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Plenary presentation to the Second International Conference on New Directions in the Humanities [Indigenous policy].

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The Second International Conference on New Directions in the Humanities

Monash University Centre in Prato, Italy

20-23 July

Plenary Presentation

By Mick Dodson

Chairman - Australian Institute of Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander


Theatre Politeamo

Thursday 22 July 2004

Ladies & Gentlemen

It is customary for me to acknowledge the traditional owners of the land where

I’ve been asked to speak, so in this case let me just acknowledge the hospitality

of the people of Prato and the charm of the Tuscan land that we are all

privileged to share while we are here.

I also wish to thank my colleagues on the Council of the Australian Institute for

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies for approving my presence here to

represent the Institute. I also thank Rio Tinto without whose generous financial

support I could not be here.

Let me make a start by saying that I speak to you, of course, as one of the

Indigenous people of Australia, and our people like many Indigenous peoples in

other parts of the world have an ambivalent relationship to the Humanities in


In the dark past, the view that we were so backward in civilization that we did

not fully qualify as human can be attributed to the ancestors of your present


disciplines, if not to the disciplines as practised today. One eminent professor

has told us i: learned liberal philosophers of the modern era elaborated a

doctrine of the freedom of the individual within a republican state, and at the

same time found arguments for denying that freedom to the Indigenous peoples

of the New World, and justifying the state’s plunder of our landsii. Others of

your disciplinary forebears romanticised the ‘Noble Savage’, which did us no

less injustice in denying our essential humanity.

In more recent times we have begun to understand each other much better.

Research in the Humanities has done a lot to educate the larger public on our

common humanity - the humanity of both Indigenous people and the

descendants of colonising societies. Such disciplines as history, a revised and

reflective anthropology, the Arts - including film and drama, and in general the

social commentary of the intellectuals that populate the Humanities; have done

much to lead the general population along the path towards reconciliation.

I think it is important, though, to reflect on how recent and fragile that

understanding is. In Australia, in particular, we see it wound back on a daily

basis with the full weight of the present government, and the particular

obsessions of the present Australian Prime Minister, bearing down against us. It

bears down, also, on the common understanding of your disciplines that you

have so recently developed. I want to alert you to this in my talk to you here

today. From the very first day that the present Australian government took

office we have been subjected to an onslaught on our rights not seen since the

British assertion of sovereignty over our ancestral lands. I am not talking here

about our base human rights, our political rights or civil rights, or indeed our

citizenship rights - the beneficial rights we are meant to enjoy as Australians.

These are very important. These are rights we are meant to possess by virtue of

our common humanity, rights that are universally recognised as inherent to all.


No, I’m talking about our distinctive rights as Indigenous peoples. Rights so far

largely unrecognised but surely abused. These are not superior rights they are

different right. They are about who we are, what we stand for and our place in

humanity. Without their recognition and protection we disappear as a

component of the wonderful diversity of humankind.

Ladies and gentlemen

My brother Patrick, unlike me, is pretty notorious in Australia so I don’t often

quote him. He was the founding Chair of the Council for Aboriginal

Reconciliation, and at the risk of being regarded as equally notorious I agree

with him when he says: to talk of extinguishing native title is to revert once

again to extinguishing the natives. It is equally true that to deny our human

rights, particularly those distinctive rights that make us Indigenous, is to revert

to a denial of our humanity. The disciplines of the Humanities that you all

represent here aspire to explore the most elevated of human values, and this

conference promises to be very productive in this. For the moment, however,

let me explore the dark side of those values as it manifests itself in Australia


Racism has been, and continues to be, a core value of Australian society.

I should tell you that the very first press conference in our national capital,

Canberra given by John Howard, after taking leadership of the country, was on

the subject of Indigenous affairs. He announced the suspension of operation of

many of our community-based organisations while he conducted an audit of

their expenditures, using money appropriated from ATSIC, our own elected

national representative body. The audit found little remarkable, but it was the

first shot in the war of re-colonisation that the Prime Minister has led against us

throughout his term in office.


Since that press conference, his refusal to acknowledge the reality, and the

legality, of prior ownership of this land now called Australia by Aboriginal and

Torres Strait Islander people, his persistent denial of the truth about the forcible

removal of Indigenous children from their families and communities, his

refusal to engage in reconciliation and settlement of past injustices, and his

denial of Indigenous knowledge of the history of occupation of this country by

Europeans, demonstrates a deep seated and personal disrespect for Indigenous

people, our cultural rights and obligations. Most recently, his decision to

abolish the national Indigenous representative body, ATSIC, and to replace it

with an appointed advisory committee is breathtaking in its ability to send us

the message that, as far as he is concerned, we are people who just don’t count.

