The 2017 Uluru Statement from the Heart called for three things: Voice, Treaty, and Truth. On 16 December, First Nations advocate Thomas Mayor addressed the IofC Australia community on why ‘Voice’ takes first priority.
Summer holidays are here, but Thomas Mayor isn’t getting much of a rest. The activist, author, and Torres Strait Islander is campaigning for Indigenous Australians to have a constitutionally-enshrined voice in government. In the week before Christmas, he took time for a Zoom talk with more than 80 people from the Initiatives of Change community, to explain why everyone should get behind the current ‘From the Heart’ campaign.
The process towards Uluru
Thomas was one of more than 200 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders to take part in the First Nations National Constitutional Convention in 2017. A wharf worker from the age of 17, his background with the Maritime Union of Australia had shown him the limitations of popular protests.
‘While it felt good to be shaking our fist at the politicians that harmed us, we did not see any of those decision makers held accountable,’ said Thomas, recalling the 1998 waterfront dispute over a restructure and layoffs. ‘I’m organizing these rallies, we’re having these protests, but we’re just not effective. I started to look for something that we could do differently.’
In 2016, an invitation came to take part in a 2016 dialogue in Darwin about constitutional change to recognise First Nations. This, he felt, could be the chance to find a new way forward in community action. The Darwin dialogue was one of 13 that were held around Australia. Participants were invited based on a ‘formula’ developed by Professor Megan Davies, an elected representative to the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues. Sixty percent of participants were traditional landowners, to ensure that a range of perspectives would inform the dialogues. Sessions included some education on civics and how constitutions work, to bring everyone up to speed. At the end of each dialogue, the proceedings were read back to participants before being endorsed.
'The power of having an informed and structured debate and then reaching common ground…it was something that was missing in our actions on the streets,’ said Thomas. ‘You can have these angry responses, 10 speakers, 20 different solutions to one problem. But if you’re only organizing protests but don’t have the structure in between…that is how we are ineffective—Black Lives Matter included.’
The power of consensus
The dialogue process laid the groundwork for a strong consensus to be reached at Uluru, but there were bumps on the road. Some delegates preferred a focus on Treaty, as a first priority. Some wanted an independent state. Twenty of the 207 representatives walked out of the meeting, including Greens Senator Lidia Thorpe.
‘It wasn’t easy,’ Thomas recalled. ‘We were very demoralized when people walked out on the second morning. We had hoped that we would stick together and work together on reaching a consensus.’
Nevertheless, the group pressed on. ‘Importantly, it was people elected out of the workshops that we had at Uluru, that spent the night into the early hours of the morning, working out the words,’ he said. ‘It was a great debate.’
On the last day, when Megan Davis read out the words of the Uluru Statement, the group stood as one and endorsed the statement with standing acclamation. ‘It was an incredible moment,’ Thomas recalled. ‘It was wonderful to have endorsed this statement in one reading. The process was so important; all of our work had led to that.’
What the Uluru Statement says
The Uluru Statement calls for three things:
- Voice: This is for change to the Australian Constitution, enshrining a First Nations Voice.
- Treaty: This is for legislative change through the establishment of a Makarrata Commission. This would supervise a process of agreement making with Australian governments at the Federal and State levels.
- Truth: The Makarrata Commission would oversee a process of truth-telling about Australia’s history and colonization.
After the Uluru meeting, the government-appointed Referendum Council delivered its final report, which supported the Uluru Statement and recommended holding a referendum to include a First Nations ‘Voice’ to Parliament in the Australian Constitution. However, the Turnbull government rejected the recommendation, stating it would not be ‘either desirable or capable of winning acceptance.’
The current From the Heart campaign seeks to change that view, by increasing awareness and understanding of the Uluru Statement. The issue of constitutional change, Thomas believes, is crucial so that any actions or structures created by and for Australia’s First Nations cannot be ignored or dismantled, as has occurred in the past. The campaign calls for ‘Voice’ first, in order for Treaty and Truth-telling to be successful.
In addition to his campaign work, Thomas has written a children’s book to bring the messages of the ‘From the Heart’ campaign to the wider public. Finding Our Heart will be read aloud on the ABC’s Play School television program during Reconciliation Week 2021.
It is another step, he feels, to recognizing the rightful place of Australia’s First Nations in government and society today. ‘Because children teach their parents,’ he said.
How to support the ‘From the Heart’ campaign
- Add your voice to the movement at The Uluru Statement - From The Heart. The website explains how you can get involved. There are materials available to download and print.
- Buy Thomas Mayor’s Finding the Heart of the Nation at bookstores and online.
- Write to your local MP about why this is a critical issue they should support.
- Connect locally with your council and find out what First Nations groups exist in your local community.
- Tell others why they need to get behind this critical movement for Australia by sharing information with friends, community groups, at work, and through social media.