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Can Australia afford not to be reconciled?

By Patrick Dodson - posted Friday, 3 December 2010

The referendum announced by the Prime Minister offers Australia an opportunity to take matters addressed in the United Nations Declaration on Indigenous Rights and cement them into our domestic law. Indigenous peoples’ rights and interests can be enshrined in the constitution in a way that goes beyond symbolism, by actually recognising and embracing the rich and vibrant nature of Indigenous cultures while ensuring that our rights and interests are forever protected.

As ever, the devil will be in the details and, in this case, in whether the bipartisanship promised on the day of the Prime Minister’s announcement will be maintained. I strongly counsel that the referendum be held on a day not connected with a general election, which would destroy the bipartisanship critical to a positive outcome for Indigenous, and indeed all, Australians.


Perhaps the vote should be held on or near the anniversary of the 1967 Referendum, 27 May, so as to take the resounding demand of that earlier generation “for a just relationship between our peoples” to its next logical step: a proper recognition of the Indigenous people of Australia as the First Peoples, and an acknowledgement of our culture, our languages, and our economies within the Australian constitution.

This process should be undertaken with an open heart, recognising that this is a matter of justice, not special benefit. If we face our history with courage, and place the integrity of our improving relationship firmly within our constitution, then a real dialogue between us can proceed, secure in a shared commitment to the nation and its future. Not incidentally, we can also address the task of ensuring that educational, economic and health outcomes for Indigenous people reach parity with those of other Australians.

There is much work to be done. It cannot be left to governments alone to determine the solutions to the problems confronting Indigenous communities and people. There is, pardon the expression, a place at the coal face for all who choose to engage, and there is no rational justification for any Australian to stand apart as an observer in this journey of dialogue – every Australian has something to contribute.

Patience, humility, trust and love are required in equal measure. And a large dollop of courage. This is the pathway to true reconciliation, and the Prime Minister’s announcement of the referendum is an important step along the path.


The outcomes of the engagement so far between Australia’s Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples are beyond dispute. Many of our Indigenous people continue to live in Third World conditions, young Indigenous men are over-represented in jails, and the capacity of Indigenous communities to participate fully in the economy continues to be subjugated to the interests of third parties – either through legislation or political expedience.

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This is an edited extract of a keynote addressdelivered atthe inaugural National Indigenous Policy and Dialogue Conference at the University of New South Wales in November 2010.

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About the Author

Professor Patrick Dodson is a Yawuru man from Broome in Western Australia.

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