Through his position on matters like these, John Howard is, quite deliberately it

seems, promoting continuing disrespect for Indigenous people in our country

and dividing the nation along the lines of identity, ethnicity and race.

In his 1996 Sir Robert Gordon Menzies Lecture - which he called “The Liberal

Tradition: The Beliefs and Values Which Guide the Federal Government”

(1996a), the Prime Minister gave an insight into his view of Australian society

and history. In that speech he referred to the ‘black armband view of our past’,

which he described as reflecting “a belief that most Australian history has been

little more than a disgraceful story of imperialism, exploitation, racism, sexism

and other forms of discrimination”.

As the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner I

considered, and rejected, the politics of such exaggerated statements in my

‘Social Justice Report’ in 1996 (ATSISJC 1996).


It is notable that these words were spoken for the memorial lecture in honour of

the hero of the Liberal Party’s tradition, Sir Robert Gordon Menzies. Full

acceptance of our Indigenous experience is seen as a challenge to the core

values, which the Prime Minister believes, cohere and unite his party, his

government and the nation as a whole. If this were so, there could be a

legitimate cause for concern. It is not so. I doubt, in fact, that it is a real fear.

More likely it is a political posture designed to engender fear in others for

narrow ideological ends.

In grappling with the past, the present, and our future together the Prime

Minister uses the image of a ‘pendulum’ which in his view has swung out of

balance in favour of the interests of Indigenous Australians and other minority

groups, away from the core interests and values of the mainstream. In an

address to the 61st Annual State Conference of the National Party in

Queensland also in 1996, Prime Minister Howard (1996b) said:

“…For too long this country had a government that was pushed and

pulled in every direction by the noisiest minority that happened to be in

town at the particular time.”

Of course, our minority has been in town for a very long time. The most telling

aspect of this remark is the notion that there is a centre to the Australian nation

that is somehow put upon, badgered and browbeaten by factional groups who

would pull the centre apart by appeal to special interests. It is essentially a

defensive position. While it acknowledges that Australia’s history is blemished,

it asserts that the overall scorecard is pretty good, and that examples of ill

treatment and discrimination are nothing but the whistles and banners of a street

demonstration, designed to re-open the past to gain contemporary political



It is a view that sees a fundamental division between the interests of Indigenous

people as a minority and the interests of the mainstream of Australian society -

as though recognising our human rights means undermining national cohesion.

This is clear from an address to the Australian Liberal Students Federation in

July 1996, when Prime Minister Howard (1996c) said:

“Governments exist to represent the values and aspirations of the

mainstream of the Australian community. Not in a way that is insensitive

or indifferent to minority groups in the community but in a way that

ultimately gives expression to the aspirations and the hopes of the

mainstream of the Australian community.”

To my mind this is a return to classic assimilation. It places the Indigenous

people among minority groups who are outside the values and aspirations of the

mainstream of the Australian community. Our values, aspirations and hopes

are seen to be essentially divergent.

The narrowing of national vision caused allows this new Liberal Party

philosophy to declare that core Australian institutions and values are under

attack from the fringe. It is reflected time and again in attacks against

Indigenous human rights - by the government’s response to the High Court’s

Wik decision recognising co-existent rights to pastoral land, in the response to

the Final Report of the National Inquiry into the Separation of Aboriginal and

Torres Strait Islander Children from Their Families (Bringing them home)

(HREOC 1997), the response to the Final Report of the Council for Aboriginal

Reconciliation and its Documents of Reconciliation (CAR 2000), recent

reviews of the National Museum of Australia, and most recently the unilateral

abolition of the national Indigenous representative body - ATSIC.


In all of these cases, and particularly with the abolition of ATSIC, the present

government has run roughshod over the UN’s General Recommendation on

Indigenous Peoples, (General Recommendation XXIII) of its Committee on the

Elimination of Racial Discrimination’s Human Rights Commission’s, which is

a requirement that no decisions affecting the rights of indigenous peoples “are

made without their informed consent.”

Australia is today morally bound by agreements it has signed to respect the

cultural and political autonomy of indigenous peoples, and their territorial

rights. After 1945 the multilateral negotiation of, and agreement to,

international rights and their implementation and interpretation, was perhaps

the most important influence in the evolving ideals and standards of

indigenous policy and rights world-wide, especially in Western liberal

democracies. Australia played an honoured part in this process. While the

impact of international principles was not always instantaneous in the

faraway Southern Hemisphere, it was respected at least in rhetorical, until

the Howard government began its attack on the international rights system

and United Nations in the late 1990s.1

Post-1945 nation-states in the so-called ‘first world’ also quickly established

that indigenous peoples, even in remote and inconvenient areas, were part of

national society and entitled to the same high quality public services as all

other citizens. Such ‘citizenship rights’ were due regardless of any

additionally recognised indigenous rights or political communities.

