The Uluru Statement and enshrining a voice for Indigenous Peoples By Thomas Mayor

Posted by on April 9, 2018 in Focus, Issues, March 2018 (No 87)

The Torment of our Powerlessness

The Uluru Statement and enshrining a voice for Indigenous Peoples

By Thomas Mayor

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull’s dismissal of the key Uluru Statement From the Heart claim for a constitutionally enshrined Voice to parliament should not deter us from that aspiration. His ignorance should invigorate us because the dismissal demonstrates the importance of the claim.

The eminent 19th century African American human rights leader, Frederick Douglas, once said, “to identify the vanguard of your movement, you need only look to the uneasy dreams of an aristocracy and find what they dread most”.

Turnbull’s arrogant response reaffirmed what I already knew of his ilk. Turnbull, Abbott and Howard all have an ingrained dislike of organised collectives of grassroots people. We are their “uneasy dreams”. The response was no surprise for union members like me.

Collective power

From my early days on the wharves I learnt that the enemy of the Voice of workers is also the enemy of the Voice of the oppressed and disadvantaged.

In 1998 I was a young wharfie when the Howard Government colluded with the stevedoring company Patricks to try to wipe out the Maritime Union of Australia. They ordered balaclava-clad mercenaries to descend on the wharves under the dark of night. With Rottweiler dogs gnashing their teeth, in an orchestrated military-like operation, they infiltrated waterside workplaces around Australia to physically drag workers from their livelihoods.

They locked us out, purely because we were members of a union. An effective collective furthering the interests of our members, and no less, because we were a pillar of solidarity for social justice causes. My union has been prominent in many struggles for fairness and equality, including the fight against South African apartheid and the advancement of rights and equality for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. It is a fact that makes me a proud union member. Our cause goes beyond our own pay and conditions, we are a collective of maritime workers applying our industrial and political power toward a better future for all.

We overcame the Howard Government’s bastardry. Those friends we had supported in their struggles repaid our solidarity by joining us on the picket lines in 1998. We won that battle because we are organised at many levels: at the workplace level, across entire industries, nationally with the Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU), and internationally with our global federations like the International Transport Workers' Federation (ITF). In addition, since the establishment of the Labor party, we have had a political voice in parliament.

If we had not organised at all these levels, I can confidently say that workers in this country would not have universal health care, nor many other rights for workers that are taken for granted today. It’s the union movement’s layers of organisation and clear structured representation that has been key to our success, organised representation that First Nations lack at a national level. Organised representation that would cause uneasy dreams for Malcolm Turnbull and his like.

The significance of a Voice

Turnbull has effectively defended the status quo by rejecting the Voice. But the defence of the status quo comes from various directions. In this article I will address several of the arguments that I hear, so that good-willed people will not be held back from this movement.

One of the arguments is that the call for a Voice to parliament should not be supported if it has no right to veto legislation. This argument is flawed. It is like to saying that workers shouldn’t have federalised unions or an ACTU because these organisations can only influence government, not veto legislation. It is also flawed, to put it bluntly, because it ignores political reality: very few, if any, politicians would vote for a referendum Bill that could give First Nations a right to veto legislation.

Another argument that I have heard is that First Nations peoples already have a Voice through action on the streets. This is true, to a certain extent. In the major capitals we can turn out great numbers in reaction to injustices. Marching shoulder to shoulder with fellow comrades in the struggle is empowering: it feels great and public dissent will always be vitally important, though I believe our capacity must be improved.

Where there is a groundswell of motivating anger when a major injustice is inflicted, eventually it is soon only the staunch activists who turn out, and all too soon, we are on to the next cause, reacting to another injustice. This is a continuous cycle in our struggle. The attacks against our people and our cries of injustice are so numerous that much of the public tends to become somewhat deafened, or confused by the many representations of what a protest is about and what we specifically want done to address the problem.

Since organising the rallies in Darwin against the Aboriginal community closures in Western Australia, I have thought about how we can break this cycle and be more effective at punishing decision-makers who have no genuine regard for the people they hurt.

In summary, the movement for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander rights and justice will be far more effective if we have our voice heard on the street and in parliament. It’ll be far more effective if all local First Nations gain the capacity to organise and choose their own representation so that these leaders, accountable to their people, can discuss, debate, and determine a collective way forward with other local First Nations. Unapologetic accountable representation of First Nations interests is missing and is direly needed, and if the rule book -- the Constitution -- forces parliament to hear us, we will see greater progress.

Our voice must be protected by the Constitution

The regional dialogues considered the fate of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander representative bodies of the past, such as the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission (ATSIC). ATSIC was established by legislation introduced by the Hawke Government in 1990. It was formed as a representative voice of Indigenous people elected by Indigenous people. ATSIC was abolished in 2005 by legislation introduced by the Howard Government with the support of the Latham opposition.

The experiences of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples is that where our representative bodies are merely legislated, they are exposed to the whim of political ideology and expediency. The constitution is a rule book that even parliament must follow, and therefore enshrinement within it is protection for an established First Nations voice, and with it, First Nations cultural authority.

Some argue against enshrining the Voice of First Nations in the constitution fearing that this will diminish sovereignty. But asserting our cultural authority and right to be heard in the constitution of Australia has no impact on who we are. As the Uluru Statement says, sovereignty is “the ancestral tie between the land, or ‘mother nature’, and the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples who were born therefrom, remain attached thereto, and must one day return thither to be united with our ancestors. This link is the basis of the ownership of the soil, or better, of sovereignty.” Sovereignty has not and never will be ceded.

Treaty Now! Treaty How?

