Patrick Dodson, a man of generous spirit, steps away with sorrow

Save articles for later

Add articles to your saved list and come back to them any time.

Patrick Dodson has always had the type of generous spirit that has no wish for acknowledgment, though recognition has followed him through his storied life.

Now, aged 75 and exhausted by cancer and its draining treatment, he has announced his retirement from parliament.

Patrick Dodson’s signature: a black hat banded with the colours of the Aboriginal flag, set off with a great flowing white beard.Credit: Fairfax

Sixty years ago, as orphaned boys from northern Australia in danger of joining the stolen generations, he and his brother Mick were given scholarships and brought south to Monivae College, a boarding school in Hamilton, Victoria.

There, Patrick’s physical and emotional strength that would eventually take him to the Senate became so obvious he was elected captain of the school.

The summers were hot, and the students regularly walked half an hour to the town’s swimming pool.

Billy Blomeley, of Gippsland these days, was a first-year student who recalls he was “way out of my comfort zone – I didn’t even know how to access my pocket money”. Dodson, himself a young man with scarce pocket money, noticed the little boy standing alone on the footpath.

Dodson, right, with from left Gatjil Djerrkura, Dr Lowitja O’Donoghue, Peter Yu and Professor Marcia Langton in front of Buckingham Palace in 1999 after meeting Queen Elizabeth II. Credit: AP

“He simply presented me with an ice cream,” Blomeley says, “I have always remembered this little act of kindness.”

Dodson was captain of the school’s powerful 1st XVIII football team, too – so talented he could have gone on to play with any of the leading VFL (later AFL) clubs.

Instead, he felt called to the Catholic priesthood, believing he could assist his people spiritually and physically as a missionary.

Dodson was Australia’s first recognised Aboriginal Catholic priest.Credit: Source unknown

As Australia’s first recognised Aboriginal Catholic priest – although he always believed there must have been others – Dodson fell afoul of the church hierarchy in the Northern Territory when he encouraged his flock to combine their traditional culture with Christianity.

By the early 1980s, he couldn’t reconcile his own cultural beliefs with Catholicism – he believed ancient Aboriginal rituals celebrated the same spiritual forces as those worshipped by Christians – and quit the priesthood.

It tipped him into a life at the forefront of Aboriginal causes.

The clerical collar gave way to what would become the Dodson signature: a black hat banded with the colours of the Aboriginal flag, set off with a great flowing white beard.

While others spoke loudly and sometimes angrily, Dodson was a listener and thoughtful storyteller.

These were the attributes that made him, in 1987, a commissioner of the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody, which produced a report that revealed the stories of institutional discrimination and depths of despair that afflicted large parts of Aboriginal Australia.

In 1991, he was the natural choice to become the founding chair of the Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation. His open-handed approach and the gravitas he brought to the position earned him the lasting title of “father of reconciliation”.

But he found himself in a testy relationship with then-prime minister John Howard, and was unable to support legislation the government introduced to reduce the impact of High Court findings on native title.

He quit the council in 1998, declaring “I fear for the spirit of this country”.

Dodson found himself in a testy relationship with then-prime minister John Howard.Credit: Mike Bowers

He spent 2010 to 2016 helping lay out a path towards an Indigenous Voice to parliament as co-chair of the government’s Expert Panel for Constitutional Recognition of Indigenous Australians.

In 2016, Dodson, who had previously resisted attempts to harness him to institutional politics, was appointed to the Australian Senate representing Western Australia – the state from which his parents fled with a baby Patrick in 1950 to escape laws banning mixed-race families.

When Labor won government last year, Dodson was made Special Envoy for Reconciliation and Implementation of the Uluru Statement from the Heart.

But cancer robbed him of an active role and meant his nationally respected voice was missing from the crucial final months of the Voice debate.

Dodson addresses the National Press Club via videolink from Broome in October.Credit: Alex Ellinghausen

He was diagnosed shortly before Easter with Non-Hodgkin lymphoma, which became life-threatening when he developed an infection of the oesophagus. His health became further complicated when he was attacked by shingles.

The snowy beard was gone, and the famous hat sat on a bald head when he eventually reappeared in a televised address to the National Press Club.

Shortly before the referendum, Dodson, ever the optimist, told this masthead he believed the Australian people would recognise “the goodness and the justice” of what the Voice could achieve.

It was not to be.

He will celebrate his 76th birthday a few days after his retirement on January 26.

Dodson has never lost the famous generosity of spirit that once recognised the discomfiture of a little boy new to school. And he won’t stop advocating for a better, fairer and more inclusive society.

“I do leave this place with some sense of sorrow, in that as a nation we were not able to respond positively to the referendum,” he said at a press conference in Parliament House on Tuesday.

“I think that would have helped our country. We need to seriously think now of the way in which our civil society knits together with its diversity and differences. We can’t take that for granted.”

Cut through the noise of federal politics with news, views and expert analysis from Jacqueline Maley. Subscribers can sign up to our weekly Inside Politics newsletter here.

Most Viewed in Politics

From our partners

Source: Read Full Article