Get to know former Justice Commissioner of the Australian Human Rights, Mick Gooda, ahead of our Changing the Conversation at the Queensland Performing Arts Centre where he is headlining a panel of thought leaders and advocates to talk about one of the most important conversations of this generation: the Indigenous Voice to Parliament.

The proud Gangulu man spoke about what he learned from his time working on the railways, his ideal dinner guest list, and the last time he changed his mind about something controversial.

You have been advocating for First Nations Peoples’ rights to equitable access to public health services. You’ve said that the ‘poor state of our First Nations people’s health is a human rights issue.’ Have you often wondered why it takes generations for people to understand what is simply right or wrong?
It goes back to how this country was colonised. They said that’s why the British justified colonising. This country was called Terra Nullius, which means ‘empty land’ and no one had lived here. However, there were countless people when the British first came here.

When you start from that position, that takes a long time to start asserting your rights. We will always assert our rights but it takes a long time for the colonisers to recognise your rights. It’s goes way back to how this country was colonised.

You previously said, “You do not ask for sovereignty you assert for it. We don’t wait for people to give it to us.” How has that influenced you in the way you negotiate anything with other people?
Absolutely, no one can give you your sovereignty. You can’t go in with cap in hand if you’re negotiating as a sovereign. You’ve got to assert yourself as having rights to do this. Now, whether the other side recognises those rights or not, it’s irrelevant to the way I would go in and negotiate rights.

We say we have a right to be here. We have a right to we have an equal right. To access services, good health services; we have equal rights to have our voices heard. So I think the important part is if you’re gonna sit around and wait for permission to assert your rights, you’re gonna be waiting a long time in these societies.

Let’s talk about your journey to leadership at the now abolished Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission (ATSIC). You’ve said,” I reckon I am going to be the last person in Australia that will start with opening mail and end up running an agency. I don’t think it is going to be done like that anymore.” What part of that journey do you value the most?
Well, these days you know, people have all gone to uni. I didn’t have access to university. No one in my family went to university. But these days we have lots of people going to uni, getting qualified to go and do jobs like I did as head of an agency.

Whereas I’d learned on the job. Not many people learn on the job these days. And I think I come from a background of, I was a labourer on the railways. I worked in telecom building towers and putting radio stations in. I think that set me up in a good way having to deal with people on the ground, dealing with things like industrial issues. I come from a position that I’m used to the practical side of it.

So when the time came to hit ‘enter’ into those leadership positions, I was ready for it because of the work I did. Other people get ready in different ways these days. But I’m proud of the way I did it. People say oh, “You worked on the railway. What is? Were you an engineer?” I was a labourer. I’m proud of that. And you’re showing people that anything’s possible if you’re applying yourself.

You were a member of National Museum Australia’s Indigenous Advisory Community. Are you an artist yourself?
No, I can’t even draw stick people. [Laughs]. That’s probably the last thing you should call me.

But you are patron of the arts.
Yes, I am! A woman that I really follow was once asked what the definition of happiness was. And her definition was ‘being comfortable with your limitations.’ And I’m comfortable with my limitations. I’m not an artist, but I can support artists and the people who can do that. And that’s why I think I enjoy that stuff. It’s not my thing, but I can set organisations up to support them.

And that’s the essence of difference in our society, you know? It’s okay to be different.

What has been the most honest piece of art you’ve seen? One that’s truly a conversation starter?
Oh, there’s so much of it, mate. I can’t really pick one piece out! But when you go to Central Australia, and you see art there. It’s a representative of our people’s country.

I’ve seen people get on planes – we’ve done a lot of flying in Central Australia – and they’ll sit there and go, “I can see that representation down there! How did these people get this feel of this country where we are 2000 feet up in the air looking down!” These [Indigenous artists], who didn’t fly, were able to represent that same thing. And that inspires me when people say, “Well, how do they do that?!”

