Mick Gooda, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner, 28 October 2011
MIKE PICKERING: Good afternoon everyone and thank you very much for coming along to this conversation. My name is Mike Pickering and I am currently Acting Assistant Director for Collections, Content and Exhibitions and I would like to welcome you all to this event. This conversation is part of the public programs for the Off the Walls exhibition which opened to the public yesterday in our Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander galleries in the focus space down there. The exhibition itself is a selection of artworks collected by various federal government Aboriginal affairs agencies over 40 years. It was a challenging exhibition to present because the works were never collected with a theme or a thematic. It’s testimony to the creativity of the curator Andy Greenslade, who has managed to pull these works together in a way which complements the story of federal government Aboriginal affairs over 40 years. I encourage you all to go and have a look and to discuss and give us your feedback.
I would like to acknowledge the Ngambri and Ngunnawal people of the Canberra region who have been continued participants in the Museum’s activities, bringing a perspective and a contribution that we do greatly appreciate. I would also like to acknowledge all the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people who have given their stories to the Museum, who share their stories with us, who visit us through the year and who make such a great contribution to making our exhibitions a success.
At this stage I will introduce Mr Gooda and Mr McGrath. First of all Mr Mick Gooda is the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner who has been working over 25 years in Indigenous affairs. It’s probably unfair to say that it’s actually a lifelong engagement with Indigenous affairs. Commissioner Gooda is a descendant of the Gangulu people of central Queensland. He was previously the chief executive officer of the Cooperative Research Centre for Aboriginal Health and a member of the Western Australian Premier’s Advisory Council on Racial Discrimination. Mick is also currently a board member of the Centre for Rural and Remote Mental Health in Queensland and is the Australian representative on the International Indigenous Council which focuses on healing and addictions.
Mr Vic McGrath is a very well noted and longstanding Torres Strait Islander artist. I have a scrimshaw and encarved pearl shell here, but his expertise goes much wider than that. He is currently a member of the National Museum of Australia’s Indigenous Advisory Committee. He has a longstanding relationship with the Museum both as a contributor to our exhibitions but also as a contributor to the management of the Museum in years gone by. He has served on the Australian government Indigenous Advisory Group and is community liaison officer with the land and sea management unit of the Torres Strait Regional Authority. He was previously the manager of the Gab Titui Cultural Centre on Thursday Island and of course has a long-term interest in Torres Strait heritage and culture that he has been sharing with the Museum over many years.
I would now like to invite them both up on stage, get them wired up and commence the discussion.
VICTOR McGRATH: Thanks everyone for coming – a very warm welcome. I would also like to join with Mike in acknowledging the local traditional owners, especially Paul House. I don’t know if any of you attended the actual launch yesterday which was a great affair. We had Paul House giving a welcome then which covered the whole program including today’s session. I would particularly like to congratulate Andrew Sayers, who also spoke; Peter Yu, who is the chairman of the advisory committee I work on; Margo Neale, who wears many hats around here with Indigenous issues; Andy Greenslade, the senior curator, and her great staff of people who put the exhibition together; and particularly Mick for making the trip all the way down not quite getting home to Sydney from Cairns and who did the Mabo lecture a couple of nights ago a couple of nights ago, so a busy boy.
The purpose of the discussion today to infuse a sense of some of the more personal elements of the time that is shown in the exhibition downstairs and to have a bit of discussion. I am particularly glad that Mick is able to make it because he has served through the whole range of positions that was ATSIC and its predecessor DAA. We actually worked together through a lot of the period as well. We started as a humble field officer when we both moved on from the Department of Social Security. I am wondering if I might lead in, Mick, with some impressions about when you did first join there and work your way through. For instance, did you join the place with some ideals about what you wanted to achieve in the early days of the organisation?
MICK GOODA: I suppose you bring into any position your ideals or your family values, and I come from a fairly big family. We just did something last year for my maternal grandmother where there is over 100 descendants, so you bring in those sorts of things, a sense of right and wrong. Everything shapes you in life. I was a product of the Catholic education system. I went to the nuns when I was in grade one. In those days they still wore the big black habits and white things which was pretty scary for a little kid going to that. And then I was taught by the Christian brothers. So the Christian stuff sort of shapes you as well, the thing about ‘doing unto others’ is a great rule. So you bring in that sort of stuff from your family.
Actually Victor and I were working at social security, and he went over to Darwin for a year and I went up to Thursday Island and did his job for a year. It was straight after I got back to Rockhampton that I was asked to go and join DAA. My first impressions were: how come these people know everything about Aboriginal stuff, you know.
VICTOR McGRATH: Suppose to, yes.
MICK GOODA: I used to sit down and listen to these old men and women, Aboriginal people and non-Aboriginal people, and think they know everything. It’s like you become your father eventually. I think I have become them now because I know all the stories, all the people and all the history.
VICTOR McGRATH: I remember one of the detractors of ATSIC in the early days was talking about Indigenous support for the organisation as a representative organisation of the Aboriginal and Islander people of the country and this figure came out that the voter turn-out was something like 13 per cent at the time and how low that was. When you and I joined social security, there was also a very low uptake of people’s general entitlements and the rights of people to access what every other Australian was able to get in the bigger cities at the time as well.
MICK GOODA: That was our job. Remember they brought out the access and equity plan back in the 1980s, and we had to work out how do we implement this access and equity plan to make sure our people got the same benefits?
VICTOR McGRATH: Yes.
MICK GOODA: I really remember in those days that it was an exciting time for me in the public sector because it was in the 1980s when a whole lot of administrative law thing started - the review of decisions of bureaucrats. All of a sudden all these people who had made decisions about people’s lives and whether they were going to pay a benefit or not became accountable for that, which changed the whole nature of the department. You could ask for reviews of decisions. The most amazing thing that happened - the first point of review was the person who made the decision. I remember working on the counter in those days and you would say, ‘There’s a fella down here who wants to know why he can’t get a counter cheque. You have to come down and explain it.’ They would say, ‘Give us five minutes and we will have another look at it.’ Invariably 90 per cent of the time they changed their decision. It really struck me in those times how accountable you have to be to the people about whom you are making decisions.
