Dean Parkin: what is a Voice to Parliament and why does it matter?
Dean Parkin, Director, From the Heart, talks with SVA CEO Suzie Riddell about the campaign for a First Nations Voice to Parliament to be enshrined in the Australian constitution and why it matters.
Last year with the election of Anthony Albanese as Prime Minister, came the Government’s commitment to the Uluru Statement from the Heart, and most critically, to a referendum for a First Nations Voice to Parliament to be held in this term of government.
This is a once in many-generation opportunity for Australia to embed self-determination for First Nations people in one of Australia’s key founding legal documents.
Issued in May 2017, the Uluru Statement from the Heart is an invitation from First Nations people to all Australians: ‘To walk with us in a movement of the Australian people for a better future.’ Read the full statement.
SVA is a signatory to the Uluru Statement and has had the opportunity to engage with those leading the campaign to build our understanding of the importance of this effort. (See the SVA Quarterly article, The Uluru Statement from the Heart, what now?)
SVA’s belief is that, consistent with the principles of self-determination, the views and perspectives of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and organisations must be prioritised in the constitutional recognition process. We feel that it is important to respect the consensus reached by First Nations peoples in the Uluru Statement and to respond positively to this generous and open invitation to all Australians.
As part of SVA continuing to support and progress the Uluru Statement where we can, Suzie Riddell, SVA’s CEO spoke to Dean Parkin, Director of the From the Heart campaign at SVA’s annual dinner in November last year about the issue.
Suzie Riddell: Dean, you’ve been deeply involved in the process leading up to the Uluru Statement from the Heart. What’s the journey been to date?
Dean Parkin: The important thing to understand about [the] Uluru [Statement from the Heart] is that it’s part of a continuum. Nothing of what we did, Aunty Pat [Anderson], Megan [Davis], Noel [Pearson] and everybody else that was involved in this, was new. This was all part of a continuum. We were just extending a story that had been told for a very long time.
“Uluru was part of a long history.”
When I talk about constitutional recognition as a live, political agenda, we can easily go back 27 years when the now Minister [for Indigenous Australians] Linda Burney was part of a report that was submitted to [then Prime Minister Paul] Keating in 1995 called Recognition Rights and Reform.
It’s a moment of history coming full circle. Linda is the first Indigenous woman to hold the portfolio of Minister for Indigenous Affairs at a federal level. She’s the one responsible for the carriage of the successful referendum on Indigenous constitutional recognition through a Voice, and she was writing a report to the Prime Minister 27 years ago – as part of a group with Aunty Lowitja O’Donoghue as Chair and Uncle Charlie Perkins, who’s no longer with us, part of that process as well.
So Uluru was part of a long history. And it was a phenomenal experience to be part of.
Even now when the campaign gets tough – and it has been tough so far, and we’re at the foothills of how tough this is going to be in the next 12 to 18 months – the thing that holds me in good stead is having a fantastic team around. But it’s going back to those rooms when people were giving their hearts, their minds, their souls, their spirits, their culture, their history, to what then became The Uluru Statement from the Heart.
This started from people saying, ‘We need to deal with recognition in a meaningful way, and we need to address the challenges that are facing too many of our community.’ So that’s where the mob came out with a really practical reform for real recognition.
As someone that’s been involved in that process, there’s been a lot of tough work. We – and when I say ‘we’ I mean the collective we of Megan, Aunty Pat, Noel, Thomas Mayor and others who have been grinding away on this – we were not the popular agenda for a long time. That work was tough but it was necessary to get us to where we’ve got to now.
Since Prime Minister Albanese stood up in May  at the top of his acceptance speech and said he commits to all three elements of The Uluru Statement from the Heart and a referendum on the Voice, it changed the game. We’ve now got prime ministerial capital into an issue. We cannot underestimate how important that is to this agenda.
We are rapidly building the infrastructure to carry the biggest national campaign this country has ever seen. We’re really positive and really excited about what’s ahead of us.
“… the reality of this campaign is that there is going to be a black and white, yes/no end. We’re going to know.”
Suzie Riddell: When you think about the long road that’s already been travelled, and then describe being at the foothills, where do you go to for what keeps you going?
Dean Parkin: You’ve got to put it in the context that there’s an end in sight. We know that there’s lots more work to do, there’s many more agendas that are running alongside. But the reality of this campaign is that there is going to be a black and white, yes/no end. We’re going to know.
Then you’ve got to understand the context of where the country is at.
