Indigenous Law Bulletin
The Indigenous Law Bulletin first published this Statement in February 1998, volume 4, issue 9.
When I began this job, I had no illusions that the deep wounds of the past would be resolved by the time I left – the 17 to 20 years of lower life expectancy, the 3 to 4 times greater mortality rates, the 27 times greater probability of our children being held in detention, the number of our men and women dying in custody, the enduring trauma of those taken from their parents as children. But I did believe that between us we had kindled the necessary human warmth to understand each other and to meet these problems together.
That understanding was embodied in the creation of a distinct office of an Indigenous Human Rights Commissioner – a genuinely independent authority charged with assessing the human rights performance of our nation’s governments. The establishment of this office reflected a recognition of the distinct need for us, as a nation, to regularly focus on the human rights status of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, our need for a distinct voice and the recognition of our distinct role as an aspect of democratic equality.
Back then, in 1993, I expressed an unshakeable belief in Australia’s potential to transcend its past. That belief has been deeply shaken. We now have a government which will not apologise for our children being taken from their mothers and fathers. We now have a government which is intent on passing discriminatory legislation when the recognition of native title actually presented the prospect of genuine co-existence.
Now the simple recognition of our rights is represented to the nation as threatening and divisive as though the exercise of rights under Australian law is a reason for concern. Overt racism is subtly harnessed by a government intent on the politics of division. The term ‘mainstream’ is used to carve up Australia. The lines of division are drawn to sharpen electoral advantage. Anxiety that the recognition of the rights of Indigenous peoples will destroy the national cohesion is exploited. I face the dubious honour of being the first and last Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner. And as I walk out the door I wonder, ‘Where are we being led as a country? What does it mean when we extinguish an office established to protect the human rights of the most vulnerable Australians? What does it mean for the future when we refuse to look back?’
Dr Mick Dodson is a member of the Yawuru peoples, the traditional owners of land and waters in the Broome area of the southern Kimberley region of Western Australia. Dr Dodson is currently a Director of Dodson, Bauman & Associates Pty Ltd – Legal & Anthropological Consultants.