In conversation with Dean Parkin, Director at From the Heart

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The Uluru Statement from the Heart is an invitation from First Nations to walk with them, in a movement of the Australian people for a better future. It was issued to the Australian people in May 2017, following almost two years of work. The Uluru Statement calls for structural reform, including constitutional change. Structural reform means establishing a new relationship between First Nations and the Australian nation, based on justice and self-determination. Where Indigenous cultures and peoples can flourish, and we can all move forward.

The Uluru Statement is a "profound gift to all Australians" says Dean. 

We asked Dean to talk us through why that was the case, and what he meant when he said that.

"It comes from a long history of activism, calls for reform, and in change for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities from Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples for many years. When given the opportunity to address this issue, of how to most meaningfully recognise Indigenous peoples in the Australian Constitution, it would have been very easy and, in my view, very understandable for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples to talk about the deficits, to talk purely about the challenges …and what we have lost.

"Yet, one of the most remarkable things that the Uluru Statement does is…it acknowledges that there are significant issues that we still need to address, but it actually says, if we get this right, this isn't just about a mechanistic change to the Constitution, if we get this right….we'll have a fuller expression of Australia's nationhood…and by doing that all Australian's are going to be beneficiaries of the full expression of the Uluru Statement from the Heart. That's why it's a tremendous gift, a tremendous and generous gift, willingly and freely given by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples to the country."

What was it like being involved in the process as a delegate to the convention?

"It was easily the most intense, involved process that I've ever been in…the issues that we have been trying to address, are deep, they're structural and long-term. We've been talking about these issues for a very long time, there's frustration in our communities, but there's also hope. There's always this uneasy tension that we hold, as Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people about frustration about where we are, but still hope and aspiration about where we could be. So, bringing that all together in and around an issue that is so complex as Constitutional change…meant that is was a melting pot of complexity, and trying to deal with that…and allow people to fully express themselves… and generate the richest manifestation that came out in the Uluru statement, was just incredibly emotional, intellectually challenging, culturally rich, complex…and exhausting."

Can you explain the Uluru Statement from the Heart to people who may not be familiar?

"It's about 430 words, but it is a very sophisticated and nuanced document. I would absolutely encourage, everybody to take a quiet moment to sit down and read it, and reflect on it, and read it again; because every time you read it you learn something new.

"The Statement does a number of things in such a short document, it talks about Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders sovereignty, it says "it has never been ceded or extinguished, and co-exists with the sovereignty of the Crown", that's really important…a unanimous theme across every single one of the dialogues…and it is the great unfinished business of Australia… if we acknowledge that there is a number of existing Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Sovereignties around the Country, then we have the overlay of the sovereignty of the British Crown. We as a nation have never come to terms with those two sovereignties living together. Mabo didn't do it, the reconciliation movement hasn't done it, and native title didn't do it; it is still…the unanswered and…unfinished business in Australia.

"It talks about hope…vision…and the fuller expression of Australia's Nation Hood. It talks about challenges, children in out of home care, youth detention, incarceration rates.

"It then lists three substantive reforms that are needed:

  • First Nations voice into parliament, enshrined in the Constitution
  • Treaty making and agreement making
  • Truth telling

"Finally, it invites the people of Australia to join with us…the language is very deliberate. It doesn't say governments, walk with us…This an invitation to every single Australian, and the consequence of that means that the people of Australia have to respond. It is for the people of Australia to respond and say 'yes, we do want to walk with you…to join you with this movement'."

How has the Statement been received by the Government?

"…the Turnbull government at the time, rejected the Uluru Statement in October 2017. I think it realised it made a mistake in doing that quite quickly, because not long after rejecting the statement or apparently rejecting the statement, the Government set up the join select committee, that was chaired by senate Pat Dodson and Julian Leeser from the Liberal Party, to effectively go over the process all over again and make a recommendation to Government.

