It’s been 12 years since the intervention. This package of Howard Liberal government measures imposed on 73 Indigenous NT communities included the withholding of welfare payments, bans on alcohol and an increased police presence. There has been much debate around the success of the intervention. Two years after its implementation, Indigenous children’s health and school attendance had declined, while malnutrition, violent offences, substance abuse and suicide in Indigenous communities had increased.
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The intervention further reinforced generational patterns already laid down by previous policy approaches. “We keep pedalling out government policy that fails. The question is why?” says the formidable Professor Mick Dodson, a Katherine-born Yawuru man with an extensive career in law and academia. “The answer is that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are not the creators of it. A fundamental principle of self-determination is that people ought to have control of the decisions that affect their daily lives.”
Dodson — whose brother is WA Labor senator Pat Dodson — is a former Australian of the Year and chair of the Indigenous Governance Awards, and was Australia’s first Indigenous law graduate. In his new role as the NT’s inaugural Treaty Commissioner, Dodson is determined to ensure that Indigenous people have a real say on matters affecting them. He also wants past injustices to be acknowledged and effectively addressed. “The colonisation process didn’t stop in 1788, but rather is ongoing,” he says. “It’s not an event, it’s a structure, and we need to put that to bed as a nation, to recognise, accept and acknowledge our ugly past.”
The NT Department of the Chief Minister says the Treaty Commissioner’s role is “to consult with Aboriginal people in the Northern Territory regarding a treaty and develop a framework for treaty negotiations”. First promised by then prime minister Bob Hawke at the 1988 Barunga music festival in Katherine, it’s been a rocky road towards a treaty (or treaties) between the government and Indigenous people.
The Uluru Statement was formulated in May 2017 during a summit between about 300 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander leaders. It called for the establishment of a “First Nations Voice” in the Australian constitution and a “Makarrata Commission” to promote “agreement making” and “truth telling”.
Its creation was an act of recognition “that things aren’t going too well for us”, explains Dodson, describing its subsequent rejection by the Turnbull Liberal government as “a hallmark of colonialism”.
As NT Treaty Commissioner, Dodson intends to set in motion a process that will “finish unfinished business” and provide a framework to facilitate the making of an “arrangement between equals”. Previously, Dodson has stated that a treaty may provide practical benefits, including financial compensation. However, he emphasises that his role is not to negotiate any agreement. Instead, the initial 12 months of his appointment (he was confirmed in the role on 18 February) will be spent researching the best model and process for negotiating a treaty, and to consider possible outcomes.
Given the history, Dodson is aware there are hopes riding on the outcome of his work. But he flags a number of challenges ahead — including funding and staffing limitations — adding, “I will do what I can within my resources”.
The NT government has allocated approximately $3m for the Treaty Commissioner role and associated operation costs but it’s a big job, with a whopping 1,347,791sq km to cover.
“The sheer geography of the place, and the way the population is disbursed is a challenge,” says Dodson. “Prioritising where to go, who to see, and how to get there are important elements of the planning process. Long drives and light planes will inevitably be involved, but I won’t be going up in anything with less than two engines,” he says.
With extensive experience leading teams, Dodson says one challenge is trying to “get people to share your vision for what you want to achieve and how best to get there”.
Inevitably, difficult personalities rear their heads. “There’s no point in being difficult back,” he says. “You’ve got to be honest, generous and firm.”
As regards governance, Dodson feels that there is far too much negative reporting of Indigenous failure in the media. “It's almost a spectator sport,” he says. “But there are wonderful untold stories of Indigenous governance that are roaring successes, both in corporate and non-corporate governance.”
See our feature story on Indigenous Governance Awards winners such as Nyamba Buru Yawuru (NBY) and the Institute for Urban Indigenous Health here.