A whole lot of other things happened like EEO started. In those days we had those four categories: people from non-English speaking backgrounds, people with disabilities, women and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. We started to change the whole nature of particularly how women were treated in the Public Service. It was a culture change that was so good to be part of.
The third thing that happened was we ended up with a good secretary who started almost a rights-based approach to social security payments. It wasn’t saying ‘We’re this department that does you favours and pays you this benefit,’ but ‘If you meet these conditions set out in an act of parliament you have a right to a payment, and our job is to make sure you access that right. If you are not accessing that right, maybe it’s something we are doing wrong rather than something you are doing wrong.’ That was the whole thinking behind this access and equity plan. We started out reach services. People weren’t coming into the office because of one reason or another so we would reach out to them. It’s those sorts of things that have carried with me the whole part of my Public Service career and into things like the Cooperative Research Centre for Aboriginal Health and even more importantly in an job like this - those beliefs and those values that are really important.
VICTOR McGRATH: You had an opportunity for a very quick worldwind tour of the exhibition earlier this morning. Did it bring any memories back?
MICK GOODA: Totally. I was looking at the big crocodile that is done in the X-ray style of Arnhem Land.
VICTOR McGRATH: In that 1970s part of the exhibition.
MICK GOODA: Yes, and I knew where that was, right through to the drawing of David Unaipon. I was in ATSIC when we got that from the Mint as a thank you - it is basically the proof we used for his image on the 50-dollar note now. How important that was.
I remember leaving Canberra in about 1996 going to work in Perth and then I came back in the early 2000s and I went looking for that painting. It was in someone’s office who didn’t even understand the value of it. It’s an important piece of history that stuff.
VICTOR McGRATH: It’s of historical importance.
MICK GOODA: As I walked through each of them I had these feelings of déjà vu. It’s those things that make you feel like you belong to something and I have to say I felt a little bit sad about ATSIC.
VICTOR McGRATH: Talking about the start of it all, so you eventually moved on and went up right to the highest position in that organisation. What was that like, that journey?
MICK GOODA: I reckon I am going to be the last person in Australia that will start with opening mail, and that was my career in social security, and end up running an agency. I don’t think it is going to be done like that any more.
VICTOR McGRATH: I don’t know how you did it.
MICK GOODA: I made the decision - particularly after going to Thursday Island to do your job – about the possibilities that you can aim for, unfortunately, outside my home town of Rockhampton and I got a taste of that being on Thursday Island doing social security. It was no surprise that pretty soon after I joined DAA that I went back to Thursday Island. The things that happened were really exciting. It was in the late 1980s. I said in my Mabo lecture earlier this week that people like Bernie Paterson, John Hayes and all of us - we would get the news that Koiki Mabo is back in town stirring things up and there is a hearing down at the courthouse. I remember one day we all tramped down there to watch this hearing and then figured it was all pretty boring watching these lawyers fight backwards and forwards, and not knowing the sort of thing you are going to be part of. You can reflect back once the decision came down in 1992 that at least we witnessed a bit of it with him coming backwards and forwards - this great decision that changes country.
VICTOR McGRATH: So you were there when ATSIC actually folded. Were you CEO at the time?
MICK GOODA: I was acting CEO. People will remember there was a review of ATSIC happening at the same time. We were trying to work out what the response would be from government and how we could guide them on this. There were some realities that we had to face. One was the commission would never be the same, and I think we had 18 commissioners at the time. I think we had to face reality that we would probably end up with about six out of that. There would be a separation of powers where the elected arm wouldn’t make decisions on project-type funding. But we were confident we could keep it there.
Unfortunately, I was also part of the sorts of things that brought it down, like Geoff Clark’s brawl in a hotel and people asking for $250,000 to defend this brawl. I remember Philip Ruddock was the minister, and that is when we started talking about separation of powers, taking the power away from the elected arm to make project-type decisions. I went over and saw him and I said, ‘We really have to think about this. How do we respond here?’ He said, ‘Well, Mick, you tell me what to say to a mother who rings me up and says, “My son is facing a murder charge and the local legal service doesn’t have $25,000 to engage a barrister to defend him,” and we are going to give this fellow $250,000 for a pub brawl.’ It is those sorts of things that started to change opinions around ATSIC. How I describe it is that leading up to the decision to abolish ATSIC was like a slow motion car crash that could change at any moment and could be stopped, except I didn’t have the power to do that and I was just an observer watching it happen. It was pretty heart-wrenching to see what we went through to get to that point.
I say to people now that I don’t actually blame John Howard for saying he was going to abolish ATSIC because he always said he would do that. Right from the day in the late 1980s when we started talking about ATSIC he had this view that we should never have a legislated structure that was separate. But I think there are some commissioners that have to look inside themselves to say how they gave him the opportunity to carry what he always said he would do.
Another important part that we cannot lose in the history of this is that it was actually Mark Latham who was first one to say he would abolish ATSIC. If people can remember, he had made some stupid statement about bringing the troops home from Iraq and in the middle of all this to deflect attention from that statement he made some announcement sort of out of blue ‘Oh, by the way, I will abolish ATSIC.’ In my view he did what most politicians end up doing with Aboriginal affairs and just using us as a political football. So he went out of the way.
Then the disingenuous part of that was when Howard finally said, ‘Let’s get serious, we will abolish it,’ but the Labor Party wouldn’t vote for it. It wasn’t until Howard got his majority in the Senate after the election that the abolition of ATSIC was completed. They were quite prepared to let it limp on in a state that didn’t do anyone any good, I think. So it was pretty hard. I remember being called over to Parliament House to get told the announcement before it was made, and there were tears. We had thought at that stage that we could save regional councils, because regional councils were generally operating pretty good around the country. Then we got told, ‘This is it. It’s just gone.’
It was my job to go back to Woden - we called it the MLC Tower, it’s the Lovett Tower - and to walk around through the floors and see people crying and saying, ‘This is my organisation. What have they done to it?’ There were a lot of people who put their blood, sweat and tears and commitment into ATSIC for the whole time of its life. It was a pretty sad time. I still think if we could have saved it we would be in a different position today. I think you can safely assume that we probably wouldn’t have the Northern Territory intervention.
