Author, activist and First Nations advocate, Thomas Mayor is a Torres Strait Islander born on Larrakia country near Darwin.
In his talk to GS, Thomas unpacked the history and significance of the landmarks leading to the Uluru Statement of the Heart and spoke of his hope in the statement’s three elements for reform: Voice, Treaty and Truth Telling.
Thomas tours Australia's cities and bush communities to present his passionate and very personal journey on his involvement in the Uluru Statement.
Thomas first shared a story with us of when he was a boy and heard about the 1967 Yirrkala bark petition against mining in the N.T. He told of his awe and respect for those involved, and that this feeling is something he has never forgotten.
Thomas then related that, at the age of 17, he started work as a wharf labourer in Darwin. He also unwillingly became involved in the 1998 Australian waterfront dispute, instigated by Patrick Corporations against Australian unionised dock workers. He, along with his fellow workers, were unceremoniously bundled away and locked out of the wharves where they worked. The dispute continued for 80 difficult days. It was during this experience that Thomas recognised that community and solidarity inspire strength and create change.
Thomas later became an official for the Australian Maritime Union. It was here that he learned skills that would help advance the rights of Australian Indigenous peoples in the crafting the Uluru Statement of the Heart in 2017.
Thomas was one of over 1200 First Nations representatives and over 250 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander leaders that gathered "from all points of the southern sky" to take part in the construction of the statement at Uluru in May 2017.
(Thomas related that while all participants agreed in principle, there was a breakaway group that distanced themselves from the Statement and left the conference before it was finalised. The disagreement, over the wording and steps of action needed, is still a sticking point.)
The Uluru Statement of the Heart asks all Australians to help change the constitution, to allow Indigenous Australians a voice in the laws and policies that are made about them. It focuses on:
Voice: Constitutional Change. The campaign for a body of First Nations traditional owners to advise Parliament on policy affecting Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. The Australian constitution must be amended to allow Parliament to legislate for such a body.
Treaty: Legislative change. This involves the establishment of a ‘Makarrata’ Commission to supervise the process of agreement-making with Australian Governments. ‘Makarrata’ is a Yolngu people concept, which means ‘come together after a struggle to heal division of the past’.
Truth Telling: The Makarrata Commission would also oversee a process of truth-telling about Australia’s history and colonisation.
On its release, the Uluru Statement was applauded on both sides of politics. However, 5 months later, the first call to action, Voice, (in the form of a referendum for the establishment of a new Indigenous Advisory Body) was flatly rejected by then Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull.
Prime Minister Turnbull’s reasoning was that the new advisory body would be seen as a third chamber of Parliament – which he feared would compromise the equal rights of all Australians in the House of Representatives and the Senate.
"A constitutionally enshrined additional representative assembly for which only Indigenous Australians could vote for or serve in is inconsistent with this fundamental principle."
This rejection was made, regardless of the fact that Australia is the only Commonwealth nation without a treaty with its First People.
Since then, calls for the creation of an Indigenous Voice to Government are increasing and the current Morrison Government supports, in principle, a referendum to recognise Indigenous peoples in the Australian Constitution. Morrison’s statement was made before the current COVID-19 crisis occurred, and its future is now unclear.
Thomas concluded his talk with a heartfelt plea to all Australians to help right the wrongs of the past and move together into the future in support of the intention of the Uluru Statement.
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