Dr. Mick Dodson
Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies Unit
Ladies and gentlemen.
We have had a lot of silly talk recently about what and what does not constitute a generation or generations. So – for a start today – I intend to talk about my generation.
A little over a month ago I turned 50 - yes, 50.
I know some of you are sitting there in disbelief. He looks too young to be 50 – but – no – I’m not kidding I’ve now clocked up the half century. I have the birth certificate to prove it. This is a fact – this is a truth and it is the truth of my generation I want to touch on today.
I was born in April of 1950 in the small town of Katherine in the Northern Territory. Our present Prime Minister was in his 11th year when I came into the world. He was born about the same time as my eldest sister.
According to Commonwealth and State policy at the time, my destiny, as a native of Aboriginal descent, lay in my absorption by the people of the Commonwealth.
Fourteen months before I was born a magistrate in the Court at Broome refused my grandmother’s application for certificate of citizenship under the Natives (citizenship rights) Act 1994. Part of his reasons were that she had not adopted the manner and habits of civilised life.
Like my grandmother, grandfather, mother and my siblings before me, I was well and truly and Aboriginal kid under various native welfare acts or ordinances that have pervaded our lives for too long.
By the time I was 18 months old the new Commonwealth policy was assimilation, perhaps absorption wasn’t working – at least it failed to absorb my grandmother as a citizen.
Mr Howard would have been about 12 or 13 by then (the present age of my youngest child).
Removing kids was all the go when I was born. And it persisted well after my birth.
The Commonwealth director of Native Affairs had at about that time informed the administrator of the NT that the Commonwealth policy had been set down in 1931: to collect half-castes and train them in institutions….
He went on to say: prior to the Second World War half-castes were removed regularly whenever required and the removals occur without incident.
My grandmother was taken from her father at a young age and placed in a mission in Western Australia. My Great Grandfather had been pestered over several years by native welfare authorities to place his daughter in a Catholic mission. He was an Irish Presbyterian who was forced to give up his daughter to a Catholic mission run by German Priests, I don’t know how he felt about that. My mother and two of my sisters all finished up in the same mission.
Those two sisters also spent considerable time in an orphanage in Broome despite the fact they were not orphans.
My father was jailed for 18 months for breaching the Native Administration Act 1905 – 1941 of Western Australia in that he was "co-habiting" with my mother.
I will never understand a social political and legal system that could jail my father for loving my mother. What sort of system is it that condemns love as a crime?
As required by law, when he was released from prison, he managed to secure the permission of the Chief Protector of Natives to marry my mother.
The NT Wards Ordinance came into force in 1957. In 1959 Joe McGuiness, a great warrior and fighter for the rights of our people, must have been very confused. He had four of his kids considered ‘non-exempted’ the Ordinance applied to them and they were regarded as Aborigines and three were considered exempted and regarded as non-Aborigines under that Ordinance.
Both my parents died in 1960. I was 10 Mr Howard by then was a young man at university and I’m informed, a member of the Young Liberals.
After the death of my mother which followed that of my father, my Aunt and Uncle came and took us to Darwin on the back of my Uncle’s old Chevy truck.
They had both been former mission victims and knew well the ways of the native welfare authorities. They did not wish the same fate to befall their young nieces and nephews.
What ensued was a protracted battle with the authorities in and out of court with my family winning. We were permitted to stay in the guardianship and custody of family. I became a "State Child" in my family's care.
What kind of system is it that would define the ownership of a child by the State, while the child is in the care of their kin?
They are dead now, but the courage and persistence of my Uncle, Aunt and my grown up cousins saved us from institutionalisation. I will be forever grateful to them.
In 1963 I agreed to go to boarding school in western Victoria. Mr Howard was in his 24th year and a solicitor of the Supreme Court of NSW.
In 1965 Charlie Perkins led the Freedom Rides through western NSW. I was 15. A year later The Australian newspaper denounced him and other slightly coloured people for identifying Aboriginal as only for sympathy.
In 1967 a Referendum was held which arguably killed off the assimilation policy and the sinister laws supporting it, but it did not stop the removals and it did not stop assimilationist thinking. Our high hopes of a "bran nue dae" were dashed and our aspirations were plunged into darkness. Perhaps true reconciliation will be the dawning of the "nue dae".
