Welcome to Eureka Street

back to site

Dodson honour deflects neoliberal orthodoxy


Screencap of Sydney Morning Herald article titled 'Selectors expect Dodson to ask the big questions'From day one, the selection of Professor Mick Dodson as Australian of the Year 2009 sparked controversy. His remarks about the observance of Australia Day, and his call for a rethink of the choice of 26 January as Australia's national day (as that date is seen by many Indigenous Australians as marking an invasion), are emblematic of his style, and indicative of what is in store for his tenure.

The Prime Minister's response was immediate and negative, but Dodson was not deterred. He reaffirmed that this should be a matter for discussion, and promised to engage the public in this and other topics — probably including the issue of compensation to members of the Stolen Generations, and changes to the Constitution to recognise the Indigenous people's prior sovereignty over the land that is now Australia.

Mick Dodson has an exceptional record of service and leadership as an advocate for human rights, especially for full rights of citizenship and genuine equality for Australia's Indigenous people. We can be confident that, like some earlier appointments, such as Fiona Stanley and Tim Flannery, he will not shrink from challenging government on policies and stances with which he takes issue.

It is commendable that the Government was willing to accord him the high profile this honour bestows in the current political climate, where there is great pressure for Indigenous people to change radically, in accordance with the dictates of neo-liberalism.

The responses of Tony Abbott and some Aboriginal leaders exemplify the fact that many now see the focus on rights as passé, and entrepreneurship and 'responsibility' as paramount — as though these are mutually exclusive categories.

On matters such as the Northern Territory Intervention, and the conversion of communal lands to freehold title to facilitate private home ownership, Mick Dodson has been a strong voice in favour of human rights, and of caution and scepticism in the face of pressure to abandon Aboriginal distinctiveness. While acknowledging the need for change, he has avoided the blame-the-victim tone of some Indigenous leaders.

Surprisingly, some observers seem disappointed that Professor Dodson is already a well known Australian. With characteristic humility, he himself spoke of his reluctance to accept the distinction, noting that many other Australians are more deserving — a reminder that many others toil in the same fields, unacknowledged.

Yet there is no doubt that Professor Dodson, with his intellect, knowledge, experience, equable temperament, and eloquence, will be an exceptional Australian of the Year. His background in public life and his familiarity with the media allow him to hit the ground running, as his remarks on the national day have shown.

I expect he will judiciously apply his incisive analytical skills and his persistent advocacy towards goals for which he has long striven. He is a model of a successful professional who has chosen to dedicate his considerable talents to service, when he could undoubtedly have had a more comfortable existence pursuing a career in the private sector.

His role as a mentor and facilitator of young people through the Australian Indigenous Leadership Centre is just one of the ways Dodson shares his skill and knowledge.

This is not the place to list his accomplishments, but Mick Dodson's track record is dazzling, with more than three decades of leadership and service. He has represented Australia's Indigenous people in UN forums for many years, and at home has been on the frontline in examining and commenting upon their conditions and ways to address inequality and disadvantage.

His role in the Stolen Generations Royal Commission is particularly noteworthy. Although vilified in some quarters, the report of the Commission brought new levels of awareness of ugly aspects of the history of Australia's dealings with its Indigenous people.

Professor Dodson's own obvious distress at some of the heart-rending accounts of broken lives and remarkable resilience was significant in conveying to many Australians the depth of wounds that must be recognised and treated — a task that is far from complete.

I consider Mick Dodson among the most effective public voices in Australia. Deeply thoughtful and balanced in his assessments, he commands attention and respect because he also remains open to the opinions of others, and is ready to be persuaded by a good argument.

Dodson's speeches and interviews are always memorable. His style is not rousing, rather, his utterances are deliberate and thoughtful. He speaks truth to power with courage and passion, with vehemence untainted by venom.

Perhaps most memorable was the speech he gave at the Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation's Corroboree 2000, at the Sydney Opera House. He gave an account of aspects of his and his family's experiences as Aboriginal people, and contrasted their situation with then Prime Minister John Howard's at comparable stages of his life.

The profundity of the gulf could not have been clearer. It was a masterful way to shed light on the difference 'race' and, more to the point, racism, has made to people's experience of Australia.

