Listen to young people: The impact of our voices

Dean Parkin is from the Quandamooka peoples of Minjerribah (North Stradbroke Island) in Queensland. Dean was closely involved in the process that resulted in the historic Uluru Statement from the Heart and continues to advocate for constitutional and structural reform as Director of From the Heart

Image: From the Heart

Dean will be a key speaker at the ECA National Conference ‘Passion to power: Our future profession’, 5–8 October 2022, in Canberra, ACT. ECA caught up with him to ask a few questions about his work and what he would like conference participants and virtual delegates to take away from his address. 

Warning: This story mentions Aboriginal peoples who have died.

ECA: Why is constitutional enshrinement of the First Nations Voice vital?

Dean Parkin: It’s important to remember this conversation around the voice to parliament came about because we’ve been wrestling as a nation with this question of recognising Indigenous peoples for a long time, decades now. 

The Uluru Statement came at the end of that process. It was basically Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples saying, if we are going to finally and formally recognise Indigenous peoples as the first peoples of this country in the Constitution, then it’s got to be meaningful. It’s got to have an impact on the lives of our people. 

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, through the Uluru Statement from the Heart, said the only meaningful option for constitutional recognition is an Indigenous voice to parliament. This is the will expressed by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples—that a voice is the most meaningful and appropriate form of recognition. 

The second thing is the enshrinement means the voice must exist regardless of who’s in government. It means it can sit above politics; it doesn’t have to sit on a knife’s edge at every election, waiting to see which party is elected. It can act with the security and stability of a constitutional guarantee to really start to address the issues that need a lot of focus and are going to take some time to fix. 

We’re not going to fix, for example, over-representation in the justice system in a three-year term of parliament. It needs to go beyond just a single term of parliament and be able to provide advice on an ongoing basis. A constitutional guarantee means the voice will have the security and confidence it needs to do its work over the long term.

ECA: From the Heart’s mission is to see Australia realise the principles laid out in the Uluru Statement—Voice, Treaty, Truth. How far are we as a nation on this journey?

Dean Parkin: Well, in some ways, this has been a very long conversation. These issues of a voice to parliament, of a real voice for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, the idea of making treaties and the idea of real truth-telling in this country have been talked about for a very long time. 

For example, the question on the truth aspect, we have a conversation now on the 26th of January every single year, and that conversation has been going on for more than 100 years. That’s a very long time that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and non-Indigenous Australians have been saying we need to think differently about the 26th of January and what it means for all Australians. So that’s just an example of how long these issues of voice, treaty and truth have been going. 

The really encouraging thing, and in some ways, there’s been movement on all three, there’s certainly movement on treaties at a state level with respect to Victoria and now Queensland and other states. Truth-telling is happening at different levels, local community levels and others. And there’s real momentum now around this question of Indigenous constitutional recognition through a voice. We’ve got a prime minister and a government committed to it. And so, on that part of the journey, we are quite advanced and quite close to that goal of a successful referendum on a voice.

ECA: What role would constitutional recognition have for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children and their futures?  

Dean Parkin: I had the great privilege of being at the Gurindji Freedom Day Festival out at Kalkarindji in the Northern Territory, the site of the famous Wave Hill Walk-off led by Uncle Vincent Lingiari and very brave Gurindji and other mobs that were up there in 1966. A very large contingent of young people were there to experience the festival. I was very inspired by what they had to say about this. As young people, they know what it is like, to be referred to, and be talked about in positive ways. You know, with this idea of we’ve got to do things for the young people, this is all about the young people. They’re used to hearing about all that without actually being recognised as the people who need to speak up on their own issues. They were talking very strongly about what constitutional recognition would mean to them as young people finally being recognised for who they are, for what they have to offer, for the strengths they have. I think listening to them and what it meant to them was one of the most inspiring things out of the whole weekend and we’ve got to do more of it. We’ve got to set aside our own voices on this and listen to the young people more.

ECA: How can early childhood educators take action and voice their support for the Uluru Statement? 

Dean Parkin: The really important thing is to inform yourself about some of the key aspects of the voice and certainly some of the key things about the referendum that’s right on the agenda now. I understand there’s more to the Uluru Statement than just the voice and the referendum on a voice to parliament, but that’s the thing on our immediate agenda, that’s the thing right on our radar; it’s within the next 18 months of actually achieving that goal out of the Uluru Statement so I’d say absolutely join us in our movement for a successful referendum on a voice to parliament. Take the time to learn more about what’s being proposed. You don’t have to become an expert on this to support it. You don’t have to become an expert on Indigenous governance or how the bureaucracy works with parliament and how Indigenous people fit into that. You don’t have to know all the ins and outs before you get behind and support it, in fact many thousands of people I’ve spoken to over the years have just said, ‘yeah, this just seems like the right thing to do, and it’s within our grasp, and we should do it’. 

