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Jones, Craig --- "Human Rights Special - Interview with Professor Mick Dodson" [2004] IndigLawB 73; (2004) 6(7) Indigenous Law Bulletin 14

Interview with Professor Mick Dodson

interview by Craig Jones

Mick Dodson is a member of the Yawuru people of southern Kimberley, Western Australia. He was the first Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner with the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission. He is currently a Professor in Indigenous Studies at the Australian National University and Convenor of its Institute for Indigenous Australia. Professor Dodson was awarded the Medal of the Order of Australia in 2003 for service to the Indigenous community and native title law. He has also participated in the creation of the Draft Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples in the United Nations Working Group on Indigenous Populations. He is interviewed here regarding his views on the achievements (or otherwise) of the United Nations Decade of Indigenous People. He also discusses his new role in the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues.[1]

At the close of the United Nations International Decade of the World’s Indigenous People, have there been improvements for Indigenous peoples in Australia? And are the issues the same now as they were ten years ago?

Well, in fact we have gone backwards: up until Howard there had been gains in rights for Indigenous Australians. Howard has considerably unwound the rights of Indigenous Australians, take the 1998 amendments[2] to the Native Title Act 1993 (Cth) (‘the Act’) for instance. The amendments were racially discriminatory and breached a number of international treaties to which Australia is a signatory. Also Abstudy has been wound back, there have been cuts to the ATSIC[3] budget in relation to programs delivered to Indigenous peoples on the ground and in training programs. The abolition of the nationally elected body, despite its problems, was a huge step backwards. Indigenous Australians have a right to effective political representation.

Native title was largely developed within that period – has it made a difference? Or would a land rights model have been a better approach? Native title is said to give Indigenous people a seat at the table. Do you agree and, if so, is this important?

Native title has had transaction costs of about $4 billion, that is, $400 million per year before there is any benefit to Indigenous Australians. All of the governments – federal, state and territory – have for the most part opposed native title claims in the Federal Court. Is the principle worth $4 billion? What you get after native title isn’t that much. Why should communities negotiate on their native title rights to get a dialysis machine! The process is slow – to get to the end we need to spend $400 million per year for the next 80 years. The money could certainly be better spent on health, education and community infrastructure.

Does the National Centre for Indigenous Studies incorporate a human rights focus in its work?

The National Centre for Indigenous Studies will commence operations in January 2005 but it does not have a human rights focus to its agenda. Its objectives are to promote new education initiatives at ANU[4] that relate to Indigenous peoples, and to promote and conduct research. These activities will involve human rights issues to some extent. We have a partnership with CSIRO[5] to develop a framework for that organisation for engaging with Indigenous peoples. The CSIRO is developing proper protocols, including informed consent, in its work with Indigenous peoples. The ANU dialogues create an opportunity for engagement on human rights issues. They involve senior diplomats from embassies and high commissions.

Apart from your leadership role here at ANU, what is your new role at the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues?

I am the Community Representative for the Pacific Region at the Forum. The Forum itself was created as one of the objects of the Decade of Indigenous People. There are sixteen members from eight separate regions. In each region one member is appointed by government and the other is a community representative. The UN[6] process in relation to Indigenous peoples has a number of aspects including regional forums in the Pacific, the Working Group on Indigenous Populations, the Working Group on the Draft Declaration and annual meetings. NGOs also meet regularly with a view to influencing governments and the UN process.

While Indigenous rights have seen progress internationally, they have gone backwards in Australia. Indigenous rights are well and truly on the UN agenda. However, there will be no changes for the better in Australia without a change of government. Indeed, the Howard government is the most anti of the UN process (particularly the Indigenous working group) of any Australian government since World War II.

What do you think the future holds for Indigenous peoples in Australia, particularly given the new Senate majority? And are there positives?

Well I think that the Northern Territory Land Rights Act is under threat. Certainly, I think the good work of the Senate committees will come to an end, including the Select Committee on the Administration of Indigenous Affairs. There is a plan to align the Northern Territory Land Rights Act with the Native Title Act 1993 (Cth) – in other words it is argued that there should be one standard, that of the Native Title Act. This kind of process will cause enormous divisions in the Northern Territory.

In a positive sense, the major mining companies have come a long way in their dealings with Indigenous Australians and you would hope that despite a more conservative legal environment that they would not be willing to throw away all that hard work. The positive approach to stakeholders (of any sort) is part of their sustainable development agenda. Still, while there are many positive people and companies in the mining industry there are some who would attempt to take us back. Take for example the Northern Territory Chamber of Mines’ calls to repeal/review the Northern Territory Land Rights Act.

Under Howard’s ‘practical reconciliation’ we have been going backwards. Despite this there is some hope out there – participation in education is going up, capacity is getting better, but we are starting from such a low base. There are people out there working on reconciliation and good things are happening at the community level, particularly in relation to issues like domestic violence, school attendance and substance abuse. There is, however, a long way to go. We will succeed eventually, just not in my generation.

Finally, I am interested in your views about leadership within the Indigenous community, particularly in the context of the demise of ATSIC.

There is a demand among Indigenous peoples for modern, skilled and capable leaders. There are a number of initiatives to train our leaders and they do need help to develop their skills. We were let down by ATSIC’s so-called leadership and the new National Indigenous Council won’t solve things precisely because it is Howard who is setting the agenda and not Indigenous people. Let us choose our representatives – choosing them for us is highly patronising. We should choose who our national representatives should be and we should choose the method by which they will be chosen.

Associate Professor Craig Jones is the Director of the Native Title Studies Centre at James Cook University, Cairns. He is also a PhD candidate in the Aboriginal Environments Research.

[1] <> at 23 November 2004.

[2] Native Title (Amendment) Act 1998 (Cth).

[3] Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission.

[4] The Australian National University.

[5] Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation.

[6] United Nations.

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