Yawuru man Patrick Dodson has been at the forefront of change for much of his life.
Well-known for his role at the helm of the Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation in the 1990s, the Broome-based Labor Senator has also played significant roles in the fields of Aboriginal deaths in custody, native title and research.
In 2019 he was widely tipped to become Australia’s first Aboriginal Federal Indigenous affairs minister before a shock result delivered the election to the Liberals and Ken Wyatt was elevated to the job.
Now, finally part of a government in office, Mr Dodson has been appointed a new role as Special Envoy for Reconciliation and the Implementation of the Uluru Statement.
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Mr Dodson said the appointment was “very significant” in meeting Labor’s commitment to going the journey with Indigenous people.
“We will respond to the Uluru Statement from the Heart and the invitation from First Nations people to walk with them and in particular work towards a referendum with them and the Australian public, to help set up the voice to parliament,” he said.
“Then, there is the matter of the Makarrata Commission which will involve truth telling and agreement making, which will involve a fair bit of work.”
Mr Dodson said stakeholders now needed to turn their focus to an agreement on the wording of the Voice to Parliament.
The WA senator said the government would put in place the legal mechanism for the referendum, but could not do that “until we get the words clear”.
“It’s a bit like I am holding the boat, waiting for people to get into it so we can get to the other side of the lake,” Mr Dodson said.
“It is critically important to get the words agreed.”
History is calling. It’s a big moment for the @ulurustatement with a new Government. A constitutionally-enshrined Voice to Parliament will give First Nations people a say on the issues that affect them. Find out more at https://t.co/ZcLowFRG2V and help to shape a better future pic.twitter.com/71NUNVSGbr
— Jessica Mauboy (@jessicamauboy) May 27, 2022
Core to Mr Dodson’s role will be bringing all stakeholders together, including state governments and Traditional Owner groups not yet heavily involved in the process.
Indigenous Affairs Minister Linda Burney, Assistant Indigenous Affairs Minister Malarndirri McCarthy and Attorney General Mark Dreyfus will work alongside Mr Dodson to make this happen.
“We are up and running, we have had one meeting already with a group in New South Wales,” Mr Dodson said.
“Next week I am back in Canberra and will continue to meet with other First Nations groups to encourage them to work collaboratively with each other towards achieving the goal.”
The Uluru Statement from the Heart was released in 2017 calling for a representative body to be enshrined in Australia’s constitution to advise policymakers on Indigenous issues.
In 2019 ABC’s Vote Compass data found 64 per cent of Australians supported the move.
The former government under Ken Wyatt had begun work on legislating a regional Voice model but had set no commitment to enshrine one in the constitution.
Detractors of that policy argued the lack of constitutional recognition would leave the body at risk to the whims of governments of the day.
From the Heart campaign director Dean Parkin said Mr Dodson’s appointment was well-deserved.
“Senator Dodson has had such a long history in the issues, he understands the history behind the Uluru Statement from the Heart and the call for recognition in the Constitution,” he said.
“Having his wisdom, experience and expertise involved in this in a very direct way is a great development and hugely encouraging for our prospects of success.”
Mr Parkin, who is of the Quandamooka peoples of Minjerribah (North Stradbroke Island) in Queensland, said Indigenous-led decision making was vital to making progress.
“A voice to parliament making sure people from those communities are sitting at the table advising the politics and the bureaucrats is the best way to make progress in Closing The Gap,” he said.
“Constitutional recognition has been on the agenda for a very long time.
“People like Senator Dodson and Minister Linda Burney have been involved in this issue and our quest for recognition for decades, so their appointments to these positions to lead this process of delivering the government’s commitment to recognition and a voice to parliament is very encouraging.”
The Labor Governmenth as promised to hold a referendum in its first term, and recommitted to implementing the Uluru Statement in full on election night.