Pod Rights Transcript

Episode 21 - Commissioner Mick Gooda

Graeme Innes: Hello and welcome to Pod Rights, a series of podcasts from the Australian Human Rights Commission. I’m Graeme Innes, the Disability and Race Discrimination Commissioner.

My colleague, Aboriginal Social Justice Commissioner Mick Gooda, has been with the Australian Human Rights Commission now for about eight months. And he recently launched the agenda for his term of office at an Australian Press Club lunch in Canberra. So I thought it was time to have a chat with Mick about that agenda on Pod Rights.

Let me first give you a bit of background about Mick.

Mick Gooda is a descendent of the Gangulu people of central Queensland. He’s been for 25 years a senior executive in numerous organisations. And before starting in his current role, Mick was the CEO of the Cooperative Research Centre for Aboriginal Health where he worked hard to place Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people front and center in the research agenda. So welcome to Pod Rights, Mick.

Mick Gooda: G’day, Graeme.

Graeme Innes: So, you’ve been in the role now for, well, since February of this year. How’ve you found it and what have you been doing in that seven or eight months time at the commission?

Mick Gooda: I found it completely different to anything I’ve ever done before, but having said that, the work that I’ve done actually prepares you for something like this.

I’ve worked all around Australia. I’ve worked at various levels at a community, at a state, at a national level. I’ve worked in program delivery. I’ve worked in service delivery. I’ve worked in policy at a national level, at a state level.

So I think it sort of prepared me for this but it’s a new world of human rights that I had to get used to and it took a while to get my feet under the desk and to get comfortable with what this job entailed.

I’m sort of used to delivering programs and delivering services and now I’m in a role of advocating and trying to come up with comments in – at promoting an Aboriginal view out there. And I suppose the hardest thing I’ve found is I’ve been more working under the radar in all those other jobs and didn’t prefer to be upfront doing media or things like this and – but now, I find myself doing it and it’s a bit uncomfortable but it’s something I’ve got to get used to.

Graeme Innes: It is sort of something that you do under the radar even when you’re delivering services, isn’t it? But this is different in the sense that you’re out there, as you say, in the public arena and doing it in a different way.

Mick Gooda: Absolutely, and you sort of… I don’t know about you, but I always feel the weight of expectation of Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander people and I’m sure you feel that as well from Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander people in your role as Race Commissioner but also as Disabilities Commissioner looking after, you know, those people who have the expectation that you’re out there fighting for their rights.

Graeme Innes: Yep and then balancing that with, if you like, the other side of the equation, talking with government or with industry or whatever, where there’s a bit of sometimes resistance to progress or going in the same sorts of directions.

Yeah, it’s certainly a challenge.

Mick Gooda: It is.

Graeme Innes: Yeah, yeah, and no doubt you’ve been talking and listening to a lot of people in that eight months that you’ve been here.

Mick Gooda: That’s mainly what I’ve been doing, you know, I’ve spent a fair bit of time travelling. I think, I’ve been to every state in Australia.

I've been back several times to talk to people. And, you know, getting a fair idea about what my agenda would be for the next five years has taken some time and, like you said, we announced it on the third of November. So, it’s out there now and we’ll just… it gives me a focus for the work that I’ll do over the coming years.

Graeme Innes: Absolutely. Well, before we come to the actual agenda, in terms of human rights, what do you say is the main priorities in Australia for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people?

Mick Gooda: Look, I think I’ve been fortunate to come in at a time when, you know, only… ah, under a year since Australia’s endorsed the UN declaration on the rights of indigenous people and I think that’s gonna form the basis of the work that I do in my time in this job.

And I think the things that are facing us in a human rights sense – in a pure human rights sense – I think one of the main issues I want to address during my time here is looking at racism and seeing how racism can be addressed not only for Aboriginal & Torres Islander people but I think for everyone in Australia who experiences it.

Graeme Innes: And so bringing that international framework down to have some practical national implications.

Mick Gooda: Oh, absolutely.

