• Chansey Paech. (Supplied / www.jillianmundy.com.au)
SBS asked Chansey Paech about coming out, Indigenous recognition and his historic campaign.
By
Ben Winsor

8 Sep 2016 - 11:58 AM  UPDATED 25 Oct 2016 - 1:17 PM

Chansey Paech spent the last several few weeks driving his silver Nissan four-wheel-drive around central Australia, meeting with small communities and sleeping under the stars.

“I’m a pro at changing tyres and tying stuff on the back of the car,” he tells SBS, "and now I’m a professional swag roller.”

The 28-year-old from Alice Springs was campaigning in the massive Territory seat of Namatjira.

The seat, larger than Tasmania and Victoria combined, takes in Alice Springs' southern suburbs and the lower eastern corner of the territory.

It also includes Australia's most iconic site, Uluru.

Two weeks ago Paech won the seat, becoming the Australia's first openly gay Indigenous parliamentarian.

“Oh gosh – I was very happy,” he tells SBS.

Paech received the news while celebrating at Heavitree Gap in southern Alice Springs with his supporters. 

“The first thing I actually said, was 'thank you',” he says.

Some had travelled hundreds of kilometres from remote communities to be there.

“It was diversity at its best," he says, "I had Aboriginal people, non-Aboriginal people, different ethnic groups and sexualities.”

The national Rainbow Labor movement was amazingly helpful during the campaign, he says.

Paech's election was part of a Labor sweep across the territory two weeks ago - a wave which all but obliterated the Country Liberal Party.

The single term government was reduced to just two seats, though several are still in doubt.

Labor doubled its number of members, from eight to 16.

Paech's seat of Namatjira was redistributed to the Country Liberal's advantage, but it wasn't enough to overcome the tide of Labor support.

Not all the votes are counted yet in the remote area seat - the commission says they're waiting on final postal votes this Friday before publishing the full count next week - but it appears Paech has almost 60% of the vote after preferences.

The popular previous member, Alison Anderson, was an independent who had been variously aligned with Labor, the Country Liberals and Palmer United.

After more than a decade in office she retired this year, endorsing Paech as her successor.

That wasn't much of a surprise, however, Anderson is his auntie.

A life in Alice

Paech comes from a big family. He has a sister and three brothers, as well as two half-sisters.

“They’re all my sisters and they’re all my brothers,” he says.

His extended family is also pretty big.

“I couldn’t tell you how many relatives I have – they’re scattered across the electorate and they’re scattered across the territory,” he says.

At campaign events he’d often run into cousins and people who said they knew the family.

“That was a quite rewarding and beautiful experience,” he says.

Paech was born and raised in Alice Springs.

His mother is Eastern Arrernte, and her father is Gurindji. His dad's a white Australian who moved up from South Australia.

Politics was always part of the family for Paech. His grandparents were strong Labor supporters and strong union supporters.

"I had always been involved in politics, whether it was local government, territory government or federal government; it’s always been something I’ve been involved in," he tells SBS.

He went to a local school, ANZAC High School, and then studied horticulture and conversation at the Alice campus of Charles Darwin University.

“I’m a very proud product of a public education,” he tells SBS.

Apart from a year spent in Darwin working for the previous Labor government, he's lived his entire life in the 29,000 strong town of Alice Springs.

He's spent the last four years on the Alice Springs Council and worked in other community organisations. He says running for the next level of government was a natural progression.

"Quite often we talk about wanting things to change," he says, "I didn’t want to be the kind of person who just sits around and talks about change, I wanted to be part of making that change happen."

Coming Out

I asked Paech when he first realised he could be gay.

"I’ve always known that I was gay, I was born gay," he responds.

Paech came out as a teen and as he tells it, there wasn't much drama.

Friends and others at school were starting to pair off and go on dates.

“I probably should just confirm and make sure that people know that I am gay,” he remembers thinking.

Once he made the decision to let people know he says it was anxious and rewarding.

“Oh God, who do I tell first?” he remembers thinking.