In 1969 I had to register for the draft. As an Australian, I was being asked to represent my country and fight a foreign war. Mr Howard, who was nearing 30, was too old to be called up. My marble didn’t get drawn. Politicians were still talking about a military victory in Vietnam.
During the 60’s Aboriginal kids were still being taken and put in institutions like Retta Dixon home in Darwin. I knew many of them.
In NSW Aboriginal boys and girls were still being removed from their families and placed in institutions like Kinchela and Bomaderry.
According to "Who’s Who", Mr Howard was a member of the NSW state executive of the Liberal Party at this time. I can find no record of him voicing his disapproval or objection to this continuing practice.
I was 21 in 1971 and Billy McMahon promised land rights for recreation, ceremony and economic enterprise. Too many of us are still waiting.
In 1972 I voted for the first time and Mr Whitlam became PM. (I don’t think my vote got him over the line!) Federal policy on Aboriginal affairs altered considerably. Yet – still – kids were being removed. Two years later Mr Howard entered federal parliament and has been there ever since. He was about 35.
In 1977 I graduated from law school, Mr Howard was a government minister and vice president of the NSW Division of the Liberal party.
He was 38 by then, I was 27.
In 1978 a sign appeared in the pub at Daly Waters:
Keep Australia Clean. (Kill a Coon)
There wasn’t exactly national outrage at this call to racist homicide.
The Queensland Act, which controlled and regulated the lives of Aboriginals, and purported to control the sale of opium, was still in force and it was to be a further seven years before it was fully repealed.
In 1984 I returned to the Northern Territory. Mr Hawke was Prime Minister by then, and self-determination had been official Commonwealth policy for at least a decade.
It meant very little. At least then there was a willingness to call its name – how sadly we have slipped.
Mr Howard at 45 was now shadow treasurer. In that year the infamous Retta Dixon home in Darwin finally closed its doors. A monument was erected – not in honour of the children who suffered there over many years, not to the mothers who grieved the taking of those children – but to the people who ran the place. It was a passing monument to a very partial view of our history.
Between that time and 1996 the nation received reports on customary law, deaths in custody, the stolen generations and John Herron became a Senator.
And of course the Mabo decision was handed down by the High Court. Since 1996 the racially discriminatory Native Title Amendment Act became law under John Howard’s stewardship. And we have seen the enactment of the compulsory jailing laws of the Northern Territory and Western Australia.
In the year 2000 I’m now 50, a shock jock tells us to get off our lazy black arses and it is taken off air. Well I’m happy to announce I’m not going off air. I expect to be broadcasting the reconciliation message for some time to come yet.
These are but a few things about me that have touched my life in this place where I live and I know them to be true. They occurred in my lifetime to date. Just as importantly, they occurred in the lifetimes of the two Johns – Howard and Herron.
Where or who is this generation of Australians Mr Howard blames for the removals and the assimilation policies. Are my sisters part of this generation? Are not John and John part of this generation? Indeed, am I not part of this generation? If we are not part of a generation that took Aboriginal kids then who is Mr Howard talking about?
Who did these things to my Grandmother, my Father, my Mother and two sisters? Who was it that tried to take me from my kin in 1960? What generation do we look to if Mr Howard says it wasn’t this generation? Where is this mythical group of Australians who made these laws, adopted these policies put them into practice. Who took the kids? I’m at a loss for an answer.
There are of course many good things that have happened in my life that have made me happy, but I also remember the sad things – together they make me whole.
I know there are many decent and honest Australians who accept the truth of our history as part of who we now are. There is absolutely no difficulty on their part in acknowledging the facts of the last 50 years and more.
Indeed hundreds of thousands feel sorry about what happened and have said so.
They have demonstrated enormous collective courage and decency in accepting honestly our collective historical reality. Not out of a sense of blame or guilt – but from a deep sense of shame and loss. A sense that seeks to share and heal the pains of our past and then to move on together.
We also share those things that have brought us happiness and make us feel proud of who we are. We also, from time to time, and rightfully so, rejoice in our achievements.
I bare no grudge against those who made the policies and laws that took my Grandmother, my Mother and sisters and placed them in missions, orphanages and government settlements.
I don’t hate those who made my father’s love for my mother a Gaolable offence.
But no-one who lived through these times is entitled to deny they happened. Or, perhaps more accurately, suggest they happened at some other time in our history – a time in history that is too distant, too far in the past, for us to have a shared responsibility.
Denialism is the enemy of reconciliation.
