History, Justice and Reconciliation

Posted 3 June 2018 5:19pm

History, Justice and Reconciliation

Fr Frank Brennan SJ AO, CEO of Catholic Social Services Australia

As published Parish Connections, Parish of St James, June/July 2018

Last month, the nation farewelled one of the great public servants, Barrie Dexter.  Barrie’s father Walter was a decorated Anglican chaplain at Gallipoli.  Barrie and his four brothers all served in the Second World War.  Barrie then became a diplomat until Prime Minister Harold Holt handpicked him for a domestic role after the 1967 referendum.  At that referendum, the Australian people voted overwhelmingly to remove the two arguably adverse references to Aborigines in the Constitution.  The political effect of the strong vote for change was pressure on the Commonwealth government to act directly to improve the living conditions of Aboriginals and Torres Strait Islanders.

Holt set up a three-member Council for Aboriginal Affairs consisting of ‘Nugget’ Coombs who had been a major contributor to post-war reconstruction and to the Reserve Bank, Bill Stanner who was a leading anthropologist at the Australian National University, and Barrie Dexter.

In his delightful self-deprecating mode, Dexter says that Harold Holt was looking for someone who was ‘honest, just, sympathetic with underdeveloped or deprived peoples, knows his way backwards through the public service and [would] not squeal when he was kicked.’  When asked by Holt to join the three-member Council for Aboriginal Affairs with Coombs and Stanner, Dexter replied, ‘But I don’t know anything about Aboriginals.’ Holt said, ‘That’s why I asked you to take on the job. I’m frightened by the people who think they do know something!’ Dexter then said, ‘Mr Prime Minister, you are asking me to open Pandora’s box!’ Holt replied, ‘That is precisely what I am asking you to do, Barrie.’  These ‘three wise men’ or ‘the three white men’, as they were often called, helped navigate the policy changes for land rights and self-determination.

The eulogy at Dexter’s funeral was delivered by the nation’s most distinguished Aboriginal public servant, Patricia Turner.  She said:

The late Mr Barrie Dexter most certainly paved a promising pathway to right the way for Aboriginal people to live a more fulfilled and decent life in this country. When I gave the eulogy at the funeral of my late uncle Charlie Perkins, I recalled that he was an “unorthodox public servant”.  I know Mr Dexter would have understood that very well. Mr Dexter on the other hand, I would characterise as an “orthodox public servant” who was well equipped for his tasks. He was a career public servant who brought his significant experience, intellect and a fair dinkum sense of, and commitment to, all people having a fair go, in the many positions he held in the Australian Public Service and in CARE. His esteemed service in the Defence forces, in Foreign Affairs and his flair for speaking new languages, all added to his abilities to serve even his most neglected fellow Australians, with decency and integrity. He witnessed the most depressed of living conditions and lack of access to services for Aboriginal people and worked tirelessly to achieve improved outcomes for us.

Barrie Dexter and Charles Perkins had their differences and their blow-ups in the public service,  but they came to respect each other.  How fitting it was that the formal eulogy was delivered by Perkins’ relative Patricia Turner one-time CEO of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission (ATSIC), and deputy secretary of the department of Prime Minister and Cabinet.  Nothing gave Barrie greater pleasure than to see Aboriginal Australians replacing him and taking their rightful place in the administration of the nation, determining the best use of Pandora’s box .

On his last day as Secretary of the Department of Aboriginal Affairs in 1977, Barrie had written an account of his stewardship to his minister Ian Viner. Viner replied, thanking Dexter for his insights and assistance, having come to his position ‘as a “new chum” in Aboriginal Affairs as well as to the Ministry.’ Viner confided: 

It seemed to me that we had a common approach through a simple philosophy and fundamental truth – all men and women are equal in the sight of God and deserve to be accorded the dignity of that status within the Australian community. Where it has been diminished by disadvantage or discrimination or inadequacy on the part of Govern­ments, then that is where the resources of the Department of Aboriginal Affairs should be directed.

