PAELS Delegate’s Reflections on Justice and Reconciliation

On November 29, 2023, members of Micah’s Pacific Australian Emerging Leaders network were fortunate enough to hear Senator Pat Dodson’s valedictory speech to Parliament from the seats in the Senate gallery. As today (January 26) marks Senator Dodson’s retirement from politics, our WA delegate Theo Doraisamy, alongside WA FIrst Nations delegates Jasmine Eades and Scott Wilson, have shared their reflections on his remarks and achievements below. 

Two months ago, I arrived in Canberra feeling tired. 

This wasn’t how I felt a year prior; my first visit to Parliament House in Canberra in 2022 was thrilling, especially as a lifelong politics enthusiast.  I had a chance to meet our elected representatives, and champion issues that affected our Pacific region – Climate Change, Self-Determination – how could I not be excited? 

2023 was different – having spent the better part of a year advocating for a First Nations Voice to Parliament, returning to Canberra was daunting. It was hard to shake the grief that my first significant foray into advocacy was unsuccessful – and exposed First Nations peoples and allies (such as myself) to vitriol, racism and harm. 

The thought of Reconciliation itself also became difficult to grapple with. 60% of the general population voted against the Voice, but an overwhelming majority of remote communities voted Yes. How can a nation so divided become reconciled?

It was with this feeling that we walked into Parliament house on November 29, and discovered the unexpected news that Pat Dodson was due to give his valedictory speech to Parliament.

Pat Dodson’s contributions to justice and reconciliation are worthy of respect. While he is known to recoil at the moniker “Father of Reconciliation” out of respect to those who have gone before him, his lasting body of work has etched his name in history alongside William Cooper, Doug Nicholls, Pearl Gibbs, Vincent Lingiari, and so many more. 

In honour of his achievements – inaugural chair of the of the Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation (now Reconciliation Australia), Commissioner into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody, and Envoy for the Referendum, we will share some reflections on his parting words to the Senate, on the day of his retirement.

His words that day sit with me still – “We have the opportunity now to approach reconciliation on a basis of justice that will strengthen our integrity as a nation…..this is an exercise I leave to the next generation—both Indigenous and non-Indigenous youth—of this country to pursue. Those with vision, those with ambition, those with hope, those who love this nation—I leave it to them.” 

Vision. Ambition. Hope. Love. I hope to embody these values as Pat has. 

Sitting in the gallery with our First Nations delegation, and being a non-indigenous person myself, Senator Dodson’s words moved me. While his retirement, health struggles, and the result of the referendum weigh heavily on our hearts, hearing his renewed call to reconciliation has filled me with energy and purpose. 

And I’m not alone.

Below I also share the reflections of my friends Jasmine and Scott – fellow Western Australians, PAELS delegates and, unlike me, First Nations young leaders. 

Jasmine Eades – “The lead up to attending Parliament House for the PAELS summit was daunting. It had only been a month since the Referendum. Many of us delegates who were present campaigned for the Voice, so coming into that space, with what felt like an empty cup was quite daunting. 

But to hear that Senator Pat Dodson was giving his valedictory speech, the day that we were there, honestly felt like a sign from God. That there was a bigger purpose why we were there on that particular day. To sit in the gallery and witness this speech from the person who had been called the “Father of Reconciliation”, along with the other First Nation delegates and non-indigenous delegates who have become such supportive and courageous allies, was a very impactful and powerful moment to share.

Seeing a strong First Nations male show such courageous leadership was a very encouraging moment, particularly for our young Aboriginal men, and a privilege to witness. To hear those words felt like he had passed the baton on to this younger generation, who will carry the vision, ambition and hope.

What an honour to witness his speech while amongst some other powerful young people, who will one day bring great change to this nation.”

Scott Wilson – “As an empowered young person from the Kimberley, I have been privileged and blessed to grow up surrounded by strong and resilient role models. I exist due to the shoulders of so many that have worked tirelessly to ensure that we have the freedoms and opportunities today. Senator Dodson is among those that at a young age was and continues to be a beacon for hope. His words shared a comfort, like a warm blanket that provided a sense of certainty. His voice with all his passion and conviction always and will continue to share a need for unity and solidarity.

I believe Senator Dodson dedicated his entire life to searching for the answers to supporting the delivery of true social and environmental change.

It is to a lot of our disappointment that after the tireless and generation of work by Senator Dodson and so many peoples towards delivering true social and environmental change, that we were met with a “NO” to enshrine an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples Voice to Parliament and recognise Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples as part of the Australian Constitution.

There are no words to describe the feelings and emotions that came from the results of the Referendum. It was also challenging as PAELS delegates who spent the year advocating for the Yes campaign to gather the strength to travel and speak in Parliament.

As young people, holding the weight of the world and the responsibilities to our families, peoples, culture, communities, nation, oceans and nature, those feelings became overwhelming as we heard while standing in the corridors of Parliament house, that our leader, the ‘Father of Reconciliation,’ and our beacon of hope was stepping down from his leadership duties.

But as we stood in the crowd listening to Senator Dodson’s final address to the Senate, I felt an invitation, a divine vibration of duty and opportunity. Senator Dodson shared a leadership that one can only aspire to resemble, a leadership that is unconquerable, that is filled with complete and utter conviction. 

Despite all the setbacks, despite the results of the referendum, despite where we are as a nation, Senator Dodson shared, once again, hope.”

For those who, like me, feel drained and emptied by 2023, I hope Pat Dodson’s wisdom can provide reassurance, as it has for myself Jasmine and Scott. Justice and reconciliation are a marathon, not a sprint – in his words, the referendum “cannot be the end of the matter”. 

So for those who have felt enthused about the Voice, and dejected by its defeat, or for those who want to support First Nations justice but do not know where to start, here is my encouragement.

Have vision. Be ambitious. Cling to hope. Be love. Hatred and cynicism are tempting, but in the end will get us nowhere. We must be able to see a better future, we must have the drive to do our part, we have to cling to the good and above all let love rule, even when things become difficult.

Those of us who fought for justice in the referendum campaign have not gone away, even though we did not see the success we wanted. We are still here. We are still fighting. We are still determined to see Reconciliation in action.

Will you join us?

Theo Doraisamy is an Australian PAELS delegate of Tamil, Cantonese and Singaporean descent. His advocacy work includes the 2023 Referendum Campaign “Voice Watch”, and in his day job he is a teacher. 

Jasmine Eades is a First Nations PAELS Delegate and Facilitator and community health worker.

Scott Wilson is a Gooniyandi and Gajerrong man from the Kimberley as well as a proud First Nations PAELS delegate. His advocacy work includes becoming the co-founder of various companies within Green Energy, Film, Television and Publications to support shifting perspectives on First Nations peoples, protecting and preserving our languages and stories, and providing solutions to reduce our carbon footprint across the nation.