Graeme Innes: Yeah.

Mick Gooda: And given that we were about two years beyond the rest of the world of endorsing it, as you know, Australia is one of the four countries that voted against it, I don’t think we’re that far beyond the rest of the world in implementation. As a matter of fact, I think with a bit of effort we can actually show some leadership to the rest of the world about how we do this.

Graeme Innes: Great, great.

Well, Mick, as Aboriginal Social Justice Commissioner, tell us about the agenda. Where will you be focusing during the remaining – well, it’s been eight months so far – so the remaining 52 months of your term?

Mick Gooda: Yeah, look, I’ll be looking at – I’ve decided to get in the track of looking at relationships and I think there’s been certain relationships fractured in the country over the last 15-odd years between Aboriginal people, particularly with government.

And I think it’s… A focus of mine will be on relationship building at about four different levels. One, obviously, is with government and I think it’s something that we need to work at fairly quickly. How do we actually relate to government, how does government relate to the Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander community?

And that’s at a couple of levels, Graeme.

It’s one at the national level or the policy level. How do we actually get the ideas, the policies that are being developed that address Aboriginal disadvantage and Aboriginal issues having some ownership by the Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander community?

It’s not just a matter of government producing reports, policies, and programs and then come out and deliver them to us. I think all the evidence in the world tells us that when you – when the people who are affected by a policy or a program are involved into the design and delivery of that, you end up with a more sustainable result and better programs and better policies. So that’s probably at the national level.

And then with government at the community level, I think since the demise of ATSIC what we’ve seen is a reverse of what used to happen before, where we had a whole structure to provide the Aboriginal voice to government. All we seem to have now as government telling Aboriginal people what they’re going to do and how they’re going to do it. And I think we’ve got to fix that up.

Graeme Innes: So much more of a voice for Aboriginal people in the equation. And as you say, that’s gonna inevitably result in better policy development.

But what will those relationships, as you work to improve them, what sort of issues will they be addressing?

Mick Gooda: Oh, look, I think, particularly, government, the issue of just a relationship at a leadership level, I think, you know, the Aboriginal leadership hasn’t engaged properly with government since the demise of ATSIC. There hasn’t been structures in place.

There has been things like the National Indigenous Council, but it represented individuals, it wasn’t a representative body by any means. We now have the Congress in place. We think that will be useful for government to engage with.

Graeme Innes: Yep.

Mick Gooda: And I think, as that matures as an organisation, I think we’re gonna find more and more voice for us at the national level via the congress.

Graeme Innes: And what sort of things do you expect and do you expect the Congress and other Aboriginal people will be looking to progress?

Mick Gooda: Oh, look, I think I went down the track of relationships because I think there’s any about five or six of us in the social justice area, in the human rights – although, we’re supported by whole range of other people like media, like lawyers. But… so we come – I found that I couldn’t pick an issue that would – like housing or health or education and hope to fix that up in five years. I think that would be too much to ask in that type. So I think if we do the relationship stuff, the people who do work in those specific areas will have a good platform from which to work.

Graeme Innes: Right.

Mick Gooda: And I think for me that’s what I can achieve in the five years.

Graeme Innes: Yep, yep.

And that’s sort of how you arrived at that view? Just sort of recognising that the challenges that you’ve listed there in, you know, health, housing, employment, won’t be addressed on their own without that better relationship building. Is that how you sort of determine that as your priority?

Mick Gooda: Oh, absolutely, and not only are they long term issues within themselves, they actually relate to each other as you address them in an Aboriginal context.

You can’t just pick employment and say I’m gonna fix that because you end up thinking about things like the education system. Are people work-ready? Is the education system producing people who are work-ready? You start thinking about the health system. Are people healthy enough to do 12 hours work in a mine, for instance, and some of the evidence we have around tells us they’re not.

So you just can’t pick an issue out and think it’s isolated from the rest.

Graeme Innes: Yeah.

Mick Gooda: So they’re all interrelated so, that’s why – another reason why it led me towards thinking about this relationship stuff.

