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Be like the yellowbelly fish and only go forward

A heartfelt NAIDOC Week message from our regional engagement officer and Ngemba/Murrawarri man, Phil Sullivan.
Published: 15 July 2022

Ngemba/Murrawarri man Phil Sullivan had a heartfelt message for NAIDOC Week this month: be like the yellowbelly fish and only move forward rather than backward.

Phil is the Regional Engagement Officer in Bourke in the far west of New South Wales, a stakeholder liaison role for both the Murray–Darling Basin Authority (MDBA) and the Australian Government Department of Climate Change, Energy, the Environment and Water (DCCEEW).

Phil says this year’s NAIDOC Week theme – Get up! Stand up! Show up! – encourages systemic change which is vitally important when it comes to water.  

The yellowbelly (golden perch) is a traditional totem for Phil and his family.

“Our responsibility towards the yellowbelly is in the water, in the river and everything about the river,” Phil said.

“Don't give up. Just stand up and keep going. Keep moving forward, like the yellowbelly that can't go backward, it can only go forward.”

Phil also encouraged people to be leaders and uses the analogy of flowing water to explain maintaining positive momentum.

“Be a leader in yourself, be a leader in your family, be a leader in your community. You might be the second youngest or the third youngest, but there is nothing stopping you from being who you want to be,” Phil said.

“Follow your own flow, wherever that leads you. As you go, you will adapt to different flows and so you will adapt with different people as you go forward.”

Phil said there is an opportunity in the water space to bring Indigenous and non-Indigenous people together.

“It’s like we are on different sides of the river and now’s the time to meet on the bridge. We need to take the gate off the bridge so you (non-Indigenous people) can understand what's happening on that other side of the river; understand how we do fires, how we look after water, how we looked after the environment, how we looked after each other first,” he said.

Phil has recently come to the engagement role after a 26-year career with the New South Wales National Parks and Wildlife Service where he was the first Aboriginal Field Officer. He was also Australia’s first Aboriginal Community Liaison Officer, a role he performed for 4 years with New South Wales Police.

He is the eyes and ears on the ground providing information and relaying community and stakeholder sentiment to both agencies.

Phil Sullivan and Peter Thomas, 2 of the MDBA's Regional Engagement Officers, are standing near the banks of a river in the Australian bush.
Phil Sullivan is a Ngemba/Murrawarri man and Regional Engagement Officer based in Bourke, pictured here with Peter Thomas, Regional Engagement Officer for the Lachlan–Macquarie–Castlereagh region.

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