We’ve done a lot of work over the last three years in particular, working alongside a whole bunch of people that are helping us understand where the Australian people are, where our supporters are, where our opponents are, and where is that really big opportunity group in the middle; those that are softly for us, that are undecided, and are sort of softly ‘nos’ at this time.
We’re getting better at knowing exactly where they are. So we’re clear on the goal, we’re clear on the timeframe, we’re increasingly clear on where the opportunity spaces are, and we’re rapidly building the team, the infrastructure and the machinery to pull this off.
Increasingly I’m going to the broader campaign team that are doing the hard work to push this along, because we’ve got some fabulous people and they’re generating an enormous amount of confidence. So it’s very exciting.
It’s a matter of privilege for all of us involved; you don’t get this shot very often. There’s a huge weight of responsibility, I feel that acutely. We all do. But that is at least matched, if not bettered, by the sense of what we can achieve together.
Suzie Riddell: Tell us more about constitutional recognition, what does that look like for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people?
Dean Parkin: Well it’s through the Voice. We’ve been talking about constitutional recognition for a very long time. And it’s a very simple concept. We’ve got to be aware and a bit savvy about this. There’s some effort trying to make this more complicated and challenging than it actually is. Don’t be distracted. Understand this is a very simple concept: recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples as the first peoples of this country. It’s not a statement of politics, it’s not a statement of morality, it’s not an argument, it’s a fact: 65,000 years of history. The oldest continuous culture on earth. A very simple recognition of that in the Australian Constitution.
“The outcome will be better laws and policies that are more suited to achieving the outcomes that we all want to see.”
And the most meaningful way that we can do that is through a constitutionally guaranteed Voice. Again, this is not rocket science. It’s a simple concept. Bringing the voices of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples who know how their communities work, who know how their families work, closer to where decisions are being made, to where policies and laws are being made about their families and their communities. The outcome will be better laws and policies that are more suited to achieving the outcomes that we all want to see. All of us want to see. Our mob in particular. Better outcomes for the families and the communities on the ground.
We’re going to get better value for taxpayer spend on this. And I can guarantee you, throughout the dialogues, everyone talks about the amount of money that’s spent on Indigenous Affairs – it’s a misleading number that gets touted about $33/$34 billion, the accounting on it is quite creative – but I can guarantee you that the people who most want to see better impact for that spend is Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. We want greater accountability for the outcomes on the ground. We want real recognition and we do that through practical means through a Voice. We get the symbolism, and we get the practical change, which is a very good deal for the nation.
Suzie Riddell: Lots of people don’t agree with you, and the media loves painting ‘the diversity of opinions of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders’. What’s your advice on responding to different opinions?
Dean Parkin: A couple of things: you’ve already been invited. You’ve got an open invitation sitting in front of every single one of you. This decision can’t be outsourced to the government. The invitation is not to them. It’s to every single one of you and your families and your communities and your workplaces.
It’s up to you to decide how you wish to respond to that invitation. That’s the first thing. You don’t need another invitation, you don’t need to seek permission from anybody else; it’s already there. And I say this for a couple of reasons.
… we’re not allowed to have differences of opinions without being told we are a divided people.”
We have a problem in the way that we categorise Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples; it just rolls off the tongue, yes, multiple nations, multiple language groups, huge diversity, no one-size-fits-all.
But we’re not allowed to have differences of opinions without being told we are a divided people. Everybody else creates institutions to deal with their difference of opinion. We [Australia] have parliaments, senates and political parties and think tanks and a whole bunch of institutions in recognition of the fact that people and communities and societies have differences of opinion, and that’s part of a healthy society, it’s part of a healthy nation. But for us, it’s a sign of bad health, it’s division.
So let’s just cut through and burst that bubble. There’s going to be different opinions of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. It’s normal. And in fact on an issue of this level of significance, it is necessary. It would be problematic if there wasn’t debate, if there wasn’t competing ideas.
What does it mean for you as a supporter? This is where being an ally gets a bit tougher, and we make no apologies for that; we need you to step up and into this. You’ve been given a massively generous historic invitation from Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples through the Uluru Statement from the Heart.
You want to believe in it. You want to accept that invitation. And yet you’re going to walk into a room or you’re going to be in a conversation where you will come across another Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander person that says, ‘I don’t believe in the Uluru Statement. I don’t believe in recognition. I don’t believe in a Voice.’
“What we’re saying to our allies is that’s what we’re asking you: to take it to that next level and hold that conviction…”
I’ve been in rooms where that’s happened. And I’ve watched some of our allies freeze, paralysed, ‘What do I do?’ It’s OK. You’re allowed to believe. You’re allowed to have conviction. You are allowed to accept the invitation and acknowledge that there are going to be different views amongst Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in this, and hold that respectfully. You can do both.
