July 2023


A firelight stick on the hill

By Patrick Dodson
Image of Patrick Dodson leaning into smoke at a ceremony with hands cupped

At a smoking ceremony at Parliament House, February 17, 2023. © Mick Tsikas / AAP Images

As momentum builds to this year’s referendum, the man long regarded as the ‘Father of Reconciliation’ reflects on a life fighting for a better Australia

In August last year, while at Kalkarindji to attend a meeting of the executives of the four democratically elected Northern Territory land councils (which passed a resolution to support full implementation of the Uluru Statement from the Heart), I paid my respects to that great Aboriginal land rights activist, Vincent Lingiari, at his nearby grave.

Fed up with being “treated like dogs”, Lingiari led his fellow stockmen and their families, around 200 people, off Wave Hill Station in August 1966 in a protest that lasted for seven years against their pitiless employment by the station’s absentee British owner, Vestey Brothers. What began as a strike for better pay and conditions of employment grew into a national campaign for land rights. At Wattie Creek in August 1975, prime minister Gough Whitlam famously poured a handful of the red dirt of that arid savannah country into Lingiari’s palms to signify a grant to the Gurindji people of a lease of land excised from the vast Wave Hill pastoral lease. In 1986, as director of the Central Land Council, I was able to attend a ceremony at the same site when the Gurindji people received freehold title to their land under the Aboriginal Land Rights (Northern Territory) Act 1976. Vincent Lingiari was in poor health, and he died two years later, aged 69.

A ground-level plaque on Lingiari’s grave has this inscription: “We want to live on our land, our way.” The simplicity of those words, both a plea and a lament, touch me deeply. They speak of the uniqueness of Australia’s First Peoples, and our enduring spiritual connections to our lands and waters. They speak of difference: a difference that the colonisers could not accept, let alone respect; a difference that decades of official policies of assimilation sought to erase; a difference that will always be distinctive but is still denied by those who refuse to allow that we are separate sovereign peoples who have never ceded our sovereignty.

I have a personal connection with Wave Hill Station and Vincent Lingiari that goes back three generations. My great grandfather, Irish-born Joe Fegan, was head stockman there in the 1880s. He had a relationship with an Aboriginal worker, Nawurla, who gave birth to my grandmother, Grace Fegan, in 1898. Joe Fegan went on to establish Spring Creek Station, just over the border in Western Australia, in 1901, and a young Vincent Lingiari was one of his workers for a year or two. My grandmother was forcibly removed from Spring Creek Station in 1908 on the orders of the local Aboriginal protector and delivered into the care of Catholic nuns in Broome.

The life stories of my grandmother, Grace, and my mother, Patricia, exemplify the coercive control exercised by governments over the lives of Aboriginal people for much of last century. Grace would return to Spring Creek Station in 1914, soon after she married my Aboriginal grandfather, Paddy Djiagween, and they worked there for three years until Joe Fegan’s death in June 1917. In his will, Fegan left his half share of Spring Creek Station to Grace. But A.O. Neville, the Western Australian chief protector of Aborigines, who managed the lives and property of Aboriginal people mandated by that state’s 1905 Aborigines Act, refused to pass on her full inheritance, in spite of many supplications. The inheritance was valued up to £7000 (equivalent to more than $750,000 today); Neville belatedly and begrudgingly approved a payment of £150 to enable Grace to buy a house in Broome.

When my mother, Patricia Djiagween, was born in Broome in 1921, Aboriginal people were still being driven from their traditional lands, and hunted and killed on remote frontiers as the pastoral industry continued to expand. Not far from Broome by outback distance, police officers and white civilians in 1926 shot at least 20 Oombulgurri people and burnt their bodies, in what is recorded as the Forrest River massacres. The response of the Western Australian government was calculated to bury the truth through a royal commission and deny justice to Aboriginal people; no one was convicted in a later court case. Over the border in the Northern Territory, the 1928 Coniston massacre in Central Australia was scandalously covered up. A Commonwealth board of inquiry found the shootings of 31 Aboriginal men, women and children (the true death toll was certainly much higher) were justified and that the police-led killers were not on a punitive expedition. News of both massacres ricocheted across the north.