What to you is the best way to start a difficult conversation at, let’s say, a dinner party?
[Long pause] It’s hard. I will start by saying it’s about time we started to come to terms with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in this country. We’ll come to terms properly. And that means conceding a few things. There’s a million ways you can start this conversation that always leads to the same space.

I’ve never thought about it and I generally just get up and talk about it. I generally say, “This is what I’ve learned. This is where I’ve gone and this is what I’ve done.” I think you’ve got to set it up and say ‘we’re going to have a difficult conversation. I want everyone to walk away from here feeling safe.’ And then it’s not that difficult. They can get a little bit scared, but it’s not that difficult.

Who would you be your ideal guests at a party to talk about difficult conversations?
All depends on how you want the dinner party to end. If you wanted to be fired up, you put Tony Abbot and Pauline Hanson in the room. [Laughs]

But if I wanted something constructive out of it. I’ll be talking to people like Ian Fraser, who won a Nobel Prize for developing a vaccine for women. I’d be talking to people like the former CEO of the Human Rights Commission, Padma Raman, who is an Indian woman who came to Australia and now heads the domestic violence research organisation ANROWS and talk about how do we change the attitudes towards domestic violence in this country. People like Mr. [Percy] Brown from Fitzroy Crossing, a cultural leader over there you know.

To the Aboriginal people, it cannot be ‘one-trick-ponies’. We’ve got to be covering a whole range: land rights, domestic violence, employment. So, I’d like people who challenge things.

When was the last time you changed your mind about something important?
Oh, that’s easy. In 2019, I went to Canada. My daughter had gone to do one semester over in Canada and they had legalised marijuana. I was totally against all drugs being legalised. And I went and saw how it worked. And I’m now an advocate for legalising drugs in Australia.

One that’s proving to be a huge test of how Australia reconciles varying views is the upcoming referendum on the Indigenous Voice to Parliament. What has been the most surprising argument you’ve heard so far about it?
We shouldn’t have: What are we doing bringing race in the Constitution?

We’ve had race in the Constitution since 1901! Race has always been in the Constitution. It’s called the Race Power. It’s in section 5126. We’re probably the only liberal democracy in the world whose Constitution gives our parliament the power, the authority to make laws that are racist. And these people go, “Oh we don’t want to put the Aboriginal Voice in because we don’t want race there.” I said, “Mate, we’ve had race in there forever. You blokes put it in there, your forefathers – and they were fathers, there were no women involved in this – put that in.”

I’ve read all the transcripts of the constitutional conventions back in the day. And they put it in there because ‘we have to control the lesser and darker races.’ If that’s not race, I don’t know what is.

How do you rate the level of engagement we have at the moment on the Voice?
Yeah, it has to be a lot better. It’s not ideal. I think once we understand what the question is, it’s simple to answer. We’ve got to convince to get that double majority to change the constitution, a majority of Australian, a majority of states.

Where do the efforts fall short on getting more people to engage?
At the moment, it’s a political and hard discussion. It’s got to be put out as a community discussion. We know we’ve got to do this politics. But soon we’ve got to move to the community.

Once the politics finishes, like when the bill is tabled in Parliament to set the Constitution, we’ll know what the question is. And we’ll know when it’s gonna be conducted, and we know when it’s gonna run, and then we can go forward with it.

Are you optimistic about outcome of this referendum?
You’ve got to be optimistic. If you’re not optimistic, go do something else.

Going back to that dinner party, how do make sure that difficult conversation ends well?
I don’t know how you do it, but I think you’ve got to create a safe space for people to talk.

You’ve got to create a place where everyone can walk away in a dinner party with their dignity and that means an active part on everyone. Not to attack people. Not to be racist, not to be offensive. But you can still put your views forward. A safe space where we can have hard conversations.

Tickets are still available for Changing the Conversation: The Uluru Statement from the Heart on Tuesday 28th March 2023 – click here to secure your seat.

By Celeste Macintosh