“Makarrata is the culmination of our agenda.” The Uluru Statement calls for Treaty by using the Yolgnu word for ‘coming together after a struggle’. Makarrata “captures our aspiration for a fair and truthful relationship with the people of Australia and a better future for our children based on justice and self-determination.”

The regional dialogues and the Uluru Constitutional Convention didn’t miss the opportunity to again make a loud and clear call for Treaty. We are far behind our Maori neighbours and every other Commonwealth colony that invaded First Nations around the world. After a long struggle though, we have progress.

In early 2016, the Victorian State Government commenced Treaty discussions that continue in 2018. Last year, the South Australian Government commenced negotiations and the Northern Territory and Western Australian Governments have announced intent to do so also. More recently, on the 80th Anniversary of the 1938 Day of Mourning, the NSW Labor opposition leader announced the Party’s intention to enter Treaty negotiations should it win the next election. This progress indicates to me that it is now as much about “Treaty How”, as it is a call for “Treaty Now”.

As negotiations continue and commence, we should not underestimate the need for support and leverage in treaty making. Governments are powerful entities to negotiate against, and we should be conscious of the impact that elections will have. A party in government that enters negotiations for treaty in ‘good faith’ may be replaced with a government that has a hostile ideology. Their tactics may be to cease negotiations by ensuring impasse, or they may withdraw from the table. The hopes for a treaty will be back to square one.

We should also be conscious of what a State government can consider in a treaty under our federal system. It is only the State governments that have commenced treaty negotiations. State governments have ceded important powers to the commonwealth, including the federal treasury. Worse, for First Nations who will negotiate against a Territory government, the Territory Power in the constitution leaves agreements vulnerable to the determinations of the commonwealth government.

First Nations, without the existence of a nationally structured representative Voice to the parliament, will be severely restricted as to what content they can negotiate in the states, and how they will leverage the best outcome. The Voice is vital to resolving the inevitable national issues that arise from local First Nation treaty making. The Voice is also vital to defending the outcomes. Combined with the Makarrata Commission, the Uluru Statement has it right in setting out a roadmap to Treaty: Australia’s Makarrata.

An Unprecedented Process

The process leading to the Uluru Statement was thorough, informed, and conducted with great regard to ensuring a broad spectrum of representation. There were more than 1300 participants who poured their hearts and souls into ensuring that their voices were heard. It is important to share the facts about the process, because there is purposeful divisive misinformation about it.

There were 13 regional dialogues designed and run by Indigenous peoples (there had been an argument for twice as many, the government rejected it). In each region, the local co-chairs and facilitators were tasked with inviting 100 Indigenous people to their regional dialogue, using a formula aimed at representation from 60 per cent land-owner base (traditional owner groups, native title bodies and so on), 20 per cent representation for local community organisations, and 20 per cent representation for key individuals. Gender, demographic balance, and representation for the Stolen Generations were a focus.

Each of the dialogues began with presentations on the history of the struggle, including previous expert panel recommendations. There were lessons on the constitution and our political and legal systems. Constitutional and legal experts were always on hand to answer questions.

On the last day of each dialogue, a record of meeting was read back to all participants in plenary. Lastly, delegates were elected to participate in the culmination of the national consultation, the three-day Uluru National Constitutional Convention.

All records of meetings were presented to plenary at this gathering by a representative of each of the regions. Both in the plenary and numerous workshops, all participants had an opportunity to speak, including seven delegates who, within their rights, walked out on the second day.

When these seven delegates walked into a media scrum it was demoralising for around 250 other Aboriginal people and Torres Strait Islanders from all over the country. However, they chose to stay, they finished the last afternoon’s proceedings, and returned the following morning to hear the draft statement.

The Vanguard of our Movement

The Uluru Statement From the Heart was read for the first time by Professor Megan Davis on the last morning of the Convention. As she read the final words, “In 1967 we were counted, in 2017 we seek to be heard. We leave base camp and start our trek across this vast country. We invite you to walk with us in a movement of the Australian people for a better future”, the plenary of around 250 people endorsed it by standing acclamation. Those who had been in passionate debate embraced each other with tears of hope. There wasn’t a single amendment.

The eloquently crafted words from an unprecedented process of hope is a gift to the nation. It is written to the Australian people, with a nation-building vision. It speaks of the vanguard of our movement -- a movement yet to be lifted from the canvas painted in Mutitjulu, and woken from the uneasy dreams of our oppressors by a peoples movement for the Uluru Statement from the Heart.


* Thomas Mayor is a Zenadth Kes (Torres Strait Islander) man born and living on Larrakia country (Darwin). Thomas worked for 16 years in the maritime industry as a port worker and stevedore. Aged 22, he was elected as the lead delegate of the Maritime Union of Australia (MUA) following the 1998 Patricks Dispute, then in 2010 he became an MUA organiser and soon after was elected NT Branch Secretary.

Recognised as an effective organiser and campaigner, Thomas was elected President of the NT Trades and Labour Council in 2016.

Thomas has applied his advocacy experience and organising skills to further the interests of his fellow Indigenous Peoples along with other social justice causes. He has organised numerous community actions in response to detrimental government decisions while also looking to address structural and systemic institutional powerlessness.

In early 2017, Thomas was elected by the Darwin Northern Territory regional dialogue to attend the culmination of 13 dialogues, the National Constitutional Reform Convention at Uluru.

At the request of Referendum Council Co-Chair Professor Pat Anderson AO, the MUA has seconded Thomas to assist with consensus-building toward a campaign for the systemic structural reform called for in the Uluru Statement from the Heart.

Since the Uluru Convention, Thomas has worked full time advocating for the aspirations within the Uluru Statement from the Heart, taking the Uluru Statement from the Heart to many communities and organisations to raise awareness and build support for a people’s movement that will see the aspirations of the Statement become a success.


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