My mother was a defiant young woman, constantly under surveillance and frequently in trouble with officials. An official note described her as “insolent, disobedient and almost uncontrollable”. Because she had been associating with a Malay pearl diver, Abu Kassim, my mother was removed on the instruction of the chief protector to Beagle Bay Mission in 1941. Her attitude to authority remained defiant: “She … is a bad example and influence to the others. She deliberately flouts the rules and regulations of the Colony.”

For punching a priest at Beagle Bay, my mother and my two older sisters, the daughters of Abu Kassim, who was by then fighting with distinction for Australia in World War Two, were sent to jail in Broome and then trucked to Moola Bulla Station near Halls Creek. Moola Bulla was a government place of detention and punishment for troublesome Aboriginal people. A non-Aboriginal man who would be my father, John Murray (“Snowy”) Dodson, twice rescued my mother and my sisters – first at Christmas Creek on their way to Moola Bulla, then later from Moola Bulla itself. For these actions he was sentenced to 18 months’ jail with hard labour.

Further disruption ensued when my mother’s two daughters – my sisters – were placed in an orphanage in Broome. My mother and Snowy were given official permission to marry in August 1947. I was born on January 29, 1948, and soon after – with official permission, of course – we all moved to Katherine, where Commonwealth bureaucrats would keep an eye on us. Removals of “half-caste” children were as prevalent in the Northern Territory as elsewhere, and I have a clear memory of hiding in long grass in Katherine to avoid capture by Commonwealth agents. In February, at an event in Canberra to mark the 15th anniversary of prime minister Rudd’s apology to the Stolen Generations, I was moved when I caught up with a childhood friend, Halpin Hart, whose removal by police in Katherine I had witnessed as a toddler. These memories never fade.

As intrusive and distressing as it was for many years, the treatment of my family was unexceptional. The lives of tens of thousands of other Aboriginal people across the land were likewise monitored and managed, first under the guise of protection policies that developed as colonial administrations came to realise that we would not die out in spite of the ravages of diseases and massacres, and then under official policies of integration and assimilation that emerged from the 1930s onwards.

The most fervent worshipper at the altar of assimilation was the WA Liberal Party politician Paul Hasluck, who was minister for territories from 1951 to 1963 under prime minister Robert Menzies. Hasluck’s academic mentor from his student days, the anthropologist A.P. Elkin, was the pioneering promoter of Australia’s assimilation policies. Elkin tended to support the maintenance of Aboriginal culture even as First Peoples became more exposed to Western modernity, whereas Hasluck’s philosophy was founded in his application of liberal individualism: Aboriginal traditions and cultural practices should be expunged; upholding a separate identity was anathema.

To the 1959 annual conference of the Australian and New Zealand Association for the Advancement of Science, Hasluck opined: “… the weakness of the old Aboriginal society and of the present-day groups of Aborigines is an advantage. The more it crumbles, the more readily may its fragments be mingled with the rest of the people living in Australia … If a person of Aboriginal descent is to be accepted as a full member of the Australian society, he has to cease to be a primitive Aboriginal and change in outlook and habit.”

Hasluck’s assimilation ideology was readily accepted and applied by state jurisdictions, and he did not see a role for the Commonwealth in Aboriginal affairs beyond its administration of the Northern Territory. In words that would resonate today among opponents of a voice to parliament to be enshrined in the Constitution, Hasluck told parliament in April 1963: “The train of our thought is that the Aborigines should not be made the subject of special laws and that consequently a power in this parliament to pass laws concerning Aborigines only would be largely unnecessary. Let them come within the laws made for all Australians.”