I would encourage people to trust in that feeling. I’d encourage them to learn a little bit more. We’ve got information on our website; sign up and subscribe to the website because that’s where we issue updates, and as the campaign builds, as we start to look to engage more and more Australians across the country, we’re going to be running events, we’re going to be seeking volunteers, we’re going to be asking people to share information. I ask that you do that now, through our From the Heart social media channels; follow, like, and share. 

They’re very simple things, but they’re very powerful things in a campaign in terms of generating movement and momentum, so I’d ask people to do that and keep an eye out through those channels for the emerging national campaign that we are building as we speak.

ECA: What is your hope for the future? 

Dean Parkin: I’ve got big dreams for us as a nation. I’ve got big dreams for you, the place of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples within that. I think there is an opportunity for us to make a statement to ourselves about what it means to be uniquely Australian and what it means to be uniquely Australian in the world. Again, this is something I’ve experienced throughout the five years since the Uluru Statement. 

Australians aren’t very good at talking about identity. We get a bit awkward when we talk about what it means to be Australian; sometimes, it can sound offensive. But there is very much a sense of wanting to belong to this land and the waters that have been occupied by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples for 65,000 years. People see the connection and the sense of belonging that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples have to this place and want to share in it and want to be part of that. But they don’t know how and can be quite awkward about how they start to make those steps. They don’t want to make mistakes and don’t want to cause offence. I think when we are successful—it’s very much a when we are successful—in achieving formal recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in the Constitution through a voice to parliament in a referendum within the next 18 months, we’re going to be saying something quite profound about who we are as a nation finally, and formally, very simply after 234 years. 

We’re saying Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples are the first peoples of this country. And that gives us an opportunity, no matter who we are, as Australians, to connect our story to the Indigenous story of this country. To connect our story to 65,000 years of unbroken, continuous connection, and I think that’s something that people quietly would really like to be part of. I think that’s an opportunity for everybody. So I’m hoping, when we’re successful, people can feel like they can have that connection. We’ll definitely think differently about ourselves as individuals and as a country, and I think it’ll be a wonderful moment.

ECA: Finally, is there a single important idea that you hope people will take away from your keynote presentation at the ECA National Conference?

Dean Parkin: There are many, many Australians who have an enormous amount of goodwill, who want to see a successful referendum on a voice to parliament. The truth of where the Australian people sit on this isn’t to be found in the media, who seek to cause tension and, somewhat, division in this. When we talk to people in communities and on the ground, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and non-Indigenous Australians, there is genuine deep goodwill to want to be part of this—to want to be included in the conversation, to want to be included in the movement towards a referendum and be included in that moment on referendum day when we achieve a historic ‘yes’ vote. 

Trust there is genuine goodwill. Genuine emotional connection. We don’t have to overcomplicate this. This isn’t about flooding people with minute details about constitutions, parliaments, the voice structures and governance. People want to know what they’re voting on, and they’ll know what they’re voting on come referendum day. But make sure we remember that we’re going to win this through people’s hearts. We’ll keep talking to people’s hearts and trying to make people feel welcome and included in this as we move forward. Keep it simple. Remember that there’s goodwill, don’t overcomplicate it and try and encourage as many people to get involved as possible.

ECA Recommends: watch Dean Parkin’s full keynote speech at the ECA National Conference in October. Virtual passes are available now. 

Dean Parkin

Dean Parkin is from the Quandamooka peoples of Minjerribah (North Stradbroke Island) in Queensland. Dean was closely involved in the process that resulted in the historic Uluru Statement from the Heart and continues to advocate for constitutional and structural reform as Director of From the Heart. Formerly an investment analyst at alternative asset investment firm Tanarra Capital, he has extensive experience in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander affairs. He has consulted across the public, corporate, not-for-profit and political sectors at national, regional and local levels. He has advised a range of clients on strategy, engagement and co-design and has commercial experience both in Australia and the UK. Dean has a Bachelor of Arts (Politics and Journalism) degree from the University of Queensland and a Graduate Certificate in Education from the University of Melbourne. He is a Senior Fellow of the Atlantic Fellowship for Social Equity and is an ex-officio member of the Business Council of Australia’s Indigenous Engagement Taskforce.

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