Attempts to glorify the provision of such basics as noteworthy national

achievements, or ‘practical reconciliation’ - as it is described in Australia -


may be good public relations for gullible audiences, but they are an

international ‘first world’ minimum standard. As the late Aboriginal leader

Charlie Perkins said in almost his last public utterance, “nobody boasts that

white children are able to go to school”. [CAEPR report]

The last decade’s public discussion of indigenous affairs in Australia has

hinged on a number of false oppositions. Firstly, symbolic recognition,

rhetorical documents, and statements such as an apology for the stolen

generations, are opposed to practical nuts and bolts community service

programs as mutually exclusive choices, the only ones on offer (with any

sensible person preferring the latter). But no indigenous person has ever

suggested that symbolic politics alone were a cure for anything. Secondly,

Self-determination, with a loaded meaning implying separation from

Australia or withdrawal from modern society, is opposed to assimilation into

‘the mainstream’, as if only these two choices face our people. Again, the

first option is supposed to be silly, and the latter sensible. In reality the

desired policy accepted by most Australian indigenous leaders combines

some form of autonomy within Australia with greater access to the benefits

of contemporary economy and society.

These false oppositions have provided the backdrop for the attack on

ATSIC, which has been under endless special scrutiny and special audits

since the Howard government came to power. Complaints from indigenous

people themselves about ATSIC have been used by government and the

media to discredit the organisation; similar complaints could be mustered

about any ministry or official agency among its client group, whether

farmers or pilots or nurses or students. ATSIC has been a lightning rod for

1 In the same weeks of political debate covered by this paper in early 2004, Howard tried to use special incentives to train male schoolteachers as a tool to entice the political class to crack open


any material or other grievances, saving the country at large, and its

governments, much deserved blame. The frequent corruption and other

scandals revealed at the highest levels of ‘mainstream’ state and federal

governments, of course, do not call into question the right of non-indigenous

regions or peoples to govern themselves.

‘Mainstreaming’ services for indigenous peoples is not the future but a failed

past. The reason that governments have specialised bureaux dealing with

indigenous issues, until our own achievement of autonomy to indigenous, is

that practical experience dictated such need. The only way to remove such a

need is where regional people become self-governing and have their own

sufficient institutions. The experience in other countries shows us that, even in

such cases as Greenland or Nunavut, liaison or various residual functions

remain within the nation-state.

Of course, Indigenous peoples have needs and aspirations, which do not fit

neatly within ‘mainstream’ systems, whether because we live in inconvenient

locations, our poor socio-economic profile, our legal status or lack of it, or

other factors. Whatever its precise functions, a specific indigenous affairs

element in executive government is usually necessary in any country where

there are Indigenous people. Where ideology or a facile sense of public

economy removes such institutions they will be quickly re-invented for quite

practical reasons.

‘Indigenous policy’ as a term used by Australian governments today means

rather less than meets the eye. It focuses on basic community services, an

entirely worthy and urgent matter, rather than the larger questions which the

term implies elsewhere. It is about getting indigenous people to the toilet, not

Australia’s national rights framework and begin dismantling national rights legislation and institutions.


the treaty table. Yet a recent review by the Centre for Aboriginal Economic

Policy Research of the decade of ‘practical reconciliation’, in which material

advancement was supposed to replace symbolic gestures, shows that there has

been no overall improvement. Indigenous people on the receiving end of John

Howard’s philosophy achieve neither recognition nor the material benefits of


The ‘policy’ of the Howard era has had three conflicting dimensions. Firstly,

he has said repeatedly that Australia’s Indigenous people should disappear as a

public issue; he wants us off the front pages of the newspapers, dissolved into

the social ‘mainstream’. Strangely, though, he has fretted endlessly in public

about indigenous peoples and issues since first coming to power. He has been

unable to leave the subject alone, especially in his first five years in power, and

recently, with an election looming, again. We may have to await a

psychobiography to find the source of this obsessive interest. Thirdly, he has

used Indigenous people and prejudices against us consistently and persistently

as a rhetorical scapegoat rather than a problem that needs to be addressed. The

abolition of ATSIC is an example of this non-constructive approach.