It did not pass my notice that Hasluck’s son, the former WA Supreme Court judge Nicholas Hasluck, offered a sanction along similar lines in his submission in April this year to the Joint Select Committee on the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice Referendum. He wrote: “As a matter of principle, the Voice should be rejected on the grounds that our democracy is built on the foundation of all Australian citizens having equal civic rights”.

Paul Hasluck was minister for external affairs under prime minister Harold Holt when the two provisions in the May 1967 constitutional referendum were overwhelmingly approved, allowing for Aboriginal people to be counted in the census and for the Commonwealth government to be able to legislate for Aboriginal people. Although Labor and the Coalition parties all supported a “Yes” vote, Hasluck had clearly seen no need for the latter provision. He was apparently appalled when, in late 1967, Holt appointed Reserve Bank governor Nugget Coombs, anthropologist Bill Stanner and public servant Barrie Dexter to comprise the Council for Aboriginal Affairs to advise on matters affecting Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. “Mr Hasluck did not disguise his strong, almost bitter, antipathy to the arrangements,” Dexter has recorded.

Holt’s newfound attention to First Nations matters was never tested before he drowned in December 1967. For Aboriginal people, the following five years were a policy wasteland under prime ministers John Gorton and William McMahon. Both were hostage to Country (National) Party politicians and like-minded bureaucrats who held tightly to policies underwritten by principles of assimilation and who were constantly at war with the Council for Aboriginal Affairs.

The election of Labor in December 1972 brought momentous change to policies affecting First Peoples. Self-determination was the new mantra. “There is one great group of Australians who have been denied their basic rights to the pursuit of happiness, to liberty and indeed to life itself for 180 years – since the very time when Europeans in the New World first proclaimed those rights as inalienable for all mankind,” Gough Whitlam said at his campaign launch at Blacktown, Western Sydney, on November 13, 1972.

Five months later, after a flurry of policy announcements, Whitlam told a conference of ministers that Aboriginal affairs required the exercise of the fullest range of legislative, executive and financial powers, and represented in the eyes of the world a test of the integrity and humanity of the whole people of Australia. His government wanted to restore to Aboriginal people their lost power of self-determination in economic, social and political affairs. The election in November 1973 of a 41-member National Aboriginal Consultative Committee, its advice on policies and programs, and its relationship with government were major tests for this new national approach to Australia’s dealings with First Peoples. The succeeding government of Malcolm Fraser, elected in December 1975, reshaped the committee as the National Aboriginal Conference, but it too fell out of favour and Bob Hawke’s government abolished it in 1985.

As committed as Fraser was to policies of anti-discrimination, his government was largely unwilling to exercise the authority that the 1967 referendum had handed the Commonwealth. He slashed the Aboriginal affairs budget and shrank from prevailing against conservative state governments in Queensland and Western Australia to fix their atrocious handling of Aboriginal affairs. But, against hostile protests from the mining and pastoral industries, Fraser did enact land rights in the Northern Territory, although he weakened the legislation that Whitlam did not get to pass before he was ousted from office in November 1975. Whitlam, for example, wanted Aboriginal people to be able to claim land based on need rather than just on traditional ownership. In spite of that limitation, and in spite of the subsequent whittling down of the legislation by various governments, Aboriginal traditional owners over the past 50 years have been able to secure freehold title to around half of the Northern Territory land mass, and around 80 per cent of the intertidal zone. And, in spite of the right of refusal that traditional owners hold over development on Aboriginal land in NT, exploration and mining continue to expand and the pastoral industry continues to prosper.

