• Journalist Karla Grant presents Living Black in 2021 (NITV)Source: NITV
In a revealing interview, Senator Patrick Dodson speaks truth to power with logic that's hard to deny.
Karla Grant

23 May 2020 - 3:49 PM  UPDATED 23 May 2020 - 3:49 PM

“…racism. It’s called ignorance. It’s called fear.”

Never have I heard Patrick Dodson, speak like this before.

Laser sharp observations are to be expected from Senator Dodson. But in this conversation he took it to a new level.

When I asked specifically about rejection of the Indigenous Voice to Parliament proposal, why there wasn’t support for it and why he thought it was rejected by the Turnbull Government, I got some shocking answers.

"There are people in the parliament who just don't want anything of benefit for Aboriginal people." said Pat Dodson.

There was no mincing of words. When I probed deeper, he was direct “it’s called racism. It’s called ignorance. It’s called fear.”

Expanding his insights, he said "there is still a hint of the white Australia policy that underpins, that this is the place for the white man and the natives have got to get back to the reserve or be exterminated.

"We don't have courageous leadership on behalf of the government today. If there was courageous leadership, then I would think the majority of the parties, certainly in the senate, apart from the One Nation mob, would be behind it."

By exposing racism as Pat Dodson does, the hope is it can be defeated. Certainly as long as I’ve been reporting on Indigenous affairs, Pat Dodson has always been there fighting the good fight for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

But it does worry me that racism and ignorance is alive and well in the halls of parliament.  We place our faith in these people when we cast our vote at election time. We hope they are going to do the right thing by all of us. 

How can we maintain faith in the system when 'racism, ignorance and fear' rears its ugly head whenever Indigenous Australians ask for a seat at the table?  A seat that is rightfully theirs as the First Peoples of this nation.

Senator Patrick Dodson has thought deeply about these challenges over many years. His observations have been honed over decades of negotiation.

Ambitions and Hope

"You've got to get people into the parliament, as well as have a Voice [to Parliament] that stands alone, that advocates for the First Nations peoples to the parliament. I'm optimistic we'll get there."

Essential for this champion of self-determination, is a treaty. 

"You need a treaty that locks in the nature of the behaviour, and the nature of our relationship between each other. Otherwise we're constantly dealing in a colonial backdrop, which is always going to be defensive of its sovereign position, or its power position, and its interest position against ours.

"What I think the benefit of the Uluru statement is, is that there's got to be a Makarrata kind of commission.

"We've got to come together and deal with all of these comfortable myths we've got about the settlement and the colonisation process. Don't be frightened about them. Face them, otherwise those demons will remain with you forever and a day.

"And find common ground about the richness of the First Nations peoples contribution, and their rights and interests, and the richness of the British heritage and what it's delivered or not delivered.

"But there's got to be respect, mutual respect, and a proper power relationship between ourselves and the crown, otherwise we will continue to be debating these things when I'm dead and gone, and hopefully people are coming to my grave in Broome and putting a flower on it."

Family values

This dignified Yawuru man from the Kimberley has defied prejudice with grace, all his life.

Where did it begin? His mother Patricia demonstrated her keen sense of justice many times over, "she wasn't going to let us, as kids, get bullied around by the institutions, or by white folks." As a boy he watched her fiercely defend her six children, in spite of entrenched discrimination. 

"I remember my mother coming up to the school one time, and my brother ... he was a left-hander, and they used to try and make left-handers write with their right hand. And she couldn't truck the argument that the teacher had given, so she... so she walked over and caused more trouble than it was worth."

These were the days when he recalls "there was still fear in the streets of white people, white ringers, or cattle people, who had reputations of shooting Aboriginal people, certain individuals. The whole town would go into a buzz, and us as kids, wouldn't go up the streets, because someone said a particular person was in town.

"You feared for your life if he was around, because of the enormous reputation. This bloke would not only shoot you, [he] would just cruelly punish you."

While childhood was filled with fishing, sunshine and football, it was far from idyllic.

Pat Dodson was only 12 years-old when his world collapsed "when my parents died, which was tragically within three months of each other.

"It had a big impact. A big impact, because you had to come to terms with this concept of being an orphan. What's an orphan? You're so used to being around... the family."

To the rescue, Pat's older sister devised a plan for her younger siblings to avoid being sent to a mission. The native protector agreed, the children could stay with various family members until old enough to be reunited.

"I would be able to leave school within a year, and then I could go to work and help her get my other brother, Mick, and Jack, and Trish, the three youngest." 

His older brother bolted, "he'd run away from this mob, and he went out bush ringing, so he became a man overnight, that bloke." A memory that comes with a chuckle.

Young Patrick survived the tragic loss of his parents and grew into the Elder and politician we know today, sharing many of the same traits as our other senior Indigenous leaders, such as the need to maintain a level of optimism.

"You cop racism, but the only way to beat that was to be better".

Resisting racism

Year after year, decade after decade, consultation after consultation, report after report, committee after committee, our people never give up and they continue to fight for what is rightfully ours.

But in terms of any sort of constitutional recognition for Indigenous Australians, Mr Dodson feels it’s a long way off from happening.  

I know, our Indigenous leaders will never give up and they will keep going until one day we do get what we want.

History has shown that we have had significant wins such as the 1967 Referendum, Native Title was recognised with the Mabo Decision in 1992. We never thought we’d get an apology to the Stolen Generations but it arrived in 2008. These things didn’t come easy. They came from resilience, strength and courage.

Aboriginal people are relentless and have a drive to keep going no matter what. Many have died fighting, but the rest of us keep going for them.

We will succeed, it might take a long-time but we will outflank the ignorance and the racists.


The full conversation can be viewed on NITV's Living Black, Monday 25th May, 2020 at 8:30pm or on SBSOnDemand.

Additional reporting by Julie Nimmo.

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