Pat Dodson: Senator for Western Australia

By April 28, 2016 Victoria Park

Mr B.S. WYATT: I begin by acknowledging the Noongar people of our great state, noting that many Noongar people are in the gallery today. To me, electing a Yawuru man on Noongar land to the Senate makes today a very special day indeed. I begin by acknowledging Pat and all his family and friends who have made it from the Kimberley. Like most speakers before me have said, it is a privilege to speak in the Western Australian Parliament on our constitutional duty to elect a new senator for WA. The privilege is greater in these circumstances as we today make Pat Dodson a senator for Western Australia.

Rarely in the history of Australia’s Federation has Parliament had the honour of appointing to our national Parliament a person of such quality and expertise as Patrick Dodson. Indeed, for Pat there has been a certain inevitability to the trajectory of his life that now leads him to commonwealth Parliament. Since Patrick was first nominated by the Labor Party to fill the casual vacancy following Joe Bullock’s resignation from the Senate, the response across the political spectrum has been overwhelmingly positive. In that context, I commend the Premier for convening Parliament for this special event and for the public comments he and others have made about Patrick as a senior leader who will represent all Western Australians in the national Parliament. I am sure that Pat will justify this level of cross-party support. What we can say about much of this positive commentary surrounding Patrick’s rise to the national Parliament is that he is seen as a non-partisan figure who transcends the traditional mould of political combat. I rightly believe that Patrick will serve Labor with great distinction and certainly will not be dictated to about what traditional Aboriginal custom is.

Mr B.S. WYATT: Pat more than most is a man well able to make those decisions. I know through many years of my personal association, and we should all know when we understand the life of Patrick Dodson, that he is a true believer in the cause of Labor’s historic mission. I also share the belief and hopes of many that Patrick will have a transformative influence on national politics. I know of no other Australian politician who has the capacity to reach across Australia’s political divide in search of common ground for the benefit of the whole nation. Patrick is not known as the father of reconciliation for nothing. All his life he has been building bridges over the rivers of discord and teaching this nation about the attributes of dialogue and healing.

Born in Broome in 1948, with his formative years spent in the Northern Territory town of Katherine, Patrick as an orphaned teenager went to board at Monivae College in Victoria’s western districts. It must be acknowledged that both his parents were imprisoned in the early years of racially based separation and control. They were imprisoned for crimes of love—Patrick’s father at Fremantle and his mother at Moola Bulla. One can only imagine the challenges that a young Aboriginal kid from remote Australia, experiencing the grief of losing both parents, would have faced in the heartland of Australia’s social elite in the mid-1960s. However, although unsurprising to those who know him, Patrick surmounted all obstacles to become captain of that great school as well as captain of the first XVIII. Along with his brother Mick, they are arguably Monivae’s most famous graduates. After school, Patrick entered the seminary and in 1974 he was ordained a Catholic priest in his hometown of Broome; he was the first Aboriginal person ordained a Catholic priest in Australia. Soon after, he was appointed priest at Port Keats mission, now known as Wadeye. There he began an extraordinary journey exploring the philosophical common ground of Aboriginal spirituality and Christian theology, a journey he continues passionately today in his thinking and teachings. But even with Patrick Dodson, matters simply could not be reconciled and he found the church too conservative and too obstructionist and he left, although many of us have been on the end of a Patrick Dodson sermon since those days! Without in any way being blasphemous, Pat had a great accord with our nation’s recognition of the rights of Indigenous people.

Patrick has been the most consistent and relentless leader in the cause for constitutional recognition of Indigenous rights over the past 40 years and the fact that the prize is within our nation’s imaginable grasp is owed so much to Patrick Dodson. We owe him a debt of thanks for that.

After Wadeye, for a number of years Patrick lived in Alice Springs where he headed up Australia’s most influential body at the time, the Central Land Council. There he led negotiations over the return of Uluru to the traditional owners and was drafted by his peers to chair the National Federation of Land Councils. He became a political warrior, negotiator and Aboriginal land claims organiser in that tough school of politics—indeed, perhaps the toughest school of politics. However, Australia came to know him as a statesman, promoting modern policies and dialogue to escape this nation’s burden of colonial history.