I remain disappointed in the record of Fraser’s successor, Hawke. In the face of a shameful campaign by the mining industry, and at the behest of WA Labor premier Brian Burke, he abandoned Labor’s policy on national land rights. He also failed to deliver on his promise, delivered at the Barunga Sport and Cultural Festival in June 1988, of a treaty with First Peoples. But Hawke did recognise the need for an elected, representative First Nations body and created the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission in 1990 against a torrent of political opposition. The language of then opposition leader John Howard is echoed today by opponents of the voice to parliament:

The ATSIC legislation strikes at the heart of the unity of the Australian people. In the name of righting the wrongs done against Aboriginal people, the legislation adopts the misguided notion of believing that if one creates a parliament within the Australian community for Aboriginal people, one will solve and meet all of those problems.

It was a more amenable parliament under opposition leader John Hewson when Hawke, having come to accept that his promise of a treaty would not be realised, established the Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation in 1991. There was unanimous cross-party support to establish the council. I had not long finished work on the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody and was looking forward to settling back on my Yawuru country, in the west Kimberley, when Hawke persuaded me to chair it. Our remit was to cultivate a new relationship with First Peoples through a decade-long education program and, by the anniversary of Federation in 2001, to have laid the ground for a more fertile reception of a treaty.

The election of John Howard as prime minister in March 1996 – and his subsequent hostility to First Peoples’ rights recognised by the High Court and to the recommendations of the Australian Human Rights Commission’s inquiry into the Stolen Generations – threatened the prospect of any new relationship, so much so that in October 1997 I declined to seek reappointment as chair. I outlined my misgivings in a parting letter to senator John Herron, minister for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander affairs:

[I]t has been extremely worrying to have watched the present government actively pulling apart the delicate threads of reconciliation that many Australians have been weaving into a beautiful garment. The attempt to diminish the status and rights of Aboriginal people in this country will not see history record great praise of this period.

Budget cuts merely make life difficult and can be dealt with, but when governments reject out of hand opportunities to act with magnanimity, I am anxious for the spirit of our nation. When the recommendations on social justice that the Council [for Aboriginal Reconciliation] and ATSIC presented to the parliament after a major national consultation with the Australian community, the Government chose not to act. When the Government deems it anathema to apologise to the Stolen Generations and their families, how are their cries for peace to be met? When the Government believes that the High Court’s recognition of Native Title in the common law and recognition of concurrent and coexisting rights with pastoralists on pastoral leases is a case of the pendulum swinging too far in favour of Indigenous Australians, I am astonished.

How can Indigenous Australians who have been dispossessed by the myth of Terra Nullius for two hundred years ever trust in knowing lasting justice? If the government’s vision of justice is restricted to one that is relevant to itself, I despair for my country and regret the ignorance of the political leaders who do not appreciate what is required to achieve true reconciliation for us as a nation.

The reference to social justice points to an egregious example of betrayal and bad faith. After the High Court’s Mabo judgement in June 1992, prime minister Paul Keating negotiated a three-component settlement with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. First, the Native Title Act (which Howard gutted following the High Court’s subsequent Wik judgement). Second, a Land Fund to acknowledge, in the words of the preamble to the Native Title Act, “that it is also important to recognise that many Aboriginal peoples and Torres Strait Islanders, because they have been dispossessed of their traditional lands, will be unable to assert native title rights and interests and that a special fund needs to be established to assist them to acquire land”. The fund is administered today by the Indigenous Land and Sea Corporation. And third, a social justice package, “to address the dispossession of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people”.

Keating sought advice from the Native Title Social Justice Committee of ATSIC about how the package should be framed. After extensive consultations, and input from the Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation, the committee delivered to Keating a 121-page report with 113 recommendations to address disadvantage across various spectra. Fundamental was the need for compensation for past dispossession of land and dispersal of the Indigenous population. Firm timetables were vital, the report said: “Indigenous people have been too often betrayed, over the last two centuries, by fine words that have soon withered in the grim drought of inaction and indifference.” Keating ran out of time to implement the report before he lost to Howard in the March 1996 election. In one of his first acts in government, Howard rejected the Mabo social justice package.

