An interview with Dean Parkin

“Who we are as a nation - Australians know, in their heart of hearts, this is the outstanding question in this country.’’

An interview with Dean Parkin, director, From The Heart.

Dean Parkin, director, From The Heart. Credit: Sydney Morning Herald, Brian Cassey

It was 1988, the Bicentennial Year, and Dean Parkin was a seven-year-old at central Queensland’s Moranbah East State School. For some Australians, the bicentennial was a celebration of the nation’s seamless history, from a British flag planted on Botany Bay to the stellar arc of the Sydney Harbor Bridge. But for some, most particularly Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, the bicentennial represented a far more complex and confronting history. Dean Parkin was one of those, a child of the Quandamooka mob from Minjerribah (North Stradbroke Island, QLD), who had absorbed the lessons of his people. That year, 1988, he made his first political statement. It was a simple and direct message in his primary school exercise book, in response to his teacher’s question, ‘if I were Prime Minister, I would…’: ““We need land rights. We’ve suffered enough,’’ he wrote. Dean had become an activist in short pants. The die was cast. Thirty-two years later, he is the director of From The Heart, the campaign for change that came from the Uluru Statement and calls for an Indigenous Voice to Parliament protected by the constitution.

Dean’s path to his current role makes perfect sense when he explains the history of his mob, that has been distinguished by its desire to resist, to build a case for change and to stay the course.

“We’re a very proud people, very strongly connected to land, waters and the story of our country,’’ Dean says. “We’ve had various waves of colonialism, when Brisbane and Moreton Bay was first colonised, there was a mission on country, the Benevolent Asylum on country.

“We were right at the forefront of colonialism but because our country was an island in the bay, while our experience was still harsh, it was different for the people in Brisbane and Sydney. We were right there at the pointy end of the spear so to speak and yet we were able to retain that cultural connection to our place. We have a long history of resistance and fighting for our people and fighting for our land,’’ Dean says.

The Dunwich Benevolent Asylum experience was a case in point. The North Stradbroke Island Museum, on whose board Dean’s mum Evelyn is a director, tells the story of how the local Quandamooka people were hired as staff at the asylum to do a range of jobs, some menial tasks, others including carpentry and running the local power station. But many of them were paid in part rations, part wages. They launched a campaign with union help, and after many years of petitions to the Medical Superintendent and the Home Secretary, managed to secure a victory that meant the workers were finally paid equal wages. That was 1925, but there would be on-going debates and flare-ups over wages, but the locals wouldn’t take a backward step.

Dean, and his three siblings – including 2018 Commonwealth Games’ medal designer Delvene Cockatoo-Collins – were raised in Moranbah, a small coal mining town in Queensland, where the issues of the day were always close to the surface. Dean was 14. It was 1995, after the Mabo land rights decision, and Pauline Hanson had just started her political career at the Ipswich City Council. In the midst of it all, Dean found himself the target of racist abuse in the schoolyard. One boy picked him out. “You’re not going to take my backyard Mabo!,’ the kid said, and swung a punch at Dean’s head.  There was no retaliation: Dean walked away with a bruised cheek. He was more worried about what his Mum would say when he got home.

Dean laid down on the couch at home and hid his swollen cheek from his mother. She knew something was up. She demanded he tell her, so Dean did.

“Mum was in the church, and I just thought she’d hate the idea of a fight. She looked at me and I’ll never forget it – she said: “If anybody ever does that again, you stand your ground and you respond.’’ I couldn’t believe it – it was more shocking than copping the punch, hearing my Mum say, defend yourself, look after yourself, stand up for yourself,’’ Dean recalls. “That message – standing up for yourself and not get pushed around – she knew then that it wasn’t about one-on-one interactions with people but more about your place in this country, in this society. Don’t let yourself get pushed around.’’

What he couldn’t know then – and has learned in the years since that schoolyard stoush – is that the bigger battle he is fighting is one that is set to drag on for his lifetime. “How do you tell a 14-year-old kid that this movement we’re preparing you for is something that you’re not going to see the end of in your lifetime? I’ve only come to terms with that more recently,’’ Dean says. Talk to those in the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities and it’s a common refrain based on years of dialogue with governments where promises made have evaporated or fallen over, pledges lost, priorities shifted, and targets never reached.

Dean understood from his Mum’s example how powerful education could be: she had left school as a young teenager but became a qualified book-keeper and ran a motel business with her husband, Alan. She eventually completed a Masters degree at the Australian Catholic University. Dean went to Brisbane Grammar School, completed an Arts degree at the University of Queensland, before working as a policy advisor, commercial consultant in London, as well as a consultant in corporate strategy and Indigenous development. More recently, he worked with John Wylie at Tanarra Capital as a mid-career rookie investment analyst. Three years ago, he co-facilitated the National Constitutional Convention to craft the Uluru Statement from the Heart, a simple but profound statement of intent to transform the relationship between Indigenous Australia and the rest of the country.