"…I think it's really important for all of us, not to make assumptions or jump to conclusions about what has and hasn't been ruled out. For us our goal is to continue to work to see the Uluru Statement and particularly the voice to parliament, come to life."

How has the Statement been received by the wider community?

...."the really interesting thing has been the response of people. We saw early on, civil society, the likes of organisations like ACOS, Australian Medication Association, and many others came out with strong support for the Uluru statement. We then saw corporate Australia come out really strong as well, and organisations like KWM, were very much part of that, law firms, the big advisory firms, investment banks, super funds, the lot, have come out in public support.

"But it's been the individual people, the community conversations that have continued to happen. We see the letters to editors and the regional newspapers, from people from the most unlikely sources, supporting and expressing their support and saying:'look this is an eminently sensible, practical, fair proposal that's put on the table, it's fundamentally a fair proposal from Aboriginal and Torres Strait islander people to the people of Australia'. When it all boils down, Australian's are fair minded people, and when they look at that they see it…and go there's nothing to fear here, and everything to gain. So that conversation has been on-going… and gives us the most encouragement…this has been an organic people's movement, so it's hugely encouraging, and we think there's a lot of latent support there."

There was significant work done in the background, in different forums and different processes, can you tell us a bit more about the different processes that led to the Statement?

"There's been a number of formal processes that have taken place, particularly since sort of 2011/2012, with the establishment of the expert panel into Indigenous constitutional recognition. There was a joint parliamentary committee that was co-chaired by Ken Wyatt, and then Senator Nova Peris. There's been the Kirribilli statement in 2015, and obviously the referendum counsel did a lot of its work in 2016/17. But it's really important to understand that when you go back to many of the enquiries and…reports…around the Royal Commission into Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Deaths in Custody in 1991, every single enquiry, and all the recommendations say the same thing. The thing that will shift the position of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in this country is genuine empowerment, and the genuine expression of self-determination of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples over their own affairs…so, when the Uluru Statement comes back with a First Nations voice, enshrined in the Constitution…nobody who has been around these issues for any period of time is surprised. It's a continuum, of what's been called for many years, and the challenge now is to stop talking about these things, and to actually address it."

Is the sequence of Voice, Treaty, Truth, important? If so why? And briefly if you could just tell us what exactly are each of those key elements, so people actually really understand those components?

The sequencing is important. We're starting from a position of significant structural disempowerment. When Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander voices are put forward to address things like 'closing the gap', quite often, while the process… may look like it's a genuine engagement or genuine consultation, fundamentally the power balance still rests entirely with Government. So, the effectiveness of those processes can be limited. We need the mechanism to drive that genuine empowerment first, we need a voice…that anchor that is protected by the Australian Constitution that can't just be ignored…[and]…disbanded at the whim of a Government. That has the continuity, certainty and confidence to be able to speak freely and openly about what we need to speak freely and openly about.

"Treaty - the Makarrata Commission… is effectively setting up a process…a framework which these conversations around agreement making…[and]…treaty making can happen with a sense of order, and a sense of a fair understanding and distribution of the power dynamics between Governments and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples. 

".…it's not a reasonable or fair thing when one party in that negotiation has all the power, and the other power is effectively forced to accept what is put on the table. It's not just about the transaction… it's about the relationship between the two parties. The Makarrata Commission would help even that power imbalance, so that when we do talk about treaties, the process is fair and allows Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people to exercise genuine self-determination in that process.

"[when]…we talk about Truth telling, this was just something that was so important to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people throughout the referendum council dialogue process. The idea that the full truth of our history, our shared history in this nation, is not told, it is not taught, it is not shared or appreciated…The precolonial history…[of]…our society, our civilisations that existed before British Colonisation, and obviously talking about the post-colonial experience as well; the frontier wars…the genocides and dispossession…and as well as the strengths of our communities…Some people have said to me: 'we should just do truth telling, it's the easiest…' and to an extent there will be truth telling all the way through this. But I think, look at the Bruce Pascoe situation - that shows how hard this is going to be, this goes to our core questions as to who we are, as Australian's. That's not going to be easily changed and that's not going to be easily influenced.