The final report of the Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation (chaired by my successor, Dr Evelyn Scott) was delivered to Howard at a grand ceremony at the Sydney Opera House on Saturday, May 27, 2000. He was also presented with draft legislation “to put in place a process which will unite all Australians by way of an agreement, or treaty, through which unresolved issues of reconciliation can be resolved”. His dogmatic reluctance to embrace the report, let alone its accompanying draft legislation, was augured immediately by his refusal to join some 250,000 Australians who walked across Sydney Harbour Bridge, a day after the Opera House ceremony, to mark Reconciliation Week.

In a further display of animus towards Aboriginal self-determination, the Howard government in 2004 legislated ATSIC out of existence (with the concurrence, I sadly acknowledge, of the Labor opposition led by Mark Latham), without bothering to take account of a review that recommended the organisation be restructured to give more power to the regions. “We believe very strongly,” Howard said in a joint statement with senator Amanda Vanstone, the Indigenous affairs minister, “that the experiment in separate representation, elected representation, for Indigenous people has been a failure. We will not replace ATSIC with an alternative body.”

When I review the advocacy of First Peoples who have sought to advance recognition since Federation, when we were so deliberately excluded from the Constitution and participation in the affairs of the nation, I am resigned to thinking that their efforts were largely Sisyphean. Gains have been ephemeral. What the parliament or government giveth, the parliament or government taketh away; representative bodies have come and gone by fiat.

Even the 1967 referendum result, received with such acclaim, has proven to be something of a Trojan horse. The referendum gave power to the Commonwealth government to make laws for Aboriginal people by rewriting section 51 (xxvi) of the Constitution, and we thought that those laws would be for our benefit. The High Court put paid to that in 1998 when it upheld the validity of the Howard government’s Hindmarsh Island Bridge Act. The Act was designed, in effect, to terminate the pursuit by Aboriginal women of their rights under the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Heritage Protection Act and to prevent their making any further applications under the Act.

I think of our great forebears such as William Ferguson, Jack Patten and William Cooper, who, with others, organised the Day of Mourning in 1938, Australia’s sesquicentenary; I think of land rights leaders such as Vincent Lingiari, Eddie Mabo, recently deceased Yunupingu, and other leaders in the Gumatj and Rirratjingu clans of the Yolngu people in north-east Arnhem Land; I think of those who rallied in support of the 1967 referendum. And when I think of them, and the many other tireless campaigners, I wish that they could be with us now as we approach the referendum later this year, which, if successful, will finally recognise First Peoples in our Constitution and give them a permanent voice to the parliament and to executive government.

For me, the journey to this point has been a long and winding road. After my work at the Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation, I was able to work on the Yawuru people’s native title claim to land and waters in and around Broome, before I accepted an invitation in late 2010 from prime minister Julia Gillard to co-chair, with the eminent Melbourne lawyer Mark Leibler, the Expert Panel on Constitutional Recognition of Indigenous Australians. Prime minister Malcolm Turnbull and opposition leader Bill Shorten established the Referendum Council in December 2015 to advise on how best to achieve a successful referendum. Again, I teamed up as co-chair with Mark Leibler, but had to resign when I was appointed to the Senate in April 2016.

The Referendum Council, with Pat Anderson as the new co-chair, undertook wide consultation with 12 representative gatherings attended by 1200 Indigenous people across the country over five months from December 2016. The culmination of the convention at Uluru from May 23–26, 2017 was the Uluru Statement from the Heart, which called for a voice to parliament to be enshrined in the Constitution, and for a Makarrata commission to supervise a process of agreement-making between governments and First Nations, and truth-telling about our history.

The outcome from Uluru took the Turnbull government and us in the Shorten opposition by surprise. It put aside the recommendations of the Expert Panel that I had co-chaired. The final report of the Referendum Council in June 2017 did not want section 51 (xxvi) and its power for parliament to make special laws for “people of any race” to be replaced by a new section that had no reference to race, recognised Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people as first occupiers of Australia, acknowledged their continuing relationship with land and waters, and respected their cultures, languages and heritage. Further, the Referendum Council did not accept the Expert Panel’s recommendations for constitutional change to outlaw discrimination by governments or recognise First Peoples’ languages as part of our national heritage. All that remains unfinished business.