In 1989, Patrick was appointed to the role that perhaps he is best known for—a royal commissioner to investigate the underlying issues concerning Aboriginal deaths in custody. The WA Police Union was fearful that in the wake of John Pat’s death and other unconscionable deaths, their members would be targets of a witch-hunt. Instead, Patrick reached out to them in a spirit of partnership and reconciliation knowing that good relationships between the police and Aboriginal people were fundamental to sustainable justice. It is widely acknowledged that Patrick’s influence on the Royal Commission in both its philosophical thrust and its recommendations was significant. It is rare—possibly unique—that a Royal Commission report should remain so relevant and quoted so often 25 years after it was presented, but that is the case for the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody. Possibly the fact that the body politic of our nation failed to implement the recommendations in the spirit that they were intended is the reason that the report and its 339 recommendations haunt our state and nation today. It haunts us all with each additional Aboriginal death in custody. We still need to fundamentally correct the course of the overwhelmingly disproportionate imprisonment of our nation’s first people. The policy direction of that report, which speaks so powerfully to what Mr Dodson stands for—government’s duty of care to Indigenous people, Indigenous empower and self-determination, Indigenous community in government partnerships—is as relevant today as it was a quarter of a century ago.

In 1991, Bob Hawke appointed Patrick the chair of the Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation, which oversaw the 10-year statutory Aboriginal reconciliation process. Over a number of years, Patrick brought warring parties—traditional owners, miners and farmers—into a constructive dialogue with the aim of finding common ground to resolve their differences. Against the background of the Mabo and Wik High Court judgements on native title and the Australian Human Rights Commission report on the stolen generation, Patrick made the recognition of Indigenous rights and dealing with our nation’s history core to the reconciliation process and turned the statutory reconciliation process into a continuing people’s movement. But, just like the Catholic Church, Patrick could not reconcile John Howard, who wound back statutory native title rights with the Wik 10-point plan and could not bring himself to acknowledge on behalf of the nation the grief and trauma of the people affected by the policies of successive governments responsible for tearing families apart. In early 1998, Patrick resigned from the chair of the reconciliation council and for the next 12 years he committed his energies to preparing the Yawuru native title claim, successfully litigating the claim in the Federal Court of Australia and then leading negotiations over a wideranging compensation agreement between Yawuru, the state government and the Shire of Broome. The Yawuru native title agreement, like the Noongar agreement, is an instructive and powerful model of how self-determination and community empowerment can work on the ground.

dPatrick Dodson’s achievements have been extraordinary, but one senses that his best years are still to come. Whether he is in government or opposition, I believe that Patrick’s influence on the body politic of this nation will be profound in the coming years.

The cause of constitutional recognition—meaningful constitutional recognition—has been long and frustrating. Despite best intentions, recognition has remained evasive, often surging in momentum only to then be becalmed in the stale winds of an anxious conservatism. In Patrick’s hands, as our Senate representative, constitutional change to recognise our nation’s Aboriginal people is finally coming into our grasp.

I have known Patrick for many years. He will bring to the commonwealth Parliament a focus on areas that have bedevilled our nation since Federation—Indigenous constitutional recognition; addressing the intolerable rates of Indigenous incarceration; and the future of northern Australia and remote Australia generally. These are issues that go not only to the heart of Aboriginal Australia but also to the heart of our great nation. These are all issues that fascinate me and should be of interest to all Australians and, in particular, Western Australians.

With Patrick Dodson we have taken an opportunity to bring into the national Parliament a person of particular expertise unique to the Senate and the Parliament. I am delighted beyond words that the Labor Party has taken the opportunity to usher Pat into the Senate. I have great pride in being a member of the Western Australian Parliament that endorses the nomination of Patrick Dodson as our senator, and I wish him well on that journey.

In conclusion, Mr President, can I note that the Kimberley has produced some incredible leaders in our history. I note by way of passing June Oscar, AO, and her Desmond Tutu Reconciliation Fellowship Award, which was announced overnight. Can I also note that it would be nice to have—without any negative comment to other senators—a Senate office outside of metropolitan Perth, and I look forward to that office opening in Broome, Pat. To the man in the big black hat, the thoughts, wishes and hopes of all Western Australians travel with you.

Members: Hear, hear!