I am confident we shall have many more memorable speeches and challenging observations as this year progresses.

Myrna TonkinsonDr Myrna Tonkinson is an honourary research fellow in anthropology in the School of Social and Cultural Studies at the University of Western Australia who has done research among Aboriginal people in the Western Desert of WA since 1974.



Topic tags: myrna tonkinson, mick dodson, australian of the year, australia day



submit a comment

Existing comments

Thank you for this article, a much needed antidote to the diatribe a read in yesterday's Melbourne Sun Herald.

Peter Weeks | 29 January 2009  

Yesterday, Dodson clarified his position and stated that he has no problem with 26th January as the date for Australia Day. As for compensation, Noel Pearson - one of Australia's most significant left-wing public intellectuals - put it well when he said in response to Rudd's determination that no compensation would accompany the Apology that 'black fellas get the words, white fellas keep the money'.

Barry York | 29 January 2009  

We need the debate on when to celebrate Australia Day. There is a sense that Jan 26 is really only a NSW matter. And so it has grown to become our so-called national day.

But it needs to grow some more, and recognition that it was the beginning of an invasion is necessary. Jan 26 is such a good day for a holiday. Perhaps we should celebrate the Queen's birthday on Jan 26. and find another day for Australia Day. Perhaps we should plan to become a republic on Jan 26

A date that I have not seen suggested, and is a possibility, is September 17. to commemorate the proclamation of the constitution which was to be be put into practice on the following Jan 1

Anne Schmid | 29 January 2009  

So long as the debate on indiginous rights recognises the hypothetical question "What would be the situation of aborigines and Australia in 2009 if european annexation had not taken place"?

peter beeson | 29 January 2009  

EXCELLENT article. Thank you Dr Tonkinson.

I admire Mick Dodson's courage (forged over many decades I realise) in not just accepting the award & shutting up. In THE most diplomatic fashion he merely flagged the significance of 26 Jan for HIS people & asked that we have a DISCUSSION about it. It is the media - including the Sydney Morning Herald - to a lesser extent - who presented his comments as a criticism rather than a valid questioning.

I am horrified that Tony Abbott (quoted on the front page of Tuesday morning's Syd Morning Herald)- who wears his Catholicism as a badge of honour - speaks with such arrogance, intolerance and ignorance. I am ashamed of his attitude.

Kate Maclurcan | 29 January 2009  

The voices of the thousands of Indigenous people of the past 200 years can clearly be heard in what Mick Dodson says and does.

Ray O'Donoghue | 29 January 2009  

I still find it strange that, after having called for a national conversation about the date for Australia Day, he quickly (the next day) stated that he had no problem with 26 January himself. If what Ray O'Donoghue says is right, then I guess 200 years of Aboriginal voices also don't have any problem with 26 January but would also like a 'conversation' about it. Rudd immediately said "No", which has rather kindly been interpreted as a contribution to the conversation. Imagine the front page headlines if Howard had replied in that way!

Barry York | 29 January 2009  

I am a whitefella. My families came here between 1830 and 1880! I am also a 'black-hearted' Protestant by upbringing.

I am also an Australian, whatever that may be! I am an admirer of all those people, who stand up, say what they are for and then work for the common good.

GOOD ON YOU MICK, May your name be emblazoned in the list of those who had made this land GREAT!

Joh | 29 January 2009  

Miranda Devine in the SMH made the sensible suggestion that the date for Australia Day could be the last Monday in January. She also noted that the declaration of Australia as a Republic could be made on a date suitable to become Australia Day.

John Hosie | 30 January 2009  

Similar Articles

Why Aussie politicians should learn to party

  • John Warhurst
  • 30 January 2009

Obama's inauguration included official ceremonies, public speeches, street parties and ten presidential balls. Such pomp and ceremony is underrated. If he had been sworn in, Australian-style, it would have been a much duller affair.


Obama and Baz Luhrmann's Australia

  • Brian McCoy
  • 23 January 2009

Australia Day comes this year shortly after Obama's entry into the White House. Like the child in Australia — a film that captures something of the mixed history of our Australian footprint — Obama embodies the possibility of healing across racial and other divides.