In a nod to the Expert Panel’s report, the Referendum Council did recommend that a specific function of the voice should be to monitor the application of section 51 (xxvi) of the Constitution and section 122 (the Territories power that enabled the Howard government’s Northern Territory Emergency Response, the “Intervention”, in 2007).

In the end, the Uluru recommendation for a voice enshrined in the Constitution was a triumph for Noel Pearson and the “con-cons”, the “constitutional conservatives”. In the background was a political judgement that constitutional recognition of First Peoples requires the support of con-cons, who had interpreted the recommendations of the Expert Panel and those of the subsequent parliamentary committee chaired by Ken Wyatt as a de facto bill of rights, which they vehemently opposed. I have come to accept without qualification the recommendation to enshrine a voice in the Constitution, because it represents the outcome of a comprehensive democratic process by First Peoples who continue overwhelmingly to support it, and I have championed the Labor Party’s commitment over the past two election campaigns to implement the Uluru statement in full.

Labor has always been the party most committed to the advancement of First Peoples. Prime minister John Curtin proposed in his unsuccessful 14-point referendum in 1944 that the Commonwealth government be given the ability to legislate for Indigenous Australians; Gough Whitlam’s omnibus agenda set the relationship with First Peoples on a whole new footing; Bob Hawke’s achievement was to establish ATSIC; Paul Keating will ever be remembered for his Redfern speech and the legislative response to Mabo, and Kevin Rudd for his apology to the Stolen Generations; six months into her prime ministership, Julia Gillard announced the Expert Panel. Now, in Anthony Albanese, we have a prime minister who wants to listen to the voices of First Peoples and to lift the nation to a new level of legitimacy.

Recognising Australia’s First Peoples and enshrining their voice to parliament and the executive in the Constitution will be but the first step for our nation finally to come to terms with its history. The hyperbole of political opposition to the voice has left me dispirited. Opposition Leader Peter Dutton, in his intemperate speech during the second reading of the Constitution Alteration (Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice) Bill on May 22, sounded fanatical when he characterised the approach to the referendum as “a reckless roll of the dice”. He demeans his office and insults all those who signed the Uluru statement more than six years ago with his mantra about a “Canberra voice”. The final report of the Referendum Council noted that the number of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people who attended the regional dialogues across the country before the Uluru convention represented a greater proportion of their population than the proportion of the non-Indigenous population who took part in the constitutional debates of the 1880s (which excluded First Peoples). Dutton’s deputy, Sussan Ley, has been wrong and provocative with her repeated claims that a voice would imperil Australia Day or Anzac Day.

I have been concerned, too, about the weight of negative, unquestioning news media coverage about the voice. Outrageous and anecdotal commentary has gone unchallenged, Aboriginal communities have been verballed, and antipathy to the voice has been dishonestly ascribed to some First People. I acknowledge that The Australian has readily published my occasional opinion pieces, but coverage of voice opponents has far outweighed that of supporters in that publication and on News Corp’s other national outlet, Sky News. I ask myself how that fits with the widely published statement in June last year of News Corp’s executive chairman, Michael Miller: “We will explicitly advocate for positive recognition and change by using our audience reach to help foster a national culture that ensures respect, equality and equity for First Nations peoples and benefits all Australians.”

Respect, equality and equity are the pillars of a decent society, and I believe that Australians will draw on those innate qualities when they come to vote on referendum day. For there is nothing to fear from the provision that will comprise a new chapter in the Constitution. The voice will not threaten the business of parliament or the executive. It will be advisory only; it will have no power of veto. I invite you to examine closely the proposed words for the new chapter:

In recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples as the First Peoples of Australia:

There shall be a body, to be called the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice; 

The Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice may make representations to the Parliament and the Executive Government of the Commonwealth on matters relating to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples;

The Parliament shall, subject to this Constitution, have power to make laws with respect to matters relating to the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice, including its composition, functions, powers and procedures.

