Interview with Commissioner Mick Gooda

Rose Hunter and John Alizzi in conversation with Mick Gooda
Mick Gooda is a descendent of the Gangulu people of central Queensland. Prior to taking up the position of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner, Mick was the Chief Executive Officer of the Cooperative Research Centre for Aboriginal Health for almost five and a half years.
Commissioner Gooda has been actively involved in advocacy in Indigenous affairs throughout Australia and has delivered strategic and sustainable results in remote, rural and urban environments. Mick has played a leadership role in a range of areas including Acting Chief Executive Officer of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission and Senior Consultant to the Aboriginal Legal Service (WA). Mick is also currently a Board Member of the Australasian Centre for Rural and Remote Mental Health. He also has an interest in the Lateral Violence Program in Canada and has been working closely with the First Nation people of Canada on the relevance of this program to Australia.
Mr Gooda was appointed to the Expert Panel on Constitutional Recognition of Indigenous Australians in late 2010 and travelled the country last year with panel members consulting people on their views.
Mick is also co-chair of the Close the Gap campaign for Indigenous health equality.

RN: Hello, thanks for giving us the opportunity to speak with you today. It would be great if you tell us about some of the highlights of your work as Indigenous Social Justice Commissioner since you were appointed in February 2010.

[Mick Gooda] Work on the recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in the Constitution has been really important for us to do, and to get all parties on board. I think the other issue is in and around “lateral violence”. Last year I wrote two reports on the problems of lateral violence. There are other social justice issues and native title, but those two are of great importance.

Could you tell us a little about your recent work as an ex-officio member of the Expert Panel on Constitutional Recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples?

My work focused on how to change the Constitution in a way that recognises Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders. Along with other member of the Expert Panel, I spent twelve months travelling around Australia consulting Australians from all walks of life. After a fairly intensive 12 month period the Report of the Expert Panel was delivered to the Prime Minister in January this year.

In the Report of the Expert Panel, many of the recommendations were focused on the process for a referendum. In particular the report recommends: “The referendum should only proceed when it is likely to be supported by all major political parties, and a majority of State governments.” Could you talk a little about the recommendations, and why so much focus has been placed on process?

You’ve got to get the process right. If the process isn’t right we’re going to fail. If we didn’t have multi-party support within parliament we would not even bother, and that’s why we put those recommendations in our Report. The timing has to be right and we’ve got to get the process right to succeed. It’s important to know how the community is feeling, and if ever there was an inkling that it would fail and we went ahead and it did fail it would harm Australia not only generally, but also harm our international reputation as a tolerant society – [they may ask] if we can’t do something as simple as recognise Aboriginal people and culture in our Constitution, what do we stand for? So the timing is all-important. There are some things we can control – we can run campaigns and we’ve got to educate people so they can take ownership of the changes. But those sorts of things take time, and again we’ve got to get it right.

It is now 20 years since the decision of the Mabo case. Could you please reflect on this, and how successful the recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander native title in Australia has been since this decision?

The native title system as it currently stands is problematic in that there is an unfairness in terms of evidence that has to be presented when going through the Federal Court process. So, that’s the first thing. But 20 years is not a bad time for us to look back and reflect, not year-by-year, but on how it is generally going over the longer period. Native title has delivered economic outcomes – jobs and the fact that native title can give us a seat at the table.  Twenty years later there is a need to make things fairer for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples, but I think we can say in general some people would argue we haven’t done a bad job.

Do you see a place for Aboriginal customary law in the mainstream Australian legal system? Can it be integrated within the Australian legal system, or do you see it as a separate body of law?

Of course it can be integrated within the Australian legal system. I don’t think we are talking about different legal systems. Unfortunately we tend to focus on things like punishment and I don’t think it is useful to do that. With respect to punishment, I’ve talked to people such as  elders, about this. They told me that  ‘Payback’ is not done when people are angry – it is done in a ceremony. But, I don’t think accommodating that is particularly useful; I would never argue for accommodating violence. But there are other issues that need to be considered, such as how family relationships are defined in legislation around wills. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people cast the net a fair bit wider in terms of what we define as family. If I died intestate [without a will], I would want not just my children but my nieces and nephews to benefit from my estate. So I think there is a capacity to do that. I think it can fit and there are ways of integrating it. I don’t think they are really at odds. So we could include customary law in relation to things like relationships and traditional adoptions, but I don’t think we can use customary laws as excuses to commit violence, particularly to commit violence against women and children.

In some instances, in the process of incorporating customary law are you concerned that it may be transformed in a way that is makes it unsatisfactory?

Customs change. If you go to any part of Australia now things won’t be the same as they were 200 years ago. The only caveat is that Aboriginal people have to be driving the change. But that is the nature of anything – there are changes over time. And things will continue to change in the future.

The Government’s Stronger Futures legislation is a 10-year commitment for funding and assistance to Indigenous populations that superseded the Northern Territory Intervention. Chairman of the National Congress of Australia’s First Peoples Les Malezar recently referred to these policies as “a framework of dominance” over Australia’s first peoples. Could you please share your thoughts on Stronger Futures?

The Australian Human Rights Commission looked at Stronger Futures from a human rights perspective; in terms of what needs to be done to make it compliant with human rights standards. We accept that there are special measures in there for issues related to community safety, but we do need checks and balances in there to make sure people’s human rights are observed, particularly in relation to things such as income management, which can have a significant impact on Aboriginal people. We’ve got to be vigilant. People need to be able to challenge whether they are being treated fairly or not in order for the law to be compliant with human rights.

The recent Australia Day protests in Canberra at the Aboriginal Tent Embassy received a lot of media attention. Interviews with representatives of the Aboriginal community following the event demonstrated that there are divisions within the Aboriginal community regarding the ongoing relevance of the Embassy. What are your thoughts on this?

I don’t know that there was division about the relevance of the Embassy. The division was about the objectives associated with statements made by different politicians. I think that there would be general agreement that the Embassy is relevant. The Embassy is a big part of our history as it represents a struggle to get where we are, and that struggle isn’t over. It might not be relevant when people don’t need to struggle anymore, but I don’t think we’re at that point yet. Even so, I don’t think people should be surprised when there are a variety of views in the Aboriginal community. We’re not one homogeneous group. I don’t think there will be unanimity on any issue across any group, so there’s nothing wrong and no underlying division in the fact that Aboriginal people have divergent views.

With the launch of the National Congress of Australia’s first people’s two years ago, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders now have a national representative body. What are your thoughts on the role of the National Congress, and how successful it has been so far?

The Congress is in its infancy. But it’s our organisation, which means governments can’t abolish it. I keep on reminding people, it can never be abolished by parliament and we have the say over how it functions, we don’t have to go through parliament to change it. And I say to the detractors: if you don’t think it has done a good job, you should become a member and change it. We’ve got control of it as Aboriginal people. I think we should be giving it a fair bit of time to find its feet, for it to develop into the organisation we want it to be. And I think we should be a bit generous. It is going to take time and the effort of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people to make it relevant. The bottom line is if this is going to work we’ve got to make this work, government can’t make this work, it has got to be Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. So Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people should get behind it.