Flat White

Pat Dodson’s sense and sensitivity

10 August 2017

4:32 PM

10 August 2017

4:32 PM

A refreshing note of practicality, even sanity, was injected into the sound and fury of the same-sex marriage debate this morning when Radio National’s Fran Kelly, after a triumphant interview with former High Court judge Michael Kirby in which he roundly decried the plebiscite issue, spoke with Labor Senator Patrick Dodson.

Kelly, in her most earnest, ‘where-does-it-hurt’ tones asked the Senator, a Yawuru man and deeply respected Aboriginal elder who lives in Broome, WA, if he had concerns about how indigenous people in remote parts of the country would be able to vote in the postal ballot.

Dodson, a former Catholic priest, said he had major concerns but that ‘most people would not have a clue what this is about, most people would not have a postal box and that there was a was a whole disconnect here, they would be more concerned about the realities of their lives, suicides within their communities, tenancy laws, paying the rent, domestic violence, day-to-day survival, and, he repeated, a note of impatience creeping into his voice, they don’t all have post boxes and no one has explained to them what this is all about’.

It was a very telling verbal message, an interview brought to a quick end by a disappointed Kelly, but one that pinpointed the cultural chasm that has opened between Australians.

Once, we could all, more or less, understand each other, even if one was a fresh off the boat ‘New Australian’ and the other a fifth generation Aussie whose ancestor may have come out at His Majesty’s Pleasure. Now we seem divided by our speech, ideologies and culture, into tribes, as those delineated by Bruce Chatwin’s ‘Songlines’.


In Canberra now, it is not unusual to hear someone use the term ‘beyond the beltway’. Unlike Washington DC, Canberra does not have a ‘beltway’ (we do have a border, whose boundaries used to be marked by the quality of the road surface that led north into New South Wales and grew bumpier and more pot holed the further you drove from the national capital.

Now, after self-government, and despite the ‘fix-my-street’ website, Territory roads can be just as hazardous as those in NSW and some Canberrans appear to develop mindsets as narrow-focused as those of occupants of the West Wing – or, in the worst case, the Westeros.

What happened to the famous Australian sense of laid-back humour asked a neighbour recently? We used to be able to laugh at ourselves and take a joke. Now we’re all worried about how people might take that joke. It’s not the fault of newly arrived migrants; but the kill-joy crowd, the PC brigade who brought in new cultural protocols that the rest of us have to try and master if we want to understand what’s going on.

We’ve lost trust in our governance and our institutions and as the old Chinese saying has it, many are ‘eating bitterness’ at the unfairness of how things have turned out. We’re even unsure of how, or if we will be protected if the worst came to worst, because, as someone put it to me recently, ‘they didn’t protect that man in the Lindt café’.

‘They’ are no longer ‘our’ friends. ‘They’ are not, in the main, to be trusted.

Voters were promised a plebiscite, and they expect to have one, if only to feel that they matter, in even the smallest way, to the politicians. A plebiscite, even one by post, is the only way to decide the same-sex marriage issue and the hollow men of both sides of the major parties must, by now, realise this.

Bravo Senator Dodson, you called it the way you saw it this Thursday.

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