VICTOR McGRATH: We will have a bit more of a talk about that one. I am glad you got this guy here with all those big pictures – at the time I was just on TI wondering when the next good fishing time was. My views on what was going on in the big smoke was tiny and minuscule.
With the show downstairs, it is a novel way to finish some of the art that the Museum inherited after the closure. I wonder whether that little brief visit and seeing some of the stuff on the walls brought back any other memories? There is a story around Canberra apparently that you have been invited here today because half the art works are in your house now. We want to make sure it isn’t. It’s one way of getting it back. I hope that’s a lie. You talked about a couple of pictures – the Arnhem Land work.
MICK GOODA: While it brings back sad memories there are also good memories. There were lots of good times I had in the Department of Aboriginal Affairs and then ATSIC. There are some paintings there that I remember buying or I was around when they were bought.
VICTOR McGRATH: You were the CEO - when you said you went to Parliament House and heard about the imminent closure, there wasn’t a decision about what was going to happen to those artworks? It wouldn’t have mattered anyway. It wasn’t as big an issue as the whole closure of this whole organisation.
MICK GOODA: Once we got over the shock, I remember describing the Federal Public Service like this machine that just grinds away. It was announced at about 3 o’clock - I can’t remember the exact day it was – and about half past six the next morning Peter Shergold, the former CEO of ATSIC and was the head of Prime Minister and Cabinet, called a meeting of all the players in it. At at half past six the next morning this machine starts grinding away to work out how do we actually do this.
It was a fair while later that we started thinking about the assets of ATSIC. For me there were two really important assets that we had – and I am going to keep on pursuing it - one is the art collection and the second is the ownership of the Aboriginal flag because ATSIC had done a deal with Harold Thomas about using the Aboriginal flag. That deal became an asset of ATSIC’s that was actually transferred to government when the abolition occurred. I don’t think the government should actually own that. Although they tell me there is something different in place now, I will keep on pursuing it to see what has happened.
There were lots of other assets of ATSIC including a number of properties that we owned around the place. I remember one important property Mau Mau station up in the Gulf country was a very important piece of land that we bought. It was bought by the predecessor of the Aboriginal Development Commission - I can’t remember what it was called. In those days Aboriginal people weren’t allowed to own property in Queensland. So this company was set up in New South Wales and just bid for this property. It wasn’t until the deal was done that Bjelke-Petersen found out it was actually Aboriginal people that owned it and again tried to change the laws. That was a very important property for us in Queensland to say, ‘Hang on, that is how we started to break some of the things happening with the legislation in Queensland to give Aboriginal people ownership.’ I am not sure where it is now but we have tried for years to hand it over to the local people. At the end I think that this property - it was originally purchased for a couple of million dollars - would have been worth in the high 40 million dollars. There are some significant assets around that hopefully we can convince people where, if they haven’t done it already, they should be transferring the ownership of those properties to the local Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.
VICTOR McGRATH: If we got to a stage of closing down the Social Justice Commission tomorrow, do you guys have that same sort of notion of art within your office?
MICK GOODA: A little bit. We don’t have the same collection.
VICTOR McGRATH: It is not as big an office.
MICK GOODA: At one time we had 36 ATSIC offices around Australia.
VICTOR McGRATH: Regional offices.
MICK GOODA: Yes, regional offices. It was probably the most decentralised agency that we had at the time so lots of local people gave lots of art to ATSIC. Then one day they just decided we have collect all this art and sent a transport company around to collect it all out of the offices.
VICTOR McGRATH: A company was hired and they went around and picking up stuff. I don’t know if there was a decision at the time that it was to come here to the National Museum or whether it even existed at the time?
MICK GOODA: The original thought was it should go to AIATSIS, the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies, mainly because it would be in the hands of Aboriginal people. Mind you, I think it’s better here than being stuck in a shed somewhere. That was one of the main fears I had.
VICTOR McGRATH: You alluded to the intervention. I don’t know if you are comfortable to talk about and it’s all hypothetical whether, if ATSIC was still around, but that was an important statement you made about whether there would have been one.
MICK GOODA: I am sure ATSIC would have fought tooth and nail against it. I am fortunate, unfortunate, that the chairperson of the cooperative research centre was Pat Anderson, who was one of the co-authors of the Little Children are Sacred report. On many a night Pat would ring me and say, ‘You better come around and talk to me,’ because she just had to debrief about the sorts of things she was seeing in these communities. Her and Rex Wild, the former director of public prosecutions in the Northern Territory, went out and met everyone. They met with women; they met with children; they met with young people; they met with perpetrators. And everyone was telling them the same thing - we have to fix this. We have to accept that we are part of the problem but we have to be part of the solution.
If you look at the first recommendation of that report it says that any action the governments take, Commonwealth and the Territory government, should be in consultation with Aboriginal people. So here these people were poised to start working on this, and then the intervention happened. I think it’s going to be a disgraceful part of our history that we sent the army in against our own people. I remember taking my little girl - she was seven at the time - up to Garma. It was just after the announcement - the announcement was late June and it as early August when we went to Garma.
VICTOR McGRATH: Which is a cultural festival.
MICK GOODA: A big cultural festival up in east Arnhem. We drove up from Darwin to Garma. It was weird to be driving up that road and seeing lots of army vehicles. It was like we had been invaded. We did that to our own community, and I think we should hang our heads in shame.
When you look at it, it’s about how Aboriginal people get treated in this country. Before the GST came in, the ATSIC Act and the Native Title Act were the most amended pieces of legislation ever so there was lots of scrutiny and amendment of both acts. We could argue that that was for our benefit.
The Northern Territory legislation, which was very complex because it covered so many other acts, and we added up the time in both houses of parliament and I think there was a grand total of five and a half hours debate. So here we are with the things that we consider beneficial to us taking months and months, if not years, to get through parliament; and the things that we think are detrimental to us taking under six hours. I think we need to look at ourselves when we start looking at those figures and start asking some questions about how are we placed in Australia and why do we continue to be treated like that?
