Diversity In Black Politics Is Not A Bad Thing


According to Warren Mundine, the "best news" on the day Mick Dodson was named 2009 Australian of the Year was "Sydney FC’s four-nil defeat of Newcastle." This thoughtless, throwaway line was reported with breathless excitement in the Fairfax newspapers. That Mundine also noted that he did not want to detract from Dodson’s lifetime of achievement despite the two men’s political differences received less attention. A spat between Aboriginal leaders apparently makes much better news.

Such coverage is typical. There is a tendency in the mainstream media to ignore differences between Indigenous people in order to limit the full scope of their political demands. But for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, as for any minority group keen to avoid being swallowed by the dominant culture, it has always been important to maintain political and social diversity. Debate and disagreement between Aboriginal leaders is as healthy and necessary as it is between politicians in our parliaments and punters in our pubs.

I was fortunate enough to interview both Dodson and Mundine for my recent book Black Politics. Both men were thoughtful and passionate in their views. It is true that they take divergent positions on a range of issues and that from time to time they have clashed. But it is also true that, like so many other Indigenous leaders and activists in this country, Dodson and Mundine share a common dream of a better life for Indigenous people around Australia. And they have both persisted in their pursuit of this dream despite interminable setbacks and opposition.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples have experienced endless disappointments at the hands of successive Australian governments. Ever-changing policy orientations have variously attempted to assimilate or obliterate them, or more recently to "intervene" in their lives in ways that would be wholly unacceptable to the broader population.

Despite these disappointments, however, it has been a hallmark of Indigenous politics that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander leaders and activists have been prepared to engage and re-engage with governments that have repeatedly let them down. In this regard, our new Australian of the Year deserves his honour for sheer political persistence.

One example illustrates Professor Dodson’s characteristic patience. In July 2006, Mick shared a platform with former prime minister John Howard at a lunch organised by Reconciliation Australia. Dodson and Howard had been at odds over the Prime Minister’s calls for an end to "symbolism" and his new emphasis on so-called "practical reconciliation".

Despite having previously expressed the view that the Howard government would not listen to Indigenous views on this issue, Dodson went to this function with an open mind. During his speech, in which he canvassed current government policy to look for gaps and opportunities for Aboriginal people, Dodson told the gathering:

"I’m here today to tell the Prime Minister that I am ready to walk alongside him in taking the next steps towards reconciliation. I believe that you, Prime Minister, are here for the same reason."

The speech was moving and powerful; Dodson concluded:

"…together we will tell the Australian people what we are doing and why we’re doing it. Because it is morally right. Because it is economically sound. And because it is in all of our best interests. The Aboriginal culture is something precious we have in Australia. We will respect that culture and we will invest in the success of our First Peoples. The time is right to take this next step. Together."

Howard’s reply to this speech was a crushing disappointment. He responded to none of the content of Dodson’s speech, instead focussing on education policy and outlining a number of his government’s initiatives in the area of Aboriginal education. According to people who attended the function, there were shocked faces around the room as the offensiveness of Howard’s behaviour began to sink in.

When I interviewed Mick nearly a year later it was evident that the incident had left an impression. He told me that Howard had had a copy of his speech for three weeks prior to the event. In Mick’s words:

"He [Howard] knew exactly what I was going to say. I had an expectation he would respond to what I had to say. And he didn’t. It was like ships passing in the night … It’s as if I said nothing."

It’s hard to imagine a prime minister responding to a non-Indigenous political leader with such disrespect. Usually the protocol of such occasions is worked out well in advance. Everyone knows what everyone else will be saying so that nobody is embarrassed. Howard showed no such respect for Dodson.

So it is a mark of the man that — change of government notwithstanding — less than three years later he is prepared to accept the title of Australian of the Year. In the interim he has also taken on the role of Co-Chair of Reconciliation Australia. The setbacks, the disappointments, the insults have not distracted him from his pursuit of a fairer Australia for Indigenous people.

Nevertheless, the critics of Mick Dodson’s appointment as Australian of the Year suggest that this will mean a return to the days of "symbolism" in Aboriginal politics. Such speculation is, at best, ignorant and at worst deliberately divisive.

The division between the symbolic and the practical was a fiction invented by our former prime minister and is best left in the past. The majority of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people know all too well that there is no neat division between the symbolic and the real.

Reconciliation under the banner of practicality was primarily aimed at reducing material disadvantage in Indigenous communities; hardly a new approach given that it had been central to Indigenous policy in all governments since the 1970s. By contrast the supposed "symbolism" so misrepresented by Howard is in fact a political agenda that aspires eventually to see Indigenous people in Australia granted meaningful political standing and relieved of the burden of seeking political charity to achieve real change.

One other unfortunate legacy of the Howard years is the degree of public cynicism about those who shoulder the burden of advocating for progressive political change. The rhetoric of public choice theory — particularly the derisive assessment of all such advocates as mere "rent seekers" — has crept into the Australian vernacular and left many with a suspicion that leaders like Mick Dodson are really only acting in their own self interest.

Let’s move on from this mean spirited nonsense. Being a leader in Indigenous politics means never having a day off, never having any privacy, coming under constant and often brutal public criticism, and sticking at it over decades — despite little evidence of progress.

I am proud that Mick Dodson is our new Australian of the Year. He is a fine and a brave man. He stands up for what he believes in. He loves his family, his land and his people. He loves this country.

In short — as the selection committee no doubt assessed — Mick Dodson embodies all of the values we like to think of as Australian, even while he challenges us to be a better nation.

Good on ya, Mick. Keep up the great work.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.