Pat Dodson, winner of the 2008 Sydney Peace Prize, talks to Ishmahil Blagrove, Jr. about the plight of Australia's indigenous people, the recent government apology and the opportunities for black and white Australians to resolve their differences.
Can you tell me why the apology is important?
Well, the nation has been labouring under this schism, thinking that Aboriginal people weren’t taken away and removed from their families or from their homes, that this never happened and that if it did happen it was for their benefit. There was no real understanding that this was about destroying a race of people.
What next after the apology?
Well now we’ve got to actually build on what the Prime Minister did say and that is to bring a greater level of equality between Indigenous peoples’ life expectancy and the non-Indigenous peoples of this country. We have to focus on housing, health, education, employment: all of
those things that most people in the mainstream of society take for granted and have access to and are able to utilise which are not being maximised by our own people.
And what do you propose as the way forward? How does this start? Where do we start from?
The starting point obviously has been in many ways this concept of reconciliation. We’ve had a legally sanctioned process for ten years by governments to look at how we might deal with those matters of the past and continuing issues and try and find an accommodation of our history in that process and resolve some of the problems. I’ve chaired the reconciliation council in Australia for six years. I’ve tried to work with all different stake holders across this nation and those that have a vested interest but I think fundamentally there’s a deep psychological impasse in the Australian psyche and I’ve almost come to the view that we really need to have some cooperation with international parties to help us see ourselves more clearly and to be open enough to accept that kind of help. Nationally we’re very reluctant to acknowledge that we as a nation require the help of maybe people from South Africa who’ve had to deal with the Apartheid regime and the consequences of that and are still dealing with that; there are other nation states that have had to deal with the ongoing horrendous violence that takes place and they seek international cooperation to do that. We in Australia have been reluctant and so our dialogue has been a one-way communication system where the Indigenous put forward their concerns and that is measured as to how it upsets or accommodates the interests of the majority; and we never seem to be able to leverage that to a resolution that’s satisfactorily accepted by both sides.
Some people have described the Intervention laws which ban Aboriginals from drinking alcohol or possessing pornography as Australia’s apartheid. Would you agree with that?
I think we’ve had apartheid in many ways in this country. If we universally banned the takeaway sales of alcohol across the whole of Australia, imagine the outcry you’d have in relation to that. Yet, it’s seen as a solution point in little towns where Aboriginal people live, but alcohol is a problem for all Australians; drug-taking is a problem for all Australians; child abuse is a problem for all Australians; it’s not just in the Indigenous communities. So we’ve got to find solutions that are about the nation as well as those that will assist the Indigenous communities to come to terms with what they know are those matters that are crippling and destroying our societies as well.
How did alcohol become such a problem within Aboriginal communities?
Well, when we had the Referendum in 1967, the way citizenship was explained to Aboriginal people was that it was the same right as the white man to go and drink. So the concept of citizenship has always been linked to the right to go and drink and nothing else about citizenship really got projected. Alcohol now has become more of a cocktail mixture with drugs and other things for people to escape the poverty and the hopelessness and the despair, the frustration, the pain and the anger and the numerous deaths that are occurring, so it’s an escape mechanism that people use to block out the world for a temporary period of time.
What sort of conditions do Aboriginal live in within Australia?
Aboriginal people live in Third World conditions. The health problems that we have are really of the First World. Heart problems, diabetes: these are life-style type problems; it goes to diet; it goes to the lack of good accommodation, basic housing. So if you’re not living in a good house, if it’s overcrowded, it’s dominated by poverty, then those sorts of diseases start to manifest themselves and if your horizon is limited to hoping that things are going to be different rather than actually constructing that difference, then it’s a pretty miserable way to live; it’s a pretty desperate way to try and find a living. I mean, you can walk down the street of any of our towns and there’ll be some Aboriginal person begging you for money to either buy a feed or to spend it on alcohol or to do something else with it and that’s appalling. Or you see people eating out of rubbish bins. I mean, that’s an appalling situation; it’s an indictment on a rich nation like Australia. So it is Third World conditions for many Aboriginal people.
Do you believe post-apology policy will acknowledge these ills?
Well, the apology is a very important first step. The fact that it was made and made nationally and in the Parliament, I think it sends clearly the message that Australia has operated on racist policies and has sought to destroy the Aboriginal society. It failed to do that and as a consequence we have all these other problems that we’re now going to have to deal with. The government has got to commit resources and work with Indigenous peoples and others to make sure that this is not just a fine set of words that we will lament and become more despairing about down the track. I’m hoping that it’s more than just empty words.
Why has reconciliation been such a difficult and long road?
I think there are a lot of things about Australia that people are uncomfortable about and they think reconciliation brings to the surface a discussion and a dialogue about matters that they feel uncomfortable or inept in handling and they are too proud to acknowledge that fact. I don’t think Australians are generally racist people; I think they are very ignorant about the indigenous people and they are exposed when they come to have a dialogue of a serious nature on how to resolve the interests of the Indigenous people within our social and political and economic framework.
Are you worried about the future of Aboriginal culture? Are you fearful that it may be lost, that it may be dying, that it may be becoming Westernised?
There is a tremendous strain on senior Aboriginal leaders in this country, particularly those that have responsibilities for ceremonial life and matters that are so important to the way that we express our culture. We worry constantly about the pressures, not just of the Westernisation but of the abuse that is leading to the destruction of our families, of the gravitation of our young people into the fringes of Western society, to lives that may amount to nothing because they are
centred either around drugs and alcohol or prematurely cut short. So we worry about the survival of our culture and the survival of its strengths. While we do that, we are also concerned with the dynamics of policies and practises of a dominant society that continuously and relentlessly seeks to modify and change us into people that we aren’t, on the basis that it is trying to deliver good things to us. Now we live in this complicated modern world, we’re not trying to live in some stone age world. We know we have to have a command of English, we know we have to have an understanding of economics, we know we have to be conversant with technology. But you don’t have to lose your Aboriginality or your culture or your sense of place or your responsibilities to your country. We spend a lot of time fighting about it with the mainstream of society, when the mainstream ought to be proud of the fact that we are a unique race of people in this nation and that if there is one thing that Australians can do, it would be to help sustain and support and nurture our capacity to sustain our languages, to sustain our practices; our art is appreciated but that’s because of a commercial aspect, but many other forms of art have to be sustained – hunting, all of those other survival skills in harsh lands as well as in lands of plenty.
So what is the way forward for Australia?
The future of Australia to me is really a question of respect of the uniqueness of who we are as Australians, whether we are Indigenous Australians, Chinese Australians, whether you are African Australians, whether you are British Australians. We have got to form a basis where that diversity and richness is capable of becoming the point of our unification rather than the source of our division. It is a tremendous step that has been taken through the apology. It’s not the complete answer to everything, but it is a huge burden that’s been lifted. Let’s maximise the good will that underpins that. Let’s focus on that good will and let’s work cooperatively and collaboratively with those we disagree with to find a better way to deal with not only the issues and problems that face Aboriginal society, but that face us as a nation. So that we can construct a truly free Australian nation that’s capable of celebrating the richness of its diversity and be proud that we’ve made that strong effort and have achieved that with our own efforts. Let’s continuously build on that flame now that it has been lit, so that we can see within a generation a total shift to the welfare of Aboriginal people in this country and a reconciliation of our position within the polity of this nation and in its constitution. I think we’ve got a real opportunity to do that and there are many good Australians, white and black, who are prepared to lend their minds and their thinking and their commitment to constructing this. So I’ll be working very closely with those people to try and ensure that we do have in a generation, a better history to recount than the one that we have had up to this point.
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1st June 2008