Former Australian of the Year, barrister and academic Mick Dodson is expected to take on one of the most difficult and influential chapters of his career as the Northern Territory’s inaugural treaty commissioner.
Professor Dodson’s new role is expected to be publicly announced on Monday.
According to an NT Government description, the treaty commissioner’s key role will be to “consult with Aboriginal people in the Northern Territory regarding a treaty and develop a framework for treaty negotiations”.
A Yawuru man from the southern Kimberley, Professor Dodson has been a prominent Indigenous rights advocate and leading voice in Aboriginal affairs for decades.
He has achieved a number of Australian milestones: he was the nation’s first Indigenous law graduate in 1974 and first Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander social justice commissioner.
Through his legal career, Professor Dodson helped draft the Native Title Act (1993) and was counsel assisting during the Aboriginal deaths in custody royal commission in the late 80s.
His brother, Pat Dodson, is a federal Labor senator and the Shadow Assistant Indigenous Affairs Minister under Bill Shorten.
Long road to Territory treaty
It has so far been a long and failed road to achieving a treaty – or treaties – between Australia’s Indigenous people and the Government after it was first promised by prime minister Bob Hawke at the 1988 Barunga music festival near Katherine.
But since being elected in 2016, the Michael Gunner-led Northern Territory Government has been on the front foot in trying to establish a path towards how treaties could be forged with various Indigenous clans across the region.
“There will be a treaty between the Northern Territory Government and our first people, should they desire it to be so,” Mr Gunner said at a ceremony in East Arnhem Land in 2018.
“We are in agreement that First Nations peoples of the Northern Territory never ceded sovereignty of their land and waters – it was never given up, it was never bought or sold.
“How a treaty will work will be up to Aboriginal Territorians.”
Land council memorandum to pave way
At the Barunga festival in 2018, 30 years since Mr Hawke’s promise, the NT’s four land councils signed a memorandum of understanding with the NT Government aiming to pave the way for “consultations to being with Aboriginal people about a treaty”.
At the time, Central Land Council chairman Francis Jupurrurla Kelly said he hoped a “treaty will settle us down together and bring us self-determination”.
“Today we bounced the ball but we don’t want to stay the only players in this game,” Mr Kelly said.
The next steps must be led by Aboriginal people across the Territory so that everyone can run with the ball and have their say.”
How the treaty consultation process would work remained unclear.
Professor Dodson told the ABC he was “staying zip” on his thoughts about the mechanics of the role until after a press conference with Mr Gunner on Monday.