Graeme Innes: And what about constitutional change, Mick?

I know that that’s an issue that’s now being put on the agenda at the last election by both political parties. Well, I shouldn’t say political parties have put it on the agenda. I’m sure they’re been encouraged to put it on to the agenda, and it was recognised at the Committee on the Elimination of Race Discrimination when Australia appeared at around the same time.

You’re looking at building some relationships there as well, aren’t you?

Mick Gooda: Well, I think that that goes to population-type question, the relationship between Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander people and the rest of Australia. In that level of the relationship we’ll be looking at things like racism.

But, for me, I think the main work-area – work is gonna be around constitutional change. And like you say, the – we were pleased to hear that both major parties and the Greens during the election campaign endorse the proposal for a referendum to recognise Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander people in the Constitution.

And even more pleasing, after the election, when the 4 dependents have come out very strongly to say that they support this particular course of action. So we know that we can’t get a referendum up in this country unless we have that sort of bipartisan support.

So I guess, when we start down this road, we’ve – we’re starting from a pretty good place, that the political parties, at least, have put their hands up and said we want to be part of this and – but, however, I think, for me, I think we’ve got to go back to the 1967 referendum, when it was passed, voted for by 90 percent of the population and I reckon that’s the sort of thing we’ve got to aim for in this referendum.

We’re told it will be at our next election and if this parliament goes for the full three years, it’ll be at the next election in three years time. So I think we’ve got about, you know, two-and-a-half years to look at the relationship between Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander people and the rest of Australia and start educating the population about why we need this constitutional change, why – what difference will it make to indigenous people.

And I don’t think it’s only about indigenous people. I think it’s about the nation, the nation maturing to a point where we are comfortable with the place of Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander people, and I think, for me, that’s gonna, for the next three years, that’s gonna make up the majority of my work, I reckon, because I think we’ve done some estimates of the population. We’re talking about winning over about 16 million people to vote ‘yes’ and I think that’s gonna be pretty important work to do in the next three years.

Graeme Innes: And running alongside that, of course, will be the words that are used to change the Constitution in the referendum because not only, I imagine, will they be critical to that education process, but there’ll be different views and a mix and a balancing of views to determine the words which are most likely to gain that support.

Is that fair comment?

Mick Gooda: Oh, look, I think that’s absolutely fair.

Not only will it go to the words, we understand that there’s a fair proportion of people saying not only should we look at recognition of Aboriginal people as – or Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander people as the first peoples of Australia, but also looking at sections within the Constitution that go to the races powers, you know, Section 25 and, I think, Section 54, or something like that.

So we’ve got a whole lot of discussion to have in the next little while about what do we mean by the extent of change we’re looking for. Is it just in the preamble? Will it be in the body of the Constitution, the recognition? And how if… and do we look at things like the races powers contained in the Constitution which, of course, wouldn’t only apply to indigenous people it would apply to everyone in Australia.

Graeme Innes: So I suppose before you embark on a journey like this – well you’ve embarked on it eight months ago, now, so you’re well in to it – but, you know, you need to look at what’s been done and what’s left to do.

So let’s – before, you know, as we come to an end – look at what’s been done, what do you think are the most significant recent improvements in the area of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians from government that you can recognise and I’m then gonna ask you about what the challenges are still to come.

Mick Gooda: Look, I think – look, to be quite fair, the government has done lots and it’s made a five billion dollar commitment to the Close the Gap – closing the gap campaign across education, health, employment, and participation. A range of areas they’re looking at in Close the Gap.

I think what Kevin Rudd will be remembered for more than anything is that he’s – he apologised to the Stolen Generation. I think that will mark his time as prime minister in this country and it’s something we all look back on and it will be one of those days that we will remember where we were on that particular day and that particular hour, I’d say.

They’ve started the new congress, the Congress of First Peoples, the new representative body.