While media attention has focussed on ATSIC’s internal problems, it has also

had some major external problems to contend with. Perhaps the biggest is that

the Howard government has been unwilling to recognise its legitimacy. Indeed,

it is uncertain that Howard would accept any indigenous body as legitimate. As

he recently said:

I have made it very plain that I don’t think having a separate body is a good

idea. I have a very strong preference for the services available to indigenous

people to be delivered through mainstream agencies. Obviously where there

are pockets of disadvantage, you should have some special programmes. But


I don’t think the ATSIC experiment has been a success. I think it has been a

huge failure. (Prime Minister’s transcript, Interview on radio, Perth, 1-4-04)

Clearly there is not much indigenous political space allowed in Australia.

Howard, and many others, does not accept that indigenous people have the right

to any political institutions at arm’s length from the control of the state.

Howard and others have used ATSIC, and allowed others to use ATSIC, as a

scapegoat, both for anti-indigenous feelings among the public and in frustration

with the persistent socio-economic woes of Indigenous peoples. ATSIC’s

visibility has made it a convenient target for many reasons, few of which have

anything to do with its actual role or performance.

Howard has run a one-man government on indigenous policy, with ministers

left to justify or carry it out. He has played on the most uninformed notions

which the public (and presumably he, himself) holds, and assiduously

undermines attempts at policy discussion with mournful and spurious appeals to

national unity. In recent years he has taken to saying that the lack of personal

opposition he encounters to his position on indigenous affairs indicates its wide

acceptance. On the contrary, there is much discussion out of his range, but it is

people like yourselves, those who know better, that we look to bring a more

balanced view of our concerns back into the public domain.

I would like to wind up by saying that, since the referendum in 1967 that

removed the prohibition on the Commonwealth making laws for Aboriginal

people, we have suffered a number of imposed representative organisations

which were apparently for our own good. Firstly, we had the Office of

Aboriginal Affairs, then the NACC, followed by the NAC, before the

amalgamation of the NAC, the old Department of Aboriginal Affairs and the


Aboriginal Development Commission, which, collectively became ATSIC,

with a new electoral structure. While ATSIC did many good things that it was

never credited for, and was blamed for many things that were not within its area

of responsibility, from the start Indigenous people were suspicious of the way

that the government had planned, delivered and, ultimately, controlled it. Many

of us today see its unilateral abolition by government as an opportunity to move

forward, despite our disgust at the contemptuous way that abolition was

announced and implemented. This time we are determined that a national

Indigenous representative body will be one of our own making, responsive to

the diverse cultures and living situations of our peoples, and adapted to our own

needs as we determine them.

In June this year about 200 Indigenous people from across the country gathered

in Adelaide to discuss the process for planning a new national representative

body. I’d like to be clear here that they did not plan a new body - they

committed themselves to a process of consultation about how the new body

should be constituted, and they laid down some Key Principles and Values for

this National Indigenous Body and the National Inclusive Process for

establishing it. In conclusion, I would like to outline to you here these Principle

and Values:

• We the Indigenous People of Australia and we alone have the right to

determine who represents us locally, regionally, nationally & internationally. • We are determined to establish a sustainable independent National

Indigenous Representative Body that reflects the aspirations and values of our peoples. • The National Indigenous Representative Body needs to gain its legitimacy

from our people. • Any process to establish a National Indigenous Representative Body must

acknowledge who we are, honour our diversity and commit to inclusive processes for all our people. • Our National Indigenous Representative Body must be open, transparent and

accountable to the Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander peoples.


We also elaborated Principles for a National Indigenous Representative Body and Inclusive Process as follows

• We respect and are committed to the right of our peoples to make free and informed choices for them, their families and communities. • We have an obligation to respect and protect our right to self-determination, our human rights, our humanity, our First Peoples’ status and our inherent

rights that flow from that status. • We have a duty to pursue social justice & economic development for all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. • Our duty is to leave a lasting legacy for our grandchildren’s grandchildren.

I believe those are the values that will guide our discussions in the coming year.

The process will be domiciled at the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and

Torres Strait Islander Studies in Canberra, but it will be owned by all of our

people from the largest cities to the remotest communities.

We can expect the discussion among our people to be very robust.

When Gerry Hand, a Minister in the Hawke government, was roaming the

country proposing the model of the future ATSIC, one comment he got from a

meeting somewhere in the vastness of our traditional lands: ‘new tie, new shirt,

new trousers but the same smelly old socks’”. This time around, with the

consultation process in our own hands I’m sure we will get the socks right too.

Thank you.

i Professor James Tully in his book ‘Strange Multiplicity’.

ii (Tully, 1995:63, 70-79)