INDIGENOUS leader Pat Dodson has entered the push for constitutional recognition of Aboriginal identity and culture, arguing for a new “Australian Dialogue” and declaring that with the Stolen Generations apology the nation has moved into a “post-reconciliation” period.
In a major speech at Notre Dame University in Broome, Mr Dodson said the nation would be enhanced “by the full and proper recognition and protection of its indigenous cultures” and argued for a “courageous” dialogue on constitutional recognition beyond changes to the preamble.
In the speech that paves the way for a powerful alliance between the nation’s most influential Aboriginal leaders, Mr Dodson, Galarrwuy Yunupingu and Noel Pearson, which has been strained in recent years, Mr Dodson called for an end to what he called a “futile battle of ideologies” over the direction of Aboriginal policy.
“We can bicker for another century as to whether Nugget Coombs was right or Sir Paul Hasluck really had the solutions to the health and wellbeing of indigenous people,” Mr Dodson said in the Nulungu Lecture at Notre Dame on Thursday.
“But this futile battle of ideologies will not improve the life of one single Aboriginal child, will not lower the percentages of Aboriginal people residing in our nation’s jails and quite frankly will not assist Twiggy Forrest find 50,000 jobs.”
Mr Dodson said there needed to be “a new platform of principles crafted for challenges beyond the traditional discourse based upon our mutual prejudices”.
But he warned that “the constant mantra of assimilation” had the potential to lead Aboriginal people to become “a mutant white man” while Australia presided over “the extinction of the oldest living culture on earth”.
Mr Dodson said the federal Government’s apology to the Stolen Generations in February had drawn “a line in the sand” and he believed the nation had moved into a “post-reconciliation period”.
But parliament, he said, should now look at compensating the Stolen Generations “for what it has acknowledged responsibility for – the attempt to destroy us as a race of people by taking away our children”.
He also backed an indigenous bill of rights, and said Australia’s failure to ratify the UN Declaration on Indigenous Rights had left Australia as a “pariah on the world stage”.
He said customary law should be an admissible legal defence, although he told The Weekend Australian last night this did not mean customary law should be an absolute defence. He said the rights and responsibilities of indigenous people should be enshrined in laws to prevent governments overriding statutes such as the Racial Discrimination Act.
Urging a “courageous” re-writing of the constitution, he said: “The nation will be enhanced by the constitutional recognition it accords indigenous peoples because governments need to be made accountable in their dealings with Aboriginal peoples.
“They need to justly and constructively engage via negotiation on the alleviation of the disastrous health, education and social ills bedevilling indigenous Australians and embark courageously in dialogue on constitutional recognition beyond a preamble.”
While relations between the nation’s most senior Aboriginal leaders have been strained over the Northern Territory intervention and horrific levels of child abuse, Mr Dodson said the debate over social welfare reform and crisis intervention, rights and responsibilities, was a false dichotomy.
“Both matters have to be dealt with and both should involve the free choices of the Aboriginal peoples,” he said. “Anything less is simply a further contribution to the ongoing destruction of what is left of our uniqueness as indigenous people and our capacity to determine our own futures as equal citizens in an Australian democracy.”
He said indigenous people needed to be able “to fully participate in the economic life of the nation while being assured that they have not had to surrender their identity and cultural ways in the process”.
Mr Dodson said the conquest of Aboriginal people in the pursuit of “gospel, glory and God” had been disastrous not only for indigenous people, but also mainstream Australian society, “because it was trapped in its own sense of superiority and angst for assimilation”.
Mr Dodson and Mr Pearson attempted to bring together what Mr Pearson called “a radical new centre” in Aboriginal politics at a meeting at Port Douglas in Queensland in 2004, when the Howard government was ascendant. Since that time, there has been a disengagement between the two indigenous leaders, but never a personal breach.
Mr Dodson’s relationship with former ALP leader Warren Mundine, on the other hand, is marked by hostility. Mr Mundine last night condemned Mr Dodson’s support for customary law as a criminal defence, saying it opened the way for a defence against the abuse of children.