I’m sorry for sounding as if I have a fixation on the present Prime Minister. This is not one of the messages I wish to convey today; in fact the opposite is true.
Our obsession with one man’s incapacity to say sorry – the words he wants on a piece of paper - and the ruination of any meaningful apology with excuses and denial will forever distract us from lasting reconciliation.
Let us not get hung up on this man’s incapacity to bring himself to utter a simple human response to the suffering of others.
It’s not worth the effort and distracts us from what we simply must do as a nation if we are to go forward in a true sense of reconciliation.
The notion of "practical reconciliation" is also a furphy.
Although issues of the health, housing and education of Indigenous Australians are of key concern to a nation, they are not issues that are at the very heart or the very soul of reconciliation.
But they are – quite simply – the entitlements every Australian should enjoy. The tragedy is that they are entitlements successive governments have denied. Why should they be given some higher order of things in the reconciliation process?
Reconciliation is about far deeper things – to do with nation, soul and spirit. Reconciliation is about the blood and flesh of the lives we must lead together not the nuts and bolts of the entitlements as citizens we should all enjoy.
There are those who will come along and try to denigrate and obstruct reconciliation and our efforts. We must try our best to bring them along on our journey. And, if they are not willing to walk with us, we must leave them behind.
The central importance of our national task is too great to be derailed by pettiness and denial.
We can do much to prepare the groundwork for our future co-existence, while we wait for a Prime Minister who can say sorry and will proudly lead us in the right direction.
I urge you to see this day as the beginning of the reconciliation process. This is the dawn of that "bran nue dae".
This is where we start.
There is much work to do.
We have to stoke those fires in our bellies, get our hearts burning and yearning for reconciliation. Let us smash the mould of assimilation that afflicts my generation of politicians.
As I have said, the capacity to embrace the past honestly, and acknowledge its truths, goes to the very depths of our national identity and what we stand for as peoples. We must rid ourselves of this psychological cloak of darkness before it becomes our shroud.
If we cannot acknowledge the truths of our past, there is no hope for our future as a nation. As Bill Deane has said we will have no soul.
I also urge that we do not allow ourselves to be obsessed by words on a page. Words are of course very important; they can be powerful, particularly if they are meant to enshrine our rights, so it is proper to be cautious. However, in the end it will be our deeds that speak the words we need. Only then should we commit ourselves to paper.
Each of us is unique. We are different. We are all Australians and call this home. Let us rejoice in our diversity and difference because it is they that will enrich us. It is who we are and where we want to be that will ultimately give us the strength, wisdom, inspiration and the generosity to get the job done.
It is for these reasons that I urge you to support the proposed Reconciliation Foundation. Going forward is also about remembering.
Listen to those whispers in our hearts and let them bellow out for a better future a future steeped in the spirit of reconciliation.
So let us begin this journey.
A journey of healing the body, soul, hearts and spirit of our nation.
In the words of Sir Gustav Nossal, reconciliation:
…must go on as a people’s movement. It must go on with the education of young people. It must go on with telling the truth about Aboriginal history. It must go with fights against racism on the ground. We can’t fold up our tents and go home just because John Howard won’t apologise. This is something for ordinary Australians.
Finally, I would like to add to Sir Gus’ suggestions by saying we must have a treaty. That should be the central objective of the Reconciliation Foundation. I have no difficulty with the model suggested by Patrick Dodson.
I will tell you why.
It is a model based on rights.
It is a model that recognises and honours our status as the first Australians.
It is a model that presents a sensible, achievable goal.
It is a model that will deliver a nation with honour.
It is a model which will enable us to adopt the manner and habits of a civilised nation.
It will build on the people’s movement and I hope in my heart of hearts it will bring forth the peoples leaders we so desperately need.
It will finish the unfinished business.
And that is what it is about.
If we are to have "words on paper" this is where those words have to at first be – they have to be words that openly – and honestly – reflect our histories, and our hope for the future, for our children and grandchildren. And above all means something and delivers.
They should be words that unite the peoples that live in this nation – in unity.
That unity should be reflected in recognition – in the first instance – that acknowledges and honours us, the first Australians.
It’s not a big ask.
Its something that Australians are eminently capable of doing.
It’s something that hundreds of thousand of Australians of good will have already signed up to.
It is abundantly clear to me that a lasting reconciliation can only be secured by going down this path.
Let us begin that journey the people’s journey – no matter how long it takes.