A tribute was also delivered at Dexter’s funeral by Professor Gary Foley who as a young Aboriginal activist had been sacked by Dexter when only six weeks into his employment in the Commonwealth public service.  Foley told the congregation that he used to hate Dexter, but that later in life he grew to love him.  It was Foley who organised the publication of Dexter’s book Pandora’s Box recounting the activities of the Council for Aboriginal Affairs.  Gary Foley said that reconciliation had to be founded on truth.  Looking back over the decades, Foley and Dexter had come to appreciate each other’s perspectives on difficult times which included the setting up of the Aboriginal tent embassy in front of the old Parliament House.

Thirty years ago, the Australian Church leaders were asking our elected politicians to agree on how best to recognise Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians at the opening of the new Parliament House.  On the day of the opening, 9 May 1988, Queen Elizabeth was met by 1,000 Aboriginal protesters and their supporters when she arrived at the forecourt. The protesters were chanting, ‘ What do we want?’ ‘Land rights.’ ‘When do we want it?’ ‘Now’.

Ten days after the opening by the Queen, the Opposition in parliament announced, ‘Because of the negative community response to radical Aboriginal protests, the Coalition has decided not to proceed with initiating a parliamentary resolution on Aboriginal matters.  We do not believe that it would be positively received in the community and hence would fail to promote reconciliation as we had hoped.’  No one would say that in Parliament today.  Some things have changed, and for the better.  This was all before Mabo, native title, and the apology to the stolen generations.

On 9 May 2018, dignitaries once again gathered in the forecourt of the ‘new’ Parliament House – this time to mark the 30th anniversary of the opening of the building by Queen Elizabeth. Just like 9 May 1988, it was a glorious autumn day with clear sunshine and dappled leaves. Thirty years ago, there were no Aboriginal representatives inside the parliament, and no Aboriginal person spoke at the ceremony. Thirty years on, Aboriginal elders conducted a smoking ceremony of welcome and cleansing.   There was a good feel to the willing participation of community leaders in the ceremony, including the Governor-General, the Queen’s representative. And of course, there is now some very fine Aboriginal representation inside the Parliament, and on both sides of the aisle. Thankfully, some things do change for the better over the decades. 

Fifty one years on from the 1967 referendum, we are still wondering how to recognise Indigenous Australians in our Constitution. At the moment, they don’t even rate a mention in our founding document.  On this, the country is stalled.  It will remain stalled until there is a more inclusive respectful dialogue about what is appropriate and achievable in the Australian Constitution.  At Uluru a year ago, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander representatives from around Australia strongly supported a call for ‘the establishment of a First Nations Voice enshrined in the Constitution’.  

Australians will not vote for a constitutional First Nations Voice until they have first heard it and seen it in action. Presumably the First Nations Voice would replace the existing National Congress of Australia’s First Peoples which boasts, ‘As a company the Congress is owned and controlled by its membership and is independent of Government. Together we will be leaders and advocates for recognising our status and rights as First Nations Peoples in Australia.’  When the extensive Aboriginal consultations for the setting up of the Congress were conducted in 2009, the committee charged with proposing the model concluded, ‘The new National Representative Body should be a private company limited by guarantee rather than a statutory authority.’  They had ‘consistently heard the aspiration of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples that the National Representative Body become self-determining over time’. They said, ‘This cannot happen if the body is a creation of Parliament whose existence is dependent on the goodwill of Parliament and the government of the day.’  They thought a company limited by guarantee would have the advantage of flexibility and enhanced self-determination: ‘The structures of the Body will be able to be flexible, with the members able to alter the Constitution when necessary. If the Body was a statutory authority it would have to rely on Parliament to approve such changes and may also have unnecessary or politically motivated changes foisted upon it.’

If the Congress is to be replaced by a First Nations Voice which is recognised in the Constitution, that body will need to be set up by legislation which sets out what it’s to do, the way it which it is to operate, and how representation is to be organised.  When ATSIC was first established in 1989, the number of Australians identifying as Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander was less than a quarter of a million.  At the last census, it was almost 650,000.  The aspirations of these self-identifying Indigenous Australians are very diverse.  A constitutionally recognised body would have much less flexibility than the present Congress. There is a need for a lot further discussion both within Indigenous communities and within Australian society generally about what such a First Nations Voice might look like, and what it might do. The challenges are great.  But great Australians like Barrie Dexter, Patricia Turner and Gary Foley have shown us the way.  There needs to be a place at the table for both the orthodox and the unorthodox. 








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