Patrick Dodson, a Yawuru man from Broome in Western Australia, is distinctive in appearance, with a long flowing beard and a trademark black Akubra hat marked with the Aboriginal colours.
He is also one of the country’s most distinguished Australians, combining sharp intellectuality, deep spirituality and a common touch to become almost universally respected.
Mr Dodson was endorsed on Wednesday to replace the controversial Labor Senator Joe Bullock, who has announced his resignation, citing the Party’s refusal to allow a conscience vote on gay marriage.
For Mr Dodson, his likely ascension to the Australian Senate will be just one achievement in a long and extraordinary life.
Born in 1948, he was orphaned in 1960 upon the death of his father, when he and his brother Mick Dodson were made wards of the state.
Mick went on to become a barrister and academic who was made Australian of the Year in 2009.
Patrick’s achievements are equally remarkable. He was formerly Commissioner into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody, the 2008 winner of the prestigious Sydney Peace Prize and Chairman of the Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation between 1991-1997. He has held numerous other positions, including director of the Central Land Council.
His biographer, anthropologist Kevin Keeffe, wrote in Paddy’s Road: Life Stories of Patrick Dodson about his distinguished style, the way he could make other indigenous people comfortable with the lilting rhythms of Aboriginal English, and then switch easily into the formal tones of the business and political establishment.
Yet the softly spoken Patrick Dodson has not always had the same public profile as other Aboriginal political figures such as Warren Mundine, Lowitja O’Donoghue or Noel Pearson.
During the 1990s, when he was chairman of the Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation and sentiment was running strongly on both sides of the divide, Mr Dodson was often enough nowhere to be found, off in his hometown of Broome fishing, or attending an event in a remote outback settlement. Media stories ran without the voice of the chairman.
Which was fine by him.
There is no doubt of the respect with which he is held across Australia’s not always unified Aboriginal groups. “He talks up for all our mob,” is a typical sentiment.
The late 1990s were a period of heightened tensions in Aboriginal politics.
The 1997 Australian Reconciliation Convention, where the crowd turned their back on the then-Prime Minister John Howard, the Wik land rights decision by the High Court and the Bringing them Home Report, along with the issue of a national apology, all of these elements were reverberating in the national psyche.
Mr Dodson, unfailingly polite, found himself increasingly at odds with the Howard government, and within months of the close of the Convention left his job as Chairman of the Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation, “rolled his swag” and returned to his roots among the Yawuru people of Broome.
In a sense he was making his own journey home.
Love of his land
Like almost all indigenous people, Mr Dodson has a unique attachment to the land of his birth, and amongst the many curiosities of his life, early in his career he became Australia’s first Aboriginal ordained Catholic priest. He attempted to blend Catholicism and traditional Aboriginal spiritual belief, which brought him into conflict with the ecclesiastical hierarchy.
After many years of confrontation he finally left the priesthood, decrying the “plague of intolerant self-righteousness” from preachers, who condemned the conduct of Aboriginal people even as they buried them.
He once asked Christian readers to imagine themselves as Aboriginal Australians before the white invasion: “As to your knowledge of the land, your country, you would know every tree, every rock, because through the Dreaming, the great ancestors came this way.
“And they are still here. They live. They must be revered, appeased, paid attention to. It is they who cause conception as a woman walks near. When the child is born he calls that part of the country Father.”
Most Australians have never seen and will never see the many remote Aboriginal communities of Australia, or ever appreciate both their beauty, their triumphs and, over the decades, their appalling tragedies.
Mr Dodson has seen them in their hundreds, at one time being ranked the most travelled passenger on Australian airlines, and has seen firsthand the devastating impacts of westernisation.
But he has also spoken eloquently about shifting the dynamics of the public sector towards policies and strategies which raise up Aboriginal people’s lives and status in a way which is fair and beneficial to all Australians: “I think at some point you’ve got to stop proclaiming the sense of loss if you’re no longer prepared to do something about those losses.”
A long beard and an Akubra hat wreathed in Aboriginal colours, inside the Australian Senate. Don’t be surprised.