The supremacy of parliament is absolute. As part 3 of the provision makes plain, parliament will have untrammelled control over the voice and what it does. If the voice ever went rogue or embarked on a frolic of fancy, parliament would always have the power to rein it in. To suggest otherwise is mischievous. As for those critics who suggest that the enshrinement of the voice in the Constitution will hobble the business of government and lead to a plethora of appeals to the High Court, I say pay attention to those eminent legal giants who have dismissed that prospect out of hand.

Then, there’s the corner of vexatious advocates who want to excise from part 2 of the provision the ability of the voice to make representations to the executive government, in order to enhance the success of the referendum. That some of them go on to say that they would still vote “Yes” if the provision remained intact simply flabbergasts me. They profess ultimate support for the voice, but do not seem to realise that their qualifying interventions are serving to foment confusion and opposition to the referendum. I am proud that the Albanese government has never shown any sign of yielding to such pleadings. To yield would be to neuter the voice. Government policies and bureaucratic actions have so often adversely affected First Peoples who have not had a say in the implementation of those policies and actions. Again, any representations from the elected voice would be advisory only. Politicians or bureaucrats could remain hellbent on going their own way if they were acting within the law. The voice could make itself heard, but it could not bark orders.

A successful referendum will change this nation for the better. It is not about race; it is about First Peoples who were defined by race by those who thought themselves superior and could not appreciate the complexity and diversity of the people who were here first. Our nation has been enriched by diversity. The referendum will encourage people to embrace truth and honour, to instil integrity in our future relationships. The voice will allow First Peoples to map out their manner of participation in mainstream society, and how they wish to have their uniqueness respected and sustained. It will be an agency for the expressions of the legitimate needs of people who have not ceded sovereignty, people who have been subjected to barbarous predations and denied justice.

The voice will be the first step in the momentous exercise of nation building that the Albanese government has begun through its commitment to implementing in full the Uluru Statement from the Heart. A Makarrata commission to supervise a process of agreement-making between governments and First Nations, and truth-telling about our history, will follow the referendum. State and territory governments, which all support the voice, are already moving down those paths. We will need respect at the tables of dialogue while we talk to and hear each other, and understand the significance of our differing traditions, aspirations, achievements and failures. While maintaining the colonial stories, truth-telling must reveal and adjust the stories of war, destabilisation and assimilation. There can be no place for triumphalism.

We are on the cusp of building a true foundation for our rich and diverse nation, upholding unity, and demonstrating respect for the First Peoples of this country while honouring our Western traditions. These aims are entirely compatible. Australia’s First Peoples are holding a firelight stick on the hill, beckoning us all to build a reconciled, healed and proud nation, where their unique position is recognised and respected.

I have written and dictated most of the notes for this essay from a hospital bed. In January, just before my 75th birthday, I wrote an opinion piece about the voice referendum for The West Australian that concluded: “In Aboriginal years, I am a very old man. I do not expect that another opportunity to improve our lot will come around in my time left.” I was not expecting to confront mortality so soon.

For some time, I have known that I have a cancer, which has been monitored by haematology staff at Fiona Stanley Hospital in Perth. I had been quite ill before I attended at Fiona Stanley for treatment the week after Easter. The illness, I learnt, had been caused by a dangerous infection on my oesophagus, and the prognosis was grim: if the infection burst, I would die very quickly. It took a couple of weeks to quell the infection before the anti-cancer treatment could start.

