Labor's Indigenous Affairs spokesperson Senator Pat Dodson (AAP/Lukas Coch)

I have been asked by many about my thoughts on Pat Dodson potentially being minister for Indigenous affairs. As an outspoken black woman, you best believe I have thoughts — many.

Do I think this is a good thing? Yes. Do I think this is the answer? Hard no on that one.

I am not here to rubbish Dodson, he has a lengthy track record of seeking change for our people. But he is part of the political machine. He is part of a major party and is beholden to policies drafted about us without us, and because of that I view this announcement by Bill Shorten with the cynicism that is necessary for black fullas.

It is difficult not to be caught up in the exciting prospect of having an Indigenous person holding the role of Indigenous affairs minister after so many years dealing with the farce that has been Nigel Scullion and Tony Abbott but it is essential that we stow our celebrations and consider what this really means in politician speak.

Shorten’s promises

The clue in why we need to be reserved lies in the language of the announcement that Bill Shorten made. Shorten said that paternalism and top-down approaches had failed, which is correct. He also said that “we want to try something different if we get elected”, and stated further “we want to try the idea of Aboriginal-controlled organisations making decisions”.

We need to remember that the words used by politicians are very deliberate, considered and rehearsed. So when Shorten says we “want to try” it sends off alarm bells in my head — he is using this appointment and manner of policy roll-out as an experiment and we are the subjects of this experiment. You might think I am jumping at shadows and consider this rather innocuous but this language and approach is a maintenance of the deficit dynamic.

Bill Shorten does believe he is making a genuine and positive announcement but he doing this from a position of privilege and one where he has not considered change beyond policy roll-out. He has not considered that the issues affecting communities are not “problems” — they are consequences. He has not considered systemic reform to address the failure that is colonisation and the institutions resultant.

Let us not forget that major policies that wreak havoc on communities — like the Northern Territory Intervention and the cashless welfare policies — were enacted with bipartisan support. While Dodson is a strong voice against laws and policies that harm our people, we cannot ignore that he belongs to a party that has a long history of harming us and voting in favour of policies introduced by the other major party, which harmed us also, under the guise of “for our own good”.

It is disingenuous to lay the fault for oppressive policies solely at the feet of the Coalition, because Labor had their hand in supporting these policies and, in some instances, expanding their scope. Labor has a lot to answer for and only meaningful change can ever address the historical atrocities committed by this organisation. Labor has not only been historically responsible for policies that oppressed our people but they have been complicit in contemporary oppressive policies.

What Labor needs to do next

Consequently, it is essential that our support of this announcement be contingent upon it not being mere lip service and change goes beyond merely the manner of policy delivery. If elected, Labor as a party and as a government needs to have their policies crafted by First Nations draftspeople following community consultations with the very communities affected.

Policies should not be broad-brush either; they need to start seeing us for the diverse and vast communities we are. It is not unreasonable for a policy — at the request of the community — to apply solely to that community. Applying a “one size fits all” approach needs to go out the window, along with the viewpoint that we are a problem that needs to be solved.

This announcement does not change anything and we need to remember this and resist tokenism.

Shorten’s announcement is a good one and I do not want to diminish the pride we will all feel when we have one of our own heading up this portfolio. However, the appointment is merely tokenistic if it does not empower Dodson to make structural changes to the way this portfolio operates and to a Labor government should it be elected.

Unless Labor changes the way it operates as a party then this new approach will fail and that failure will be put at the feet of Dodson.

Make no mistake, unless there is change from within the institutions that “govern” this country, all that is happening here is paternalism repackaged. If the intent is to maintain the policies that oppress our people and communities but change the way in which the policies are rolled out, this is simply getting black bodies to do the work of white decision makers. Shorten is not suggesting systemic change here, he is suggesting a change in approach with the delivery of policies — not the policies themselves and herein lies the issue.

While I back Shorten’s announcement, I call upon him and his party for more. Think bigger, more than 200 communities bigger, and then you may grasp how utterly out of your depth you are and see the value in self-determination. We are not homogenous and have resisted colonial assimilation for over 200 years, perhaps we might know a little something about survival under the worst conditions, and perhaps we could teach a thing or two about how to make this country thrive.

Let me tell you: what we have to teach has nothing to do with capitalism.

Peter Fray

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