Victor, trust me, I am not one to argue something shouldn’t have happened. Something had to happen in those communities. We need to go back and revisit the recommendations of that Little Children are Sacred report. I thought there were decent and great recommendations in there. Pat’s view is these communities gave their stories to Pat and Rex about what we needed to do to fix this up, and then the government just comes in and does that. That is why you never saw Pat Anderson out there much. Her view was that she felt she betrayed the confidences that the community put in her and Rex to do something right. So you very rarely see Pat speak about that stuff. It affected people.
Can I give you example of the lies that were told. I actually got contacted, because I still have contacts in government and I was working for the CRC. I got a call and they said, ‘Can we ask you about compulsory checks for child abuse?’ I said you are going to have problems with the compulsory part because that is basically assault. If you muck around with people’s bodies like you are proposing, that is assault, so you probably won’t find any doctors or anyone to do that.
Then it transposed into this comprehensive check for child abuse and then we said, ‘There is probably not a check that you can find. It’s not like you can run a line or a meter over a kid and work out that they have been abused. You have to build a relationship and eventually kids will disclose, if that is what they are inclined to do, or else there is specific damage that happens in a very brutal assault. There is no check for child abuse. I think we did find one in England about 20 years ago where this doctor designed this test and it was around the dilation of the anus of children. If that happened, you touch it and it dilates, they have been abused. It spoke families up everywhere in England and cost the government millions to get out of because eventually it was totally discredited. So there is no test here.
Then it morphed into comprehensive child health checks. Let’s remember that was June-July 2007. In May 2006, the government developed a new Medicare item called comprehensive Aboriginal child health check. So at the same time they were talking about this, people like Nova Peris, Bo de la Cruz and rugby league players were out there running events so people could bring their kids in to have these comprehensive checks, yet we dressed it up as this thing that was going to be so great for communities. And therein lies one of the lies of the intervention - they were doing all these great things for Aboriginal children. I was living in the Territory at the time.
The last observation I make about it: we were in Garma so it was August 2007 and we were talking about alcohol restrictions, banning pornography and all that stuff. I was staying at this hotel in Nhulunbuy and said, ‘I need some cash,’ and they said, ‘The cash machine has broken down, you have to go into the public bar.’ A young Aboriginal fella from Victoria was down so I said, ‘Come on, we might have a beer in the other bar.’ We got in there and there was wall to wall drunken miners being served by women wearing no clothes. You sit there and think what’s wrong with this picture. Outside we are talking about pornography and alcohol abuse, and here are people so drunk that I don’t know how they were going to be their test the next morning that they do these days on mines because served by young women with no clothes on. There are some things Australians have to start looking inside themselves and seeing how we get treated differently.
In short, I am not a big fan of the intervention.
VICTOR McGRATH: I might just change it a bit. We could go a bit further down that track but we have a lot of issues to cover. I guess part of the display downstairs is to show art - this isn’t an art gallery as such – but I was wondering if you could give your thoughts on the part of art in social justice. I know it’s been going on forever. Art has always been around.
MICK GOODA: I think the great thing about art and the arts more generally, not just art that we see down there because there are lots of things ATSIC did with writings, poetry and all, is that it is our artists who reflect the world back to us in stories and art. I would be really interested to see what emerges when people express in their art, be it paintings, poetry or literature, about the time of ATSIC. There was a time when we went through this great period of people being really happy.
I sometimes get sad when I go over to Woden now because I remember that was the centre of the universe for Aboriginal people. Everyone would turn up in Woden. We would all get together and talk about things. Now it is just desolate; it’s another shopping centre. When I walked through the exhibition this morning looking at that art and even looking at some of the simple things like publications and newsletters we made, they just bring back memories. For me, I have to get over it, it is part of the possibilities that were lost at that time. Our artists are going to be pretty important.
I am good mates with John Schumann who was the lead singer for Redgum. We are now looking at constitutional change to recognise Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. He is going to pull a whole lot of artists together to write a story about the constitution and why we should change it and hopefully put it in the form of a song. He told me the power of songs and how the whole image of Vietnam veterans changed with that song I was only 19.
VICTOR McGRATH: Yes, it’s their anthem.
MICK GOODA: He said, ‘We didn’t even think about that,’ but they are now held up as these heroes of the Vietnam veterans movement. We want to get back some of that. When we get into the campaign stage next year of the constitutional recognition hopefully we can get our artists, because the same way as the art reflects what is happening, to reflect something back in a song. We don’t want it to be a ditty for ads – what do they call it? - jingles. It has to mean something like Only 19 did.
VICTOR McGRATH: I am going to ask a little bit about your current role, and that is one of the major things you are involved with.
MICK GOODA: I guess I struggled in this role for the first six months. I was selling someone the other day that I figured I had pulled the wrong rein when I said I would do this job. I felt fairly lost for about the first four months because it’s a different type of job. I was missing my little girl back in Perth. I was trying to think if I have got a mystery illness I can play for resigning early or I would do the politician thing and say I want to spend more time with my family and I have to go away.
But then something happened around the six-month stage and it comes to you. Liz Broderick, who is the Sex Discrimination Commissioner, gave me the best piece of advice and said, ‘Mick, just take time.’ Two new commissioners started just recently at the commission. I don’t think I struggled per se but I think we took a bit of time to find our feet. It came together last year when I did my Press Club speech and talked about my agenda. For people who don’t know, I had decided to base my agenda around building relationships or strengthening relationships. I figured that I couldn’t pick one issue out of Aboriginal affairs like health, housing, education or the criminal justice system and think in five years time that is going to be fixed. I think that is impossible. I basically said in my speech, ‘Closing the gap is going to be an intergenerational challenge for the whole nation. It’s a nation building exercise to do this.’
I decided if we can fix relationships up then the people who do work in health, the people who work in housing and the people who work in communities can have a good environment to work in. So I framed it in three ways. One is the relationship between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and the rest of Australia, and the two big issues I will be concentrating on there, like you said, are constitutional reform and also we have to address racism in this country. Pretty soon the national anti-racism strategy will start.
In my last job we did some work around racism. Not only is it a factor in our health, like a determinant of health, it is actually a cause, it makes us sick. The research emerging even further says that not only are the victims sick but the perpetrators are pretty sick too. We have a lot of work to do in this country on racism. I was really pleased to go to Alice Springs earlier this year when the mayor finally said, ‘We have a problem with racism up here,’ and the first step is saying that you have a problem.