My confinement drew me to deal with the essence of who I am. I’m a Yawuru Banaga man, a long way from my Country, in the land of the Noongar. They have their own belief systems and they are real. I believe in the spirit of the humans such as Yagan and others who continue to live in this Country, despite the layers of concrete and tar. The ideal induction to my being here did not happen. I’m a senior person and the Noongar would want to know what I am doing on their Country. They might take me as a threat, and the best way to accommodate that was to show my respect by removing my beard, which I have grown since 1967.

Likewise, I asked my Yawuru people to conduct a ceremony whereby a fish is caught and divided into four (relating to the four kinship groups of the Yawuru), then those pieces are returned to the ocean – signifying a request to the old people to recognise who I am, why I’m here on Noongar Country, and to give me their strength. Down in Yorta Yorta Country, my good friend Paul Briggs conducted a similar ceremony. Spiritual beliefs we hold transcend geography.

Non-Indigenous Australians are slowly starting to realise some spiritual connection to this land. They’re starting to realise that as human beings they have to find a better way of living and respecting the environment, as they also exploit its resources for the quality-of-life factors that we all enjoy. The balance of that has yet to be struck, so that the complexity of economics on the one hand, and the complexity of what Yawuru call the bugarrigarra, the Dreaming, can marry up.

There’s no division in my beliefs. There are different ways of looking at how the world works, but what should motivate and drive people’s beliefs and values are matters of honour, integrity and respect for other people’s traditions, rights and interests.

Finally, I look forward to completing this medical treatment, which will prevent my attendance at parliament for a few weeks yet. I give my grateful thanks to all the wonderful staff at Winnunga Nimmityjah Aboriginal Health and Community Services in Canberra, and at the Canberra, Broome and Fiona Stanley hospitals. I look forward to returning to my full duties as Special Envoy for Reconciliation and Implementation of the Uluru Statement from the Heart. Especially, I am looking forward to a successful outcome of the referendum later this year. It will be an inspiring and uplifting moment, a moment of truth for all Australians.

Patrick Dodson

Patrick Dodson is a Labor senator and the special envoy for reconciliation and implementation of the Uluru Statement from the Heart.

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Members of the Kanakanvu tribe perform at a Saraya harvest festival, Donghua Village, Taiwan.

Who is Taiwanese?

Taiwan’s minority indigenous peoples are being used to refute mainland China’s claims on the island – but what does that mean for their recognition, land rights and identity?

Ash Barty with winners trophy, Wimbledon, 2021

Ash’s to Ash’s

From stepping away from tennis as a youth before returning to dominate Wimbledon and the Australian Open, to retiring as world No. 1 at the age of 25, Ash Barty has always owned her career path

Close-up photograph of Anne Summers, 2017

How to change a bad law

The campaign to repair the single parenting payment was a model of how research and advocacy can push government to face the cruel effects of a policy and change course

Photo of Animal Justice Party MP Georgie Purcell outside Parlament House with rescued greyhound Graham

Dog day afternoon

Animal welfare concerns have long plagued the greyhound racing industry, but in Victoria a campaign from covert investigators now has a parliamentarian leading the fight

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Installation view of the Kandinsky exhibition at the Art Gallery of New South Wales, showing three framed abstract paintings hanging on a wall

Kandinsky at AGNSW

The exhibition of the Russian painter’s work at the Art Gallery of NSW provides a fascinating view of 20th-century art’s leap from representation to abstraction

Image of Margret RoadKnight playing guitar and singing.

The unsung career of Margret RoadKnight

Little-known outside the Melbourne folk scene for decades, singer Margret RoadKnight’s 60 years of music-making is celebrated in a new compilation

A woman rides her bike past the Australian flag, the Indigenous flag and the flag of the Torres Strait Islands, Canberra, October 13, 2023. Image © Lukas Coch / AAP Images

Beyond the Voice referendum

Looking towards the next 65,000 years

View of the High Court of Australia. Image © Mick Tsikas / AAP Images

Guarding the power of the court in our democracy

The hidden forces agitating at highest levels to undermine judicial independence