They’re established a Healing Foundation. They’ve reversed a position on the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People. So there’s been plenty done…

And, however, if I can – and I mentioned it in my speech, that I think Aboriginal people feel a solidarity with each other and I think the solidarity we feel at the moment is around those 73 communities in the Northern Territory that were subject to suspension of the Racial Discrimination Act. And even though that’s been reinstated we still feel for those people up there as if we were subject to the same restrictions.

And, as I did it at the Press Club, I call for, you know, a gesture, if you like, and, Graeme, there’s these great big signs outside every one of those communities that talk about a whole range of things but really talk about the restrictions of alcohol and pornography in communities. And the people I spoke to up there said, you know, anyone driving past these, looking at our community, will think we’re just alcoholic perverts that need to be kept away from the rest of the world. And I think they do some really damage to… some real damage to people’s self-esteem and I think, as a gesture, I’m calling for the government to do away with those signs as a gesture of goodwill towards Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander people.

So they’ve done a lot, but I still think we will look at our own situation through the lens of what’s happening in the Northern Territory. And until those people up they get their full rights restored, that are treated like the rest of Australia is I think we will still have some trouble acknowledging what the government’s done.

Graeme Innes: I’d say, probably the most moving event for me in the 12–15 months that I’ve been Race Discrimination Commissioner was appearing before the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination and having two elders from two of those communities over there in Geneva talking about the personal pain and distress caused to them and their communities by the Intervention and how they saw the Geneva process is part of the process of removing that pain and distress. So that’s just the narrower little bit of what you’re talking about.

Mick Gooda: Well, we all heard about the – your presentation and the support you had over there and how it was really emotional. And I think that’s how it affects people and it’s emotional ’cause it hits close to home.

Graeme Innes: Yeah, yeah, it was certainly emotional for me being involved in that.

So, Mick, that’s – those are the things that have been done.

What do you think are the significant challenges which will be for government, you know, during your term as commissioner, some of the things that you haven’t commented on already today?

Mick Gooda: Oh, look, I think I go back to building relationships. I don’t think anything can work unless there’s a level of trust between government and the Aboriginal community.

And I’m not a romantic about that. I’m not just saying it because I think it’s a nice thing to say. I’ve worked across Australia and the way to get things done is to build trust between people and I think that needs to be done.

I think the other thing that that will build on is the empowerment of Aboriginal people to take control, to take ownership of problems, and, therefore, take ownership solutions. And I think that’s the only way we’re gonna provide sustainable change in our circumstances is when Aboriginal people own the problem and are part of the solution rather than just being passive recipients of welfare, of programs, of processes. So I think it’s pretty important that that happens.

And that’s where, I think, you know, we get those sort of things, right, we will see the improvement in health and education and economic participation, like jobs.

But I go back to the implementation of the declaration. I think I’ll be arguing that the declaration actually does provide a guide for relationships between indigenous people in nation states.

But it also – taking a rights approach actually says that, you know, when you take a rights approach, you actually have to be aware that when you exercise your rights in one area, don’t impede someone’s rights in other areas.

So with that comes a natural responsibility, you know.

I was at a conference a couple of weeks ago and Noel Pearson said, when we talk about our rights, we actually mean we have a right to take responsibility. And I sort of endorse that view that – so Aboriginal people taking responsibility, Aboriginal people taking control, being supported appropriately by government, I think we’ll see the improvements in the areas that we really need to look at.

Graeme Innes: Well, thanks, Mick. I’m looking forward to continuing to work with you on all of those challenges in the couple of years ahead and for the rest of your term. And it’s been great to talk to you about them on Pod Rights today.

And thanks to all of you listening to Pod Rights.

Remember that this podcast is for you, so if you have a suggestion of someone with whom I should talk or a comment on the podcast, please e-mail me at podrights@humanrights.gov.au, or find me and message me on Facebook or Twitter. Just search for “Graeme Innes.”

And keep your podcatchers ready for the next Pod Rights in the series because human rights is for everyone, everywhere, everyday.

I’m Graeme Innes. Goodbye for now.

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