The second layer of relationship is between Aboriginal people and government, which is the worst it has ever been and that in my view is the result of the Northern Territory intervention. And it’s not just confined to the Northern Territory. I think Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have the sense of solidarity with each other that when someone succeeds and has some success we all share in that joy and if someone is getting treated bad, we all share in their pain as well. We felt the pain of people in the Northern Territory all over Australia. We have to fix that.
The third layer of relationship I mentioned earlier this week in my Mabo lecture was the relationship we have between ourselves as Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. If we can work at fixing those up, and that is something that I think is achievable in five years, we will be a fair way down the track of addressing these bigger issues. I was worried that it could be seen as a bit of a woolly, feel good, fuzzy thing talking about relationships. But the more I talk about it, the more people relate to it, and the more people are telling me how important relationships are.
VICTOR McGRATH: Getting back to basics.
MICK GOODA: I think we came closest to making things work in ATSIC over in WA when I was over there when we had this great relationship with government. Geoff Gallop was the premier. He was committed to it and tried to make it work. We ended up with the state government looking at regional council plans and they were going to develop plan all their activity around what the regional plan said. It was built on relationships. One of the documents I am totally proud of producing was this agreement that we ended up with government. We called it the statement of commitment, but the proper name was the statement of commitment to a new and just relationship. It was so important in driving change in WA and it still has an effect even now ten years after it was signed.
VICTOR McGRATH: We might throw it open to some questions from people, unless you have another point you would like to make. I have one point I would like to make, if you don’t mind. One of the important parts about the exhibition downstairs that Andy [Greenslade] has built into it is that you will find towards the end of the decades a computer system set up there for people’s comments. That is what this Museum has always been about. From day one we have been conscious of the fact that there have been state museums around for at least a century so we are not going to cover old ground there. We are trying to make something that is more interactive, such as through sessions like this, getting people’s social commentary on issues of social conscience. We are trying to get people to relate more to the pieces that are on show and for them to tell stories and prod some thought from people. So there is an opportunity when you do get to look at the exhibition to have a bit of a say about it, to comment on the exhibition or any issue that might prompt some memories from people that come along and have a look at these things. That is my part of it.
MICK GOODA: Victor, I would like to go back to that second layer of relationship between government and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people relating to your first question, when I started in DAA I was mentored by lots of people, Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people, about the Public Service and about how we go out and relate to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. Our job is actually to serve people. At the end of ATSIC, one of the main tragedies was that anyone who had worked with ATSIC was either considered incompetent, corrupt or both, and I think there was a big move in the Public Service to get rid of anyone with this taint of ATSIC. Therefore we have these people now coming into these roles without those mentors that I had. That is one of the real things I worry about within this relationship that you don’t have the guidance of people like Les Melser or Phil Donnelly or Jim Wauchope or Victor McGrath or someone like that that leads you through this stuff.
I remember going out to Mutitjulu with these two people from FaCSIA doing consultations on the constitution in the middle of the year. This young fella was really enthused about it and said the night before, ‘Here’s a running sheet, Mick.’ It was leave Yulara 8.20; arrive Mutitjulu at 8.30, get the chairs out at 8.40 - I said, ‘Look there are three things that are going to happen tomorrow. We are going to arrive, we are going to talk to someone and we are going to leave. How it plans out in between all that, we just have to wait and see.’ So we got to the boundary of Mutitjulu and then I said, ‘Has anyone been to a place like this before?’ They said, ‘no’. I said, ‘Okay, here are some rules. I don’t want to see anyone crying about what we are going to see in here because you are going to see things you have never seen before. I don’t want anyone thinking they are going to quit their jobs and come out and save this mob. Just take your lead from me about what happens.’
By the time we finished because we did Mutitjulu and then we went down to the APY lands, these two people were brilliant. The way I saw them when we got to Umuwa when all these old leaders came in to talk about constitutional change was heart-warming. They said, ‘We will make sure they have got food,’ because we held barbecues to make sure people turned up. They really were sensitive to it. We are here to do a job. We treat people with respect. We listen to them and then we leave. For me I was really pleased to be able to influence a couple of people in how they are going to deal with Indigenous communities. I think that is really important.
Geoff Harmer asked me, just before he left, ‘What would you do, Mick?’ because I bang on about this stuff. I said, ‘I would pick the right people and send them to a community, or wherever they are going to work, and say, “We don’t want to hear from you for three months. We just want you to go and talk to people. We don’t want to get a report out of you, we don’t want to get a ministerial. We want to know that you are alive but just go out there and work for three months talking to people because that is what this is about.’ I think that is why I have done okay because I think people like me made sure we knew the value of going out talking and building relationships with people.
VICTOR McGRATH: For the longer term, yes. You have the people coming and going in between that all the time but, if you want to survive, you have to earn your credibility.
MICK GOODA: Remember you and I went to Darnley Island when that big dispute was going on out there where one group of people had taken over the council and the other group reckoned they were the council, but because people like Victor were around we were able to have a conversation with both sides.
VICTOR McGRATH: Yes, the factions are always there. So it is understanding all that stuff. It’s great having a yarn. I only did this because I don’t get to see him much these days so it was a good opportunity. Thanks for your patience, everyone.
MIKE PICKERING: We will be throwing it open to questions but I will use the MC’s prerogative and go in first. My introduction to ATSIC was in the 1980s when I worked for the Land Council. I think what you have raised here and addressed was how the media concentrated on a few personalities in ATSIC and they still dominate the narratives of the histories of what happened in ATSIC. There were a lot of regional people working at a local level who were and are still fighting hard for their community’s rights. So people are still out there and are still seriously committed. It’s been a privilege through my years before I came to the Museum to work with some of them and see the efforts they put in.
I think what you have raised is that ATSIC had good news stories as well, and the legacy of some of those good news stories continues. Another aspect of the Museum’s involvement is that, as well as this particular collection which we are not allowed to refer to as the ATSIC collection as a condition of grant by the way -
MICK GOODA: Well I will.
MIKE PICKERING: And a condition of grant is I am supposed to discourage you doing that.
MICK GOODA: Well consider yourself meeting the conditions of that. I am just not taking any notice.
