Chair of the Aboriginal Land Council of Tasmania, Michael Mansell, has made his feelings clear on the exit of Tasmanian Premier Will Hodgman, labelling his tenure in the top job a “bitter disappointment”.
Hodgman resigned earlier this month after six years as Premier and 14 years as the leader of the state’s Liberal Party.
His swift exit from politics surprised many, however Hodgman said he wishes to spend more time with family.
“I have given the job … absolutely everything.
“It is undeniable that it has an impact on my family, and I thank them for their amazing support for the 17 and a half years I have been a Member of Parliament – our children’s whole lives,” the former Premier said in his resignation speech.
While Hodgman took the opportunity to list his achievements with the State Government in his speech, Mansell was not convinced the Premier ever cared about fostering a positive relationship with Tasmania’s Indigenous population.
“Will Hodgman almost single-handedly set back the reconciliation process [more] … than any other Premier in 50 years,” Mansell said.
“[He] ranks among the worst Tasmanian Premiers who ever dealt with Aboriginal people.”
Mansell alleged the Premier had no commitment to land returns or keeping the Aboriginal Legal Service in the state, among others.
Minister for Aboriginal Affairs, Roger Jaensch, told NIT the Government is committed to “resetting the relationship with Tasmanian Aboriginal communities” and that Hodgman’s Government delivered on some of that commitment during his time as Premier, including constitutional recognition and focusing on Tasmanian Aboriginal culture and history in the Australian Curriculum.
“We have amended the [State] Constitution to acknowledge the Aboriginal people as Tasmania’s First People, and now every day at the start of Parliament, we acknowledge our first Tasmanians.
“We have completed a review of the dual naming policy; have finalised the new Aboriginal employment strategy and introduced a new, more inclusive approach to eligibility,” Minister Jaensch said.
In stark contrast to Mansell’s comments, the Tasmanian Regional Aboriginal Communities Alliance (TRACA) thanked the outgoing Premier for his leadership that “embedded fairness and equity into policy development”.
“[Hodgman’s] work has started to address the internal oppression that exists across Tasmania providing space for local Aboriginal communities to speak for themselves,” said a statement from TRACA Co-Chairs, Dr Patsy Cameron and Rodney Dillon.
“[He] has been instrumental in providing a space for all Tasmanian Aborigines to be consulted and engaged.”
Outspoken on the lack of land being returned to Traditional Owners in Tasmania, Mansell said Hodgman “did not deliver a handful of soil” in the six years he was Premier.
“He effectively killed the momentum of land returns by making a promise six years ago that he never kept,” Mansell said.
Tasmanian Minister for Aboriginal Affairs, Minister Roger Jaensch, said Hodgman did return land as Premier, however.
“In December 2015, then Premier Hodgman, as Minister for Aboriginal Affairs, declared nirmena nala, a rock shelter in the Derwent Valley, to be Aboriginal land,” Minister Jaensch said.
“We want to see more land returned to Tasmanian Aboriginal communities and reviewing the model for returning land is a crucial part of the Tasmanian Government’s Reset Agenda.”
The Aboriginal Affairs Minister neglected to answer NIT’s questions about how many applications for returned land are pending votes from the Tasmanian Parliament.
When asked in particular about the West Coast Aboriginal Landscape and the Bay of Fires, two significant areas Mansell said are yet to be returned to Traditional Owners, Minister Jaensch did not comment, instead saying the Tasmanian Government “has a genuine desire to make a positive difference”.
Mansell said although the Aboriginal Land Council of Tasmania had been vocal about having those areas returned for a number of years, their calls for consideration were ignored.
“We’ve been pretty consistent … We’ve identified the West Coast Aboriginal Landscape consistently since 2013 when the Federal Labour Government declared that whole area … as protected under federal law for its unique Aboriginal cultural values.
“We’ve constantly reminded successive governments that they should hand that back.”
Mansell said the ALCT wrote letters, had delegates meet with then Premier Hodgman, however ultimately received no response on the matters.
A particular point of contention for Mansell included the move of the Aboriginal Legal Service (ALS) from Tasmania to Victoria.
The Land Council Chair alleged Hodgman refused to support ALS remaining in the state.
“There were a number of different employment issues where it looked like Tasmania was going to lose … [contracts].
“Contracts were being taken away from Tasmania and being placed on the mainland. The Premier was very adamant that these Tasmanian employment contracts should stay in Tasmania, but when it came to the Aboriginal Legal Service he just sat there silently.”
Mansell believes the main reason the ALS was moved to Victoria was because in Tasmania, the Service was an actively political body.
“[The ALS] pushed for law reform and got changes to the fishery laws, we got drunkenness decriminalised,” Mansell said.
“Since it moved to Victoria … it’s a much more amenable arrangement for local politicians.”
Questions put to the Premier’s Office by NIT about then Premier Hodgman’s stance on the move were not answered.
New year, new Premier
With new Premier Peter Gutwein already sworn in, Mansell has high hopes the Tasmanian Government will take responsibility for the state’s relationship with its Aboriginal population.
“If he treats Aboriginal people with respect and dignifies the position that we’re in, it means that he can advance the cause of Reconciliation based on justice,” Mansell said.
“We’ve already suggested [Gutwein] should reinstate himself as the Minister for Aboriginal Affairs where the previous Premier dumped the Aboriginal Affairs portfolio.”
TRACA also welcomed Gutwein as the new Premier, however called for him to retain Minister Jaensch as Aboriginal Affairs Minister.
“Minister Jaensch has worked closely with TRACA communities in building solid relationships and responding to policy concerns,” the statement read.
Gutwein was Treasurer in Hodgman’s Government as well as Minister for Environment, Parks and Heritage, and will continue as Treasurer and Premier in his own Government.
NIT understands Minister Jaensch will remain in his role as Minister for Aboriginal Affairs.
By Hannah Cross