we actually owned up to it, and have we acknowledged that? And therefore, we're not going to bequeath, we're not going to hand that legacy onto our future generations. We're going to put a stop to that lie, and we're going to set down a new foundation upon which we can build.
Anna Henderson (14:35):
At this point in time, looking at the polls over a long period now and the trend which suggests that this referendum is very likely to end in a ‘No’ vote, what is your reaction to that and what hope do you see over the next couple of days of actually changing minds?
Senator Patrick Dodson (14:57):
Well, we've got a section in the Constitution which sets up the process that we're going through, the referendum process — that is that the majority of voters in a majority of states decide. I'll wait until the Australian people make their minds and their wishes clear. I'm not going to be ruled by polls. If we want to be governed by polls and why would we have a government? We can just run a poll and decide how we're going to work and live! Now, I think the Australian people and there are many of them, that are still to vote, and I'd encourage them to vote ‘Yes’ in this referendum. There's nothing to fear here. There's only good to come out of this. There's a vision to come out of this and there's hope to come out of this. So the truth of our integrity as a nation is what's at stake here, the truth of that.
And we will need to face up to that on the 15th of October, once we know what the outcome is. I'm confident that we are able to get sufficient votes and a sufficient number of the states to get us across the line. I don't believe in the polls. I was in the Opposition when Bill Shorten was the leader and we thought we were going to win government. And of course, we got the biggest hiding possible and we never went anywhere.
So polls tell you lies and don't believe them.
If you're fearful about the confusion, vote Yes. Don't vote ‘No’. Because No takes you nowhere.
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