MIKE PICKERING: I am trying to get that on the record somehow without breaching the Public Service guidelines. This museum has also been heavily involved with repatriation of ancestral remains. The real victories in the repatriation in the 1990s and early 2000s were largely due to the advocacy of ATSIC and its members, plus some other organisations as well. There is a long-term positive legacy which is continuing with the return of those remains, and these rarely make the major media stories. Thank you for reminding us that there have been successes.
Now I have a little question which is we are a museum and we do exhibitions. I would be curious as to whether you have any ideas on the direction you would like to see us take in future exhibitions and some stories that we might tell. For example, we don’t have an Aboriginal Social Justice Commissioner collection yet. So if you have any suggestions for us on future directions.
MICK GOODA: While we have the longest history and I belong to part of the oldest culture in the world, more and more I am looking at the younger people coming through and I think the exciting thing is where these new artists are going to take things. I reckon that is where I would be looking at. Whatever medium they are going to work in, it is going to be exciting and they are going to be different. I was in Sydney a couple of weeks ago looking at the latest Bangara performance and just seeing where they are taking things now is just amazing. That is where we should be letting loose our young people to see where they are going to go.
MIKE PICKERING: Great, we will put that on our list. We are engaging with Bangara, I am pleased to say. I will now throw it open to questions from the audience.
QUESTION: Mick, you have mentioned a few times public service and its responsibility to the people that it is serving. Can I take you back to when you were talking about your early days with social security and you said something there about the role of social security ensuring that people could access their rights or something along those lines. I wonder what your views are on the current government agencies that provide similar services, beyond say Centrelink, FaHCSIA and others as well, in terms of that sort of philosophy about ensuring people can access their rights or however you put it.
MICK GOODA: I think we have a fair way to go. I don’t think the abolition and what happened to ATSIC has helped. There are a couple of opportunities we have in front of us at the moment. One is the National Human Rights Framework that came out of the consultations that went on. We were on the cusp of having a charter of human rights charter and end up with a Human Rights Framework. There is a few of us who think, ‘We never got the charter but we don’t think this is a bad thing,’ and part of that is what we call ‘Human rights in the public sector’.
The Human Rights Commission at the moment is working with the Attorney-General’s department to work out that program of how we relate human rights to the work that people do, particularly in policy. How do you actually apply set of human rights standards when you are developing a policy around a particular area, whether it is doing things about caring for country or delivering a whole service or an education service.
Our aim is to have the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples embedded in that. The Australian government is looking at the seven big treaties – we call the seven big ones the rights of women, the rights of the child, the convention against torture and all of those things. There are seven of them that we generally rely on and we want to get the declaration in there.
There are three or four things in the declaration that appeal to me: one is the right to self-determination. I probably won’t concentrate on that because there are so many different interpretations, but there is a couple of others that is really important and one is the right to participate in decisions that affect you. I have to say that all the rights in the Declaration of Human Rights are not specific rights for Indigenous people, they express how they apply to Indigenous people.
One important one is the right to participate in decisions that affect you. Look at what happened earlier this year on the Murray-Darling when we had those big protests and people were burning reports - here were people who felt they were disenfranchised from decisions that would affect their place. They are talking about towns dying if they cut water allocations and that sort of stuff. Of course they were upset. It’s no different for us. We would get upset about that. I think that is a very important principle.
The principle around non-discrimination is absolutely vital and for us heritage and culture is so important. The other one in there that I think is important is good faith, and for me that is trust. Somehow we have to have relationships built on trust. I keep on saying to people, ‘I am not that romantic and I am not that naive about trust. But my view and my experience is that if you don’t have trust in a relationship, it will last for a while but it will eventually break down. When you have trust and good faith, you can have the hard conversations we have to have.’ I am seeing a lot now where we are disguising the hard part.
If I can give you an example: FaHCSIA will come out and say that we need secure tenure before we put housing in communities. In and of itself the argument they say is if a housing authority in a state or territory is going to provide housing they need secure tenure. Now I can wear that. But my question is: why is it that the housing authority in a state or a territory up to four years ago was the only option available for people to build houses in communities? My view on the answer to that is that there were Aboriginal organisations out there that buggered up. I can name a dozen of them.
So instead of having the hard conversation and saying, ‘What we want to do is provide good housing with good management, good maintenance and all of that, however some of the problems we have is that some of your organisations are not really good. How do we fix that.’ They disguised it by saying, ‘We are now moving towards state and territory housing providing there and therefore we need secure tenure, therefore you have to sign over control of parts of your land that you fought really hard for.’ I think that is the important part of good faith where you can have those conversations, and they need to be had because surprise, surprise we are not as pure as the driven snow. We do have people that bugger up every now and then.
The final thing I will say and it is not actually an article, it’s in the preamble, is where it talks about the right to be different - and again that is a human right. While everyone agrees and says, ‘That is really nice and we agree that everyone has the right to be different,’ the duty on government is to develop systems that cope with difference. It’s not up to the people who are different to navigate their way through a system that is not built for them - be that Aboriginal people, women or migrants. A group that we are having more and more contact with in the Human Rights Commission is sexually different people. We are now dealing with people who are transvestites or transgender. One person told us recently, a transgender person going through a change, ‘I got breast cancer and then they had to clear the whole clinic out of women because I had to come in so I had to cope with that.’ That part is a very important part about designing systems where people can access their rights, and that is the duty of government to do that.
I love the words of Navi Pillay, she is the High Commissioner for Human Rights who came here earlier this year, and we had a function in the Town Hall in Sydney for her. We through we would get about 300 or 400 people and in the event 2,000 turned up. At the time the Malaysia deal was on the table, and she was critical of it, and she was asked a question: ‘Are you worried about how the politicians are going to react to this?’ Her answer, and I think it will become my mantra, is, ‘I don’t do politics, I do law. And the law I do is the law that Australia signed up to. And not only that, Australia was part of the process that appointed me to do that. So they can do the politics and I will just do the law. The thing I am pointing to them is the law doesn’t support what you want to do.’ Subsequently it has been proven in the High Court. I think that is where we have to go to. We have to start looking at those things. Once we accept that people have rights, and it’s the duty of places like Centrelink and others to deliver those rights, it’s not necessarily the case if they are not getting rights, there is something wrong, people are doing it, it could be something wrong, departments are doing it.