“We seek constitutional reforms to empower our people and take a rightful place in our own country. When we have power over our destiny our children will flourish. They will walk in two worlds and their culture will be a gift to their country. We call for the establishment of a First Nations Voice enshrined in the Constitution.“

Australian philanthropy supported the Uluru Statement in an open letter, in addition to the outpouring of vocal support from thousands of Australians. Its message was taken to Canberra and discussions started with then Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull. In his recent autobiography, Malcolm Turnbull, described the impact the statement had on him: “The ‘Uluru Statement from the Heart’ left me deeply conflicted. It was a beautiful piece of poetry, a cry for a say, for agency, for respect. But it contained no detail at all about how such a Voice would be designed.’’ It meant the Uluru Statement and its proposed Voice to Parliament would not have government support. It was a devastating blow that left Dean deeply despondent.

 “I just had this overwhelming emotion and it wasn’t until after that I realised it was grief,’’ he recalls. “It wasn’t a surface level: ‘Oh bugger kind of disappointment’. It was a deep and profound grief because I was thinking about all of those people who I’d heard through the dialogues, everything they’d shared, and to have this gift so callously and flippantly slapped away, felt like it was slapping away their voices and their hands that were extended in the spirit of national healing. That is what I felt grief for.’’

For all of that, Dean refused to be mired in despair, despite some of the evidence that would give many advocates in other campaigns more than the odd moment to stop and wonder why they were still doing it. “There was an iteration of Closing the Gap targets that were leaked to the media about a month ago that said the government was aiming to reach parity on the justice targets in Australia by 2093,’’ Dean says.

It’s worth pausing to think about – 2093. One hundred and two years after the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody. Eighty-five years after the first Closing the Gap agreement was signed.

“That’s the level of expectation that had passed through two years of negotiations, right up to a few weeks before the agreement was signed, unseen by the broader Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community. For that to be considered a rational proposition in this country in 2020, to pass through the layers of government decision-making - that we’re not going to reach parity for another 73 years - speaks to me of a fundamentally broken system that is bereft of imagination and resigned to the status quo. It shouldn’t just be Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people who are outraged by this.’’ Dean says.

“The socioeconomic changes are going to take time – we know that – and also these questions of identity – who we are as a nation. Australians know, in their heart of hearts, this is the outstanding question in this country - of our own connection to this land and its story, and our connection to each other, in a genuinely unique way of what knowing what it means to be Australian, beyond the superficial jingoism. But first, there must be a full reckoning about the rightful place of Aboriginal Torres Strait Islander people and our relationship with the rest of the nation.

This is what the Uluru Statement promises: With substantive constitutional change and structural reform, we believe this ancient sovereignty can shine through as a fuller expression of Australia’s nationhood.’’

Dean hasn’t lost heart. He believes that much of the resistance to an idea for a Voice to Parliament is based on a false assumption that many Australians are opposed to the idea. “I think our campaign’s early work is showing that the assumption is false,’’ Dean says. “All of the prevaricating and all of the attempts to quash, sideline or dilute the Uluru Statement have been predicated on the idea that the people of Australia won’t accept it. “We’ve done our own work [and] 49 per cent of Australians, without any campaign would vote ‘Yes’ to support it. We surveyed it again in June, and that number rose to 56 per cent. Those locked into opposition to this are only about 10 per cent. And there is a great undecided in the middle who I believe will see a Voice to Parliament as a fair go and a unifying moment for our nation.’’

The next steps are to build on that constituency in the next three years, seeking $30 million in support for a campaign of similar scale to the Marriage Equality movement, with about half of that, ideally, to come from philanthropy. Everyone knows the economic situation is tough but there’s no point sitting back, waiting for the ‘right time’. Dean is up for the challenge. He is of the Quandamooka.

“I don’t know if it’s any harder or any easier than it’s been in any other time. I can’t imagine what it must have been like for Uncle Charlie Perkins and the Freedom Riders when they did what they did. I wouldn’t claim any historical comparison,’’ he says. “What I would say from personal experience is that it is hard – it’s about 90 per cent grind and 10 per cent flashes of real success and particularly when you’re an activist in the Indigenous space when we’re three per cent of the population, just getting sustained focus on our issues is a tough thing to do.’’

But if there’s one thing Dean and other advocates know – this opportunity for a historic turning point in our nation is worth fighting for and Dean won’t be backing away from the fight.

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