What we’re saying to our allies is that’s what we’re asking you: to take it to that next level and hold that conviction, because we have to. I have to deal with the fact that my own people disagree with me on this, and that’s OK because I know where this has come from, I know that the invitation is there, and that this is something that we can hold in and amongst some of those different opinions.
Participant: What’s your advice to each of us in this room when we run up against the argument for voting no is because of the lack of detail?
Dean Parkin: Let me just say straight up, everyone will know what they’re voting on come referendum day. Everyone will know.
We’ve been pushing constitutional recognition for a very long time. We’ve been thinking about this for a very long time. We know the conditions and what the history has said around referendums in the past, “If you don’t know, vote no.” We know who’s ready to roll those sorts of arguments out. There will be a staged process that people have a rational reinforcement of what they’re feeling emotionally around this issue.
“It is values driven. It’s connected to… that deep, powerful Aussie motto of a fair go. And… to people wanting to be part of a more inclusive nation.”
As Noel [Pearson] said in his first Boyer lecture – most people don’t know Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in our communities, they don’t have Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander friends or family. The empathy, the connection’s not there. They don’t read the Closing the Gap reports. In fact, we’d probably be astounded by how many people don’t even know what Closing the Gap is. And yet they know, in their hearts, that things can and should be better for far too many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. They get it intuitively, they understand that things aren’t right. And we know through the last five years of conversations and engagements across the board, and our own research, there has been a sustained and deep sense of goodwill towards this issue across vast tracts of the Australian population.
It is values driven. It’s connected to people’s sense – that deep, powerful Aussie motto of a fair go. And it’s connected to people wanting to be part of a more inclusive nation.
We might not always act that way. But we want to be known as an inclusive peoples, as an inclusive nation. And this issue is touching that.
So when you hear some of the commentators – and they are more cynically minded at this point in time, saying detail, detail, detail – they are miles ahead of where the voters are.
The voters – everybody out there – they’re miles behind. They’re feeling like this is something that they could be part of. So understand that at this point in time what we need to do is to build upon that sense of goodwill. We’ve got to continue to strengthen those emotional bonds between the majority of the population and this issue. And that’s where the idea of constitutional recognition as part of this equation is really strong. That’s the bit that’s tickling the emotional drivers. I’ve stopped assuming people’s views on this thing because I’ve been proven wrong too many times.
We don’t talk about Australian identity very much. We don’t cry like the Argentinians do when they hear the national anthem. We don’t do the flag waving like the Americans do. And yet when you talk to some people about this issue of recognition and they’re making the leap themselves and they say, “We do this very simple and very modest recognition of Indigenous peoples as the first peoples of this country, that’s something that every Australian can connect their story to, about what it genuinely and uniquely means to be Australian in the world. We’re not the only democracy. We’re not the only country that’s been colonised by the British. We’re not the only country with nice beaches and breweries and wineries and a fair go and mateship. We are the only country that’s got connection to the oldest continuous culture on earth.” And that’s the part of the story that people are getting animated about with respect to how they fit into this picture.
So that goodwill is deep.
“… we’ve got to avoid overcomplicating it because detail is not the answer.”
On the detail question, the trajectory is not to hammer people with 100-page documents on indigenous governance and how the bureaucracy works. It is to bring them into the story and make them feel included in this conversation. And when people are genuinely saying they want to know more detail, it’s not actually detail they want – because they won’t read the report, they won’t know the difference between a good mechanism to elect people versus one to appoint them. They want to know that it’s going to have a practical impact, that it’s going to be genuinely grassroots, and that it’s going to make a difference, and they want to know that it’s something that they can be part of.
I’m oversimplifying it a bit, but we’ve got to avoid overcomplicating it because detail is not the answer. We’ll have to get to the point where there’s enough rational reinforcement that people will be able to trust that feeling that they have in their hearts that this is the right thing to do.
You can watch the video of the conversation here.
About a Voice to Parliament
A First Nations Voice to Parliament enshrined in the Australian constitution would provide a permanent institution for expressing First Nations’ views to the parliament and government on important issues affecting First Nations people. The Uluru Statement also seeks a Makarrata Commission to supervise a process of agreement-making with Australian governments and oversee a process of truth-telling about Australia’s history and colonisation. Makarrata is a Yolgnu word meaning ‘a coming together after a struggle’. These reforms are summarised in three words: Voice, Treaty, Truth.
For more information, go to From the Heart website.