Indigenous leader Pat Dodson has been endorsed as a WA senator, with the father of reconciliation demonstrating his diplomacy by defending a Liberal backbencher’s democratic right to make a “bad taste” speech.
The respected Aboriginal elder was opposition leader Bill Shorten’s captain’s pick after right-aligned union stalwart Joe Bullock quit because he opposed Labor’s support for same-sex marriage.
At a special joint sitting of the WA parliament during a four-week recess on Thursday, Professor Dodson, 68, was resoundingly ratified as Mr Bullock’s replacement, with Premier Colin Barnett saying he would be a powerful voice for indigenous people.
But Liberal backbencher Peter Abetz, the older brother of Liberal Senator Eric Abetz, used the open floor to inject controversy into the rare moment of parliamentary solidarity.
Mr Abetz gave a speech against same-sex marriage, suggesting it was not in line with traditional Aboriginal social values and raising Prof Dodson’s Catholic background.
He became Australia’s first ordained Aboriginal Catholic priest in 1975 but left after disagreeing with the church hierarchy over his beliefs about the religion and traditional Aboriginal spirituality.
Mr Abetz’s speech prompted Nationals MP Brendon Grylls to walk out of the chamber in apparent disgust and Liberal MP Phil Edman tweeted he was “embarrassed”, while applause broke out when Upper House president Barry House questioned the relevance of the commentary.
Prof Dodson said Mr House had rightly told the backbencher to stick to the topic at hand, but denied the sitting had been hijacked.
“There was solidarity and a sense of sensitivity with some of the members walking out, particularly from the National Party and others, so I don’t think it detracted from it at all,” he told reporters.
“You could say it was bad taste but we live in a democracy.
“He just wasn’t on point.
“I just don’t believe you should discriminate against people. We shouldn’t be trying to tell people how they ought to think when you’ve never walked in the shoes that they’ve walked.”
Mr Barnett said he apologised to Prof Dodson for Mr Abetz’s comments after the sitting.
“This was Pat Dodson’s day … and I think it was inappropriate,” Mr Barnett said.
Prof Dodson is filling the senate vacancy on a casual basis and will be sworn in on Monday.