A voice for the voiceless: Pat Dodson hangs up his hat

Labor senator Pat Dodson to leave parliament

Source: AAP

When Senator Pat Dodson hangs up his hat – with its familiar band showing the colours of the Aboriginal flag – he’ll be calling time on an extraordinary career that began in the priesthood.

Retiring on Friday after more than seven years in the upper house, Labor Senator Dodson, 75, has been referred to as “the father of reconciliation” in recognition of his work to advance the relationship between Indigenous people and wider Australia.

This came despite an early life touched by fear and tragedy as the Yawuru elder who was born in Broome spoke about in his maiden speech to the Senate in 2016.

“I was born before the constitutional changes of 1967,” he said in the speech, referring to the successful referendum to have Aboriginal people counted in the population.

“I was hiding in the long grass in the Northern Territory town of Katherine and watched my age-mates being taken by welfare and police.”

While the young Pat Dodson and his siblings avoided becoming members of the stolen generations, their parents died in 1960 and Pat, brother Mick and two of their siblings were made wards of the state.

In 1975, Dodson became the first Aboriginal person to be ordained as a Catholic priest.

But a few years later he left the priesthood, finding it difficult to reconcile his Yawuru spirituality with some aspects of Catholicism.

He later worked as a commissioner on the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody and had spells as a director on the Kimberley and Central land councils.

Dodson later said that being a royal commissioner had crystalised his understanding of the importance of self-determination and giving a voice to the seemingly voiceless.

He chaired the Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation from 1991-1997 and co-chaired the Expert Panel for Constitutional Recognition of Indigenous Australians from 2010-2016 before joining the Senate.

In 2023, Dodson was diagnosed with cancer, meaning he played a lesser role than he’d hoped in the unsuccessful Indigenous Voice referendum campaign.

During his farewell speech to the Senate in November, Dodson handed the message stick for reconciliation to the next generation. He reiterated words from his maiden speech about the deep shared spirituality that has nourished his people for thousands of years.

“My people, the Yawuru people, have a formula about reconciliation, without having known what reconciliation was,” he said.

“Mabu ngarrungunil, a strong community where people matter and are valued; mabu buru, a strong place, a good country where use of resources is balanced, and sacredness is embedded in the landscape; and, finally, mabu liyan, a healthy spirit, a good state of being for individuals, families and community, whose essence arises from our encounter with the land and people.”


Topics: Pat Dodson
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