Pat Dodson, known as the “father of reconciliation”, has pleaded with Australians to give First Nations peoples “the key to the car” and vote Yes in the Voice to Parliament.
Senator Dodson, the special envoy for reconciliation and the implementation of the Uluru Statement of the Heart, has been forced to sit out much of the campaign due to illness after spending decades working towards reconciliation and recognition.
In a special “in conversation” with the National Press Club, the West Australian senator said the way Australians voted in this Saturday’s referendum would tell Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people whether they “deserve a seat at the table” or should be left to keep “picking up crumbs” as they have done since colonisation.
With the Voice on track to fail according to all published polls, Senator Dodson said he didn’t “believe in them” but did believe in the Australian people.
“We need to have recognition as first peoples. You can’t live in your own country and not be recognised,” he said.
He said a vote for No was not neutral but a “denial of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples” and their 65,000 years of history.
“Voting No is to say no to the recognition of (First Nations) peoples and to deny them a rightful place in our Constitution and to deny them an advisory body that can talk to the parliament and to the executive on matters their communities are concerned with,” he said.
Senator Dodson said the question being put to Australian people was a simple one: “Have we dealt with this legacy of denying the first peoples of this country? Or have we owned up to it and acknowledged it.”
“Win or lose, this is about the Australian people. Who are we going to think of ourselves as on October 15 after the vote?” he posited.
In a rousing call to arms, he said Peter Dutton’s proposed alternative of a referendum on recognition without a Voice was akin to “buying your child a brand-new car” but “not giving them the keys”.
“And leaving it in the garage and they have to walk past it every day of the week, knowing they can’t get in there and turn the key on and drive it,” he said.
“That’s what a hollow referendum simply on recognition amounts to. It amounts to a hollow gesture. It amounts to no substance.
“It amounts to never giving the keys to the Aboriginal people so they can drive the vehicle in the new direction they know it can go in and why we as Australians need to be in the seat, helping them to get there.”
In a direct rebuttal to leading No campaigner and fellow senator Jacinta Nampijinpa Price, who last month said that there were no negative implications of colonisation, Senator Dodson said there was no denying the “consequences of how we came to be colonised”.
“If we were in the promised land, that some mob wants to suggest we’re in, why are we having such rates of suicides?” he said.
“Why have so many of our kids been taken away and put in out-of-home care? Why is there so much domestic violence and internal violence? Why are we living in poverty? Why are we still suffering from mental health problems? Why are our kids the victims of drugs and alcohol, you know?
“We’re not in the Garden of Eden here. There’s a consequence of how we came to be colonised. They have to be dealt with.
“The benefits that have come to civilisation, or through colonisation, whatever brand you want to put on it, are well and good. They’re good things. No one is denying that. But there’s legacy issues and responsibility and accountability issues for how you have taken someone else’s country and subjugated them to the policies you have: assimilation, control, management, domination, determination of their futures, taking kids away, Stolen Generations, all of those things have consequences.”
He said he had always expected there to be division and opposition and “underlying racism” that came to the forefront during the debate on the Voice, but it simply showed how many Australians were unwilling to confront the country’s history and move it into the future.
“What does surprise me is that this is the first time that we’ve had in the public space a clear division between Aboriginal leaders … It’s a division based on whether you understand our history that this nation was colonised, that Aboriginal people were forcibly subjugated, that they were denied an opportunity to say how they would be impacted,” he said.
“Or it’s all cosy, we were picked up in a truck and taken to the winter wonderland and we live there in some sort of rose garden.
“The sad part about the debate, that division if the No campaign gets up, it will be a debate about assimilation and co-option … I don’t think we should be having that debate.”