He ended up picking his parents. He told them both in their back yard, out in the garden.

"They were supportive – it obviously took some time to process things – but in most parts my entire family were very supportive when I came out," he says.

Paech told his auntie and uncle, and then friends and extended family.

"For some of my family it was a sigh of relief 'thank God, you’ve finally done it'," he says. "People had known and not wanted to say anything thinking they’d upset me, and vice versa."

He says his oldest brother was a rock for him. Supportive and always there to talk to.

In the election campaign, some thought Paech's openness about his sexuality could work against him. Paech says it didn't.

“My sexuality was completely irrelevant to the people in the electorate," he tells SBS. "They were focussed on issues which actually affected their everyday lives.”

Voters told him some had tried to discourage them from voting for him because of his sexuality.

"They said you were a gay and we said we didn’t care, we just want houses," voters told him.

He says he hopes his election encourages others to put their hand up for government, regardless of sexuality.

Paech says he's had a good experience coming out in central Australia, but that no one should have to do it alone.

"Every individual probably has a different experience," Paech says. “I had great family networks, a great network of friends – and most importantly I had a great community network in central Australia.”

“From my experience and friends of mine who are out in the community, it hasn’t been a negative experience,” he says.

He tells SBS that while being gay in central Australia is probably quite different to inner-city Sydney, there are still opportunities to meet people in regional and remote areas.

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While Paech is currently single, he has strong views on same-sex marriage.

He's opposed to a national plebiscite to decide the issue.

“I don’t think that we need to spend an astronomical amount of money on an issue that could be decided if parliamentarians would just reflect the views of their electorates," he says.

A plebiscite will cause unnecessary anxiety, he says, especially for younger people still coming to terms with their identity.

He wants to use his position not only to be a role model, but to make sure laws grant Territorians equal rights. That extends to reforming laws which block same-sex adoption in the Territory, he says.

Indigenous politics

Namatjira is roughly 77% Indigenous, but Paech isn't ideological about representation.

“It’s important to have Indigenous representation to make sure that people understand the importance of culture and connection to country, and to make sure there’s an inclusive view put forward,” he says.

But there have also been a number of non-Indigenous representatives who have served Indigenous communities exceptionally, he says.

Having worked with many local Indigenous groups, boards and councils, he's passionate about local control.

“I think it’s imperative that governments support those organisations to build capacity so that those organisations have the capacity to make decisions for those they represent,” he says.

"I want to make sure that the people of Namatjira have the opportunity for their views to be heard," he says, "and I will work to make sure that decision-making in our local communities is handed back to our local communities."

Paech singles out housing, planning and economic development as priority issues which local organisations should be equipped to deal with.

He says the failure to realise this was a key problem with the Adam Giles now deposed government.

“I think that some of the failures of the country Liberals was an inability to properly consult with central Australians or with Territorians –they didn’t take them along on a journey,” he says. “They forgot who their people were.”

Paech says the scandal at the Don Dale Youth Detention Centre has been a particularly emotional issue for voters.

“It was very disheartening and alarming to see that treatment happening," he says, "it has left a lot of raw emotions out in the bush and in our towns and regions."

"I’m looking forward to getting in, talking with my colleagues, and making sure that treatment never happens again to our young and upcoming leaders," he says.

While the former government took a 'tough' approach to law and order issues, Paech says he favours a more holistic, therapeutic approach to working with young people.

On national Indigenous issues, he says he's a strong supporter of constitutional recognition.

"My view on this is recognition doesn’t preclude the discussion of a treaty – I know that there are mixed views out in our community, and not all Aboriginal people and Torres Strait Islanders are going to agree – I do support constitutional recognition and I think the flow on from that is a treaty," he says.

“We need to realise - we have a constitution that allows legislation on the basis of race, and I don’t think that should be able to continue,” he says.

"The Australian constitution is considered by many as a kind of founding document," he says, "we as the first peoples, the oldest culture, deserve to be recognised in our nation’s document."

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