QUESTION: My name is Bruce McFarland. My wife have just come back from spending three weeks volunteer working in a school in Utopia, another week in Alcoota and another week in Yipirinya. Earlier in your talk you spoke of sending your officers to communities just to talk, just to get to know. One of the features of our trip, and we have done this for a couple of years, is that unless we are officials, we don’t get the conversations. There don’t seem to be mechanisms for when you go to an area that people are looking for you to talk to. It seems to me that the communication into those communities is expected by people with clipboards, people with things to administer. Is there any feeling that maybe for people who happen to be there whether they are tourists or workers are actually able to engage in conversations? Perhaps it’s a shortcoming of me that I don’t naturally make these connections. But is that flow coming backwards? It is important for that to come to me so I understand. That’s where I am at.
MICK GOODA: Can I give you some advice. I would travel to more communities than just about anyone and I have done it for 25-30 years. There is not a community I would go into without asking someone who should I talk to and who will help me get into that community. It’s a little bit different now that I am in this role. I reckon you make contact with someone. Look up the Land Council or give me a call. I probably have some of the best networks in the country. But you always ask the question ‘who should I take?’, and you ask someone to introduce you into that community. Our people are really generous about that stuff. If you do it respectfully, they will make the time to come and meet you and talk to you.
I am taking the Race Commissioner to Alice, and Desley Rogers, who is a traditional owner from a bit further out from Alice Springs, is going to take us out and he is going to do the introductions. Now you might not have that luxury. But I am sure if you rang me and said you were going to a community around Alice Springs, I could ring Des Rogers and he would meet you and make some calls for you. I think that’s how it is done. I don’t do it. I just don’t turn up in communities unannounced and hope everyone is going to come and talk to me. It might happen a little bit now that I am in this role but generally not. It’s paying respect to people like that. I am not saying you haven’t paid respect but using people as a way to introduce you is a really good way of getting in.
QUESTION: I am wondering what your views are on the progress of remote service delivery in communities?
MICK GOODA: We have been there. I worry that we keep on going out and developing plans and it’s almost like we are getting fatigued by that. What we don’t know about Aboriginal health we can write on the back of a postage stamp but we keep on doing research about describing problems rather than devising solutions. What they are doing at the moment with those 29 sites, I don’t really know what they are trying to do there. It is not a trial site because 29 is just too big. It’s a five-year process for that remote service delivery. That is going to finish next year. What happens then? What happens to the other 200-odd communities that are not part of it? That is why I suggested if it was a trial site, you could say, ‘We have learnt that here, we need to go and do something else here.’ I am really confused by it and I don’t think I am exactly stupid. I am not the smartest person on the planet but I can’t make sense of it - and therein lies some of the problems.
QUESTION: My name is Thomas from the German embassy and I have one question regarding the Northern Territory intervention. One aspect as I understand it is the income management and welfare quarantining. Do you find that is helpful or is it some form of patronising? I would be very interested in your thoughts regarding the constitutional recognition, maybe you can elaborate a little on that. Thank you.
MICK GOODA: I think income management is one of the most abhorrent things that happened in the Northern Territory intervention. If kids aren’t getting the benefit of welfare, we should do something about that, but to paint whole communities the same, as we did here, was just a disgrace. I was talking to Victor before we started and there are some truisms we talk about in Aboriginal affairs that people absolutely do the opposite of - and this is my experience. People will say, ‘We cannot throw money at the problem,’ and then and throw money at the problem. They will say, ‘We can’t have one size fits all,’ and then they will try to put a blanket approach on everything. Then they will say, ‘Aboriginal people need to take responsibility,’ but then they take all the means of taking responsibility away.
When you think about how what easier way could it be to create dependence than to manage someone’s money, and that is what we are tasked with here. In my last job I was asked to look at an evaluation of income management, and we wouldn’t come into it because we couldn’t work out exactly what we would be evaluating. Are we evaluating are there more kids at school? Is it about selling more fresh fruit and vegies in the stalls? Is it about people feeling safer? No-one could tell us what the original intent of income management was going to be, except maybe to punish people. I don’t know. Maybe we can look at that, too, and see how many people feel punished.
We had Carmen Lawrence do a lecture for us in my last job. If anyone wants to have a look, it’s a great lecture that talks about racism in the health system. In it she said, ‘I cannot let this opportunity go by without making a comment on the Northern Territory intervention.’ What she basically said is that, if people had a look at the concepts of self-fulfilling prophesies and the theories about learned helplessness, they probably wouldn’t have gone down this track. This is a government now that prides itself on using evidence as a basis of going forward. I just can’t see anything about income management that would produce any form of independence and for people to take up responsibilities.
One of the most awful aspects of that was to abolish CDEP because CDEP couldn’t be income managed because it wasn’t a welfare payment. Nothing in the world will convince me that was the only reason for the abolition for CDEP so that income could be managed. It’s a disgrace. We have these problems in Alice Springs when they say all these young people are moving into Alice Springs and running a bit rank. What do they expect when they are going to throw 5,000-odd people out of sort of meaningful work on a community? Don’t get me wrong, I think we had to do lots of work with CDEP. But we have thrown 5,000 people out of work and all of a sudden they scratch their heads and wonder why they are drifting into towns like Alice Springs.
The constitutional recognition has to address a couple of things. One is the exclusion that Aboriginal people have always had. In 1901, or even before that when the Constitution was being developed, we were excluded. We were excluded from the process of adopting it as the Constitution of Australia and we were specifically or explicitly in the Constitution itself. Some of those were fixed up in 1967, but we now have to take another step.
We report to government in December with our recommendations about the form that recognition should take. I reckon we will have about 12 months to campaign about ‘yes’ or ‘no’ votes. I think we have that 12 months to change the whole nature of the relationship between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and the rest of the population. This is it: this is the opportunity we are going to get to do this. This is where we have to have these decent conversations about what this will mean for Australia.
In that consultation I mentioned that we went to Mutitjulu where the people at Mutitjulu made a couple of points. One is: ‘We already have our constitution out here. It is called our law and culture, and that is very important to us. We want people to understand how important law and culture is to us. But we want them to share in our law and culture. We want this to be the Australian culture.’ So I think there is a really great basis to go forward.