"We need these structural, components in place in my view, before we really wrestle with this question of Australia, who we are as a people, our connection to each other, our connection to this land. So, that's why those reforms have been ordered in such a way."

Why a legislated voice really is an inferior option?

"Well we've seen versions of that before. The most pertinent one in peoples' minds throughout the dialogues and for a long time has been ATSIC. ATSIC was touted as a genuine kind of structural attempt at the self-determination for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, but it was all an illusion. In 2005, the Government decided that ATSIC had run its course, and by ministerial decree… one day it was in existence and the next day it wasn't; and people have not forgotten that.

"…where are we now 15 years down the track? Well we've gone backwards…definitely on the question of Indigenous empowerment…self-determination of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people taking more control over their lives, they've got less control over their lives than when ATSIC was in existence.

"We can't afford those mistakes anymore, we haven't been able to afford them in the past and we certainly can't afford them now, we can't afford to just do away with structures that are aimed at dealing with intergenerational issues like children in out-of-home care; you're not going to solve those issues in an electoral term. That's why we need the continuity of a constitutionally enshrined voice. 

"It does two things:

  • It gives us security so that it can't be done away with, because it's going to have to speak some hard truth to governments. We've needed to speak hard truths for a long, long time, we are still after 12 years of closing the gap…the single biggest strategy designed to address Indigenous disadvantage in the country and we're at 2 out 7 in terms of the targets…It needs to survive beyond governments
  • The very act of going to a referendum will draw another line in the sand, in much the very same way that in my view, that the marriage equality campaign and the plebiscite did to the rights of LQBTIQ+…The act of the Australian people getting behind and saying yes, we support you, this is fair; drew a line in the sand, we're never going to go back from that now…A referendum will do the same thing, I believe it will be successful and I believe it will draw a new line in the sand in terms of the relationship between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and the rest of the nation, by going through that process to enshrine it in our constitution.

"I look at that with hope; because I think that's going to be a wonderful moment for our nation."

What is our current status and what needs to happen next?

"…The Government has embarked on a process of codesign, it's established three groups: a senior advisory group, that oversees the process and advises Minister Ken Wyatt on that process. They're overseeing a process of two co-design committees, one that's looking at…what does the national component of the voice…look like, and then…a committee which is looking at the regional and local structures, what could those arrangements look like.

"The real challenge that we have or the real opportunity that we have, is to make sure that we are reinforcing the need for the Constitutional enshrinement, that we are supporting the process to ensure that it gives primacy to the voice of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in that process, and encourage that as much as we possibly can. And there's also a corresponding need to continue the education process with the Australian people.

"We have…to reinforce and continually reiterate to the Australian people, why our voice is important; the need; and to then continue to have the conversation about why it needs to empower Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander voices; how that will support better decision making, the better allocation of resources…and that it will be an asset to the people of Australia, a better sense of who we are as a nation.

"There are urgent things that we as people as individuals, as communities, as a nation, need to look out for and look out for each other and support each other to get through this time, and I don't make light of that at all."

What can major corporates and organisations do to support the Uluru Statement?

"…We've had already over the last couple of years the public statements of support, and that's very important in keep the agenda moving. What I think is really important now is obviously the working arrangements of many Australian's has changed, and… people are spending more time online, so I think there's an opportunity there to reinforce that there are things that people can read and learn about…I'd be encouraging corporates who have been active in supporting the Uluru statement from the heart, to encourage their employees to look at the resources, look at the reports, read the Statement, read the referendum councils final report, use that time to inform themselves in more detail.

"There is a bit of work going on at the moment to put a website up with a bit more information there that people can access in an easier way, and we'll be hopefully be in a position to announce that soon."

Click here to read the Uluru Statement from the Heart

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