My argument for constitutional change is not going to be legal or political, it is going to be emotional. The emotional part for me is: Imagine how we will feel on a Sunday morning waking up to say ‘90 per cent of people voted yes.’ I talk about the opportunity we have as this generation to do this. This is an opportunity that not every generation gets, and we should be thankful we are going to get this opportunity. In my estimation, this time next year we will be in the middle of it.
I think constitutional recognition should be the opportunity to finally put to bed the place Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have in this nation. The exciting part for me that is going to happen from early next year onwards is that we will be talking to people about why we should be voting ‘yes’. I can’t think of any greater reason to vote ‘yes’ than to say, ‘We will end up with this nation that is proud of where it is, proud of its culture and proud of the Aboriginal culture that is going to be intimately embedded in the Australian culture.’ We are not just a bunch of exotics that dance every now and then and produce nice art. I think that is the opportunity we have with the constitutional recognition and, like I said, I am looking forward to the campaign part. I want to go out and meet some of those people who will vote ‘no’ and argue with them because that is where it is going to be won.
QUESTION: My name is Joan Goodrum and I have been a member of various associations and I would like to say what a wonderful experience it has been meeting peoples. Locally here in the ACT I am a member of the southern ACT catchment group. We have a very wonderful group of young people with the Waterwatch coordinator who has taken them under his wing. They are now responsible for the Cotter catchment and are doing a wonderful job. We had our meeting a couple of days ago, and Martin was reporting on their success. The connection is going through schools, and many connections are being made through our schools today. I am losing my way a bit, I am not good about speaking.
I have made the acquaintance of many very good friends through the journey of healing as well. They are very good friends to this day. I only just say thank you to your people for making a Pommie from overseas welcome in this land. It’s been my dedication to do what I can and I think you will find that there is a lot happening right down on the ground. Just say ‘Hi’ to people when you see them. I got stuck getting out of a car park the other day and little help comes everywhere, it is not difficult. They are the warmest friends.
VICTOR McGRATH: Thank you.
QUESTION: My name is Philip Graetz and I work here at the Museum. I have done some work on the Museum’s Workplace Diversity Plan and Indigenous Employment Strategy, and both of those focus very much on relationships so I was pleased to hear what you said and what you said at the Press Club. I wonder, picking up on Mike’s question, whether you could reflect on how you see the role of the Museum in Indigenous affairs and what possibilities you see for an organisation like this playing an even bigger role?
MICK GOODA: I think museums are the place of history to tell stories of societies. I think you guys do okay because you are putting it out there. How many people come through here every year?
MIKE PICKERING: Lots - 900,000 come to the Museum with another 500,000 visiting our travelling exhibitions.
MICK GOODA: Look at that – 1.4 million people not counting people who get on your website and all that.
VICTOR McGRATH: Pathetic.
MICK GOODA: Why aren’t you doing better? I think putting Aboriginal stuff right up front is a way of making people aware and thinking about it in a place that is not political and that tells the history of our nation. But even further than that I see looking at some of the stuff around the place, it is telling the history before we became a nation. We always have to make the distinction about Australia as a country and Australia as a nation. Australia as a nation is 110 years old. We have been around a bit longer than that. I think that is the job museums have – it’s telling stories and it’s telling the history of people. I think you do okay affecting 1.9 million people who come, and Indigenous stuff is right out there. It’s really important and you are doing a really good job. I don’t think I can advise you too much except that you have a great advisory panel.
QUESTION: I am a friend of group called Concerned Australians and we are pretty angry about what is happening in the Northern Territory. My question is really to do with art and the impact of the intervention on art. I have been interested in collecting Aboriginal paintings for a long time. It just seems to me that the very best paintings are paintings which come out of the Dreamings, and the current government policy seems to be encouraging people to move out of their homelands and into other people’s lands and away from their own dreaming. It seems to me that ultimately it will be really bad for the culture but also bad for the art, if that is possible. I would really appreciate your views about that. Ultimately it seems to me that if people are going to go to the homelands, and I understand about 10 per cent of the funding goes to homelands now and the rest goes to the hub towns – and only 35 per cent of the Aboriginal people in the Northern Territory live in those hub towns - there is an imbalance in terms of the funding and resources effectively forcing people to move out of homelands into hub towns and I think away from culture.
MICK GOODA: I agree with you – it’s not a cliche to say, ‘We don’t own the land, the land owns us,’ and that is why people think that. We need to start looking at how their culture can keep on going. When we did our consultations on the constitutional stuff, the thing that came up time and time again was culture. We have to protect our culture and following on to similar to what the people in Muttajulu said, ‘We want everyone to share our culture.’
That part about moving people off country, I think somewhere, some time, governments have to make some policy on this. My sense is out particularly in places like Alice Springs there is a lot of people coming in because no-one knows what’s happening and we’re confusing about this. They are living in this constant state of confusion about whether we can have a homeland or not going to have a homeland.
But more generally in the Northern Territory, my sense is that the Northern Territory people are in a pretty dark place at the moment because of what happened with the intervention. They are really negative about what you can do, they don’t see anything positive, and I think that is eventually going to be reflected in the art that we see coming out about just how people feel. You can see the different things when they feel vibrant. You can go to Garma and see people celebrating their culture there. But at the moment my sense is really dark things are happening to people and they are in that really awful place at the moment where it is hard to find the way out.
That is why I keep on saying to government that the most important thing to do here is to rebuild this relationship because people just feel excluded from anything these days. Like I said, I think that is going to be reflected in a lot of things up there not only the paintings but the songs, the dances and the literature that is going to come out of there. I think exactly right, it will reflect what people feel. At the time if they are feeling dispossessed that is what they do. I have been amazed at some of the art coming out of Redfern around incarceration where you can feel people’s pain by just looking at the art coming out of that, and people were demonised in that community. I think the same thing is going to happen in the Northern Territory.
MIKE PICKERING: I will wrap it up there and say thank you very much to Mick and Vic for a very entertaining session. Thank you to you all for your participation and for coming. [applause].
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Date published: 01 January 2018