On 26 May 2017, I was at the Uluru National Constitutional Convention when the Uluru Statement came to be. I was there in acknowledgement of my activism on Larrakia Land. I was elected to go as one of the Darwin Regional Dialogue delegates.
The convention at Uluru was not only the hard work of dialogue toward consensus. It was also an incredibly spiritual experience.
Sure, there was the normal debate and drama you’d expect from a democratic process involving close to three hundred people. We were First Nations people from all parts of the southern sky. We held different political ideals and were at different levels of healing. But when more than 92% of us endorsed the Uluru Statement from the Heart with raucous, joyous and tearful standing acclamation, our spirits were lifted and it started a movement.
Campaigning for structural reform
I’ve since campaigned for what the Uluru Statement calls for. I have travelled the country as an activist and I have realised why we First Nations people so direly need structural reform to better how we take on our struggles.
I have often observed that for each four speakers at a forum or rally, for example, we can have fourteen different solutions to one problem. The same talkfests happen over and over again, we make the same proposed solutions, we walk away and come back again with no true progress.
I’ve also watched as the media, a Board, or government chooses our ‘Indigenous leaders’ and not the communities themselves. We are not united, because for unity to be effective, we need to be able to choose our own representatives; representatives accountable to us, who can assemble regularly with the information at hand to debate the issues toward a resolution on how to move forward, together.
I have been passionate about the Uluru Statement proposed constitutional reform, to enshrine a First Nations Voice so that we can change the dynamics that continue to divide us and maintain our powerlessness.
The Minister for Indigenous Australian's makes a commitment
This week, on Wednesday 10 July, I heard a glimmer of hope. The first Aboriginal man to be Minister for Indigenous Australians, Ken Wyatt, spoke to a packed out Press Club in Canberra.
In his calm and considered manner, he announced he is committed to working in bi-partisanship with Shadow Minister, Linda Burney to develop and bring forward a consensus option for constitutional recognition to be put to a referendum during the current parliamentary term.
This was a step in the right direction, I thought. Our expectation has always been that the government should develop the Voice model and question to be put at a referendum with Indigenous leaders, organisations and communities.
Within 24 hours of Minister Wyatt’s speech, several of his parliamentary colleagues threatened to work against the success of a Voice.
They implied that they would only concede to symbolic constitutional recognition, mere beads and trinkets. It was a reaction that is hardly surprising. It was the usual few.
On Friday morning, on ABC Radio National, Geraldine Doogue interviewed Minister Wyatt about the implications of party division. Mr Wyatt reassured Doogue that the constitutional enshrinement of the Voice was still a possibility. He said, “The Prime Minister and I have had a discussion around this and that’s why in my speech, I made it very clear … I would engage, we would look at co-design, we would then deal with each issue on merit. And I said it’s a blank page”. Good again, I thought.
But then the Minister went on to state a contradiction, “You’ve got to separate the Voice from Constitutional Recognition, I know some of the leadership will criticise me for that. That’s the reality.”
Listening to Minister Wyatt, I felt a sense of déjà vu.
The Deal Breaker
Both the Referendum Council and the 2018 Joint Select Committee on Constitutional Recognition had already asked us what form of constitutional recognition we would support. Both recommended that a Voice is the form of constitutional recognition that has the strongest support. Yet it wasn’t the reality the government was looking for.
The reality is that the only form of recognition that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people will support is a First Nations Voice enshrined in the constitution. Nothing less.
Not another legislated representative body that will be repealed as was the fate of ATSIC. Not another corporate representative body that will be defunded and made defunct as may be the fate of the National Congress of Australia's First People.
The legislated and corporate models of First Nations representation have already failed. We want a constitutionally enshrined, empowered, protected representative body. Nothing less.
If we First Nations people want genuine change, we must vigorously support the Uluru Statement from the Heart.
It gives us a rare opportunity. The Statement is a beautiful artwork, with compelling words, coming from an unprecedented consensus. It proposes powerful, yet achievable and specific solutions that are a step, or a platform to a better future for our children. It captures the attention of broader Australia coming from a broad spectrum of political persuasions. All of this is worth its weight in campaigning gold.
High Risk, High Rewards
The last statement that was able to get the attention of the nation was the Barunga Statement, 21 years ago.
It didn’t achieve what it called for. Nor did any preceding it. The fate of the Barunga Statement, gathering dust in parliament, taught us all a harsh lesson.
When the late Bob Hawke retired the great man cried tears of despair. His greatest regret was that he could not deliver on the promise of a national treaty proposed in the Barunga Statement.
I have often wondered: If there were a peoples movement, of the likes that led to the 1967 referendum, could he have delivered, as he obviously had hoped to do?
Fellow Blackfellas, I say to you, let’s back ourselves in. Let’s establish OUR voice. OUR representatives. OUR rightful place on country that has been ours for more than 60,000 years. Let us take the lead in our communities, and then the Whitefellas can follow. And we need them to follow, because success at a referendum is not easy.
Our ancestors had far less resources to campaign with in the lead up to the 1967 referendum. Despite poverty and oppression, they seized the opportunity to walk together to make lasting change for the next generations. Those elders of the past are still walking with us, even now that it is our turn to walk. We benefit from their legacy – now we are counted.
Now, let us build our legacy – so that our children will be heard.
Thomas Mayor is a Zenadth Kes man who lives on Larrakia land in Darwin. He volunteers his time to advocate for the Uluru Statement along with being the National Indigenous Officer of the CFMMEU and Deputy Branch Secretary for the N.T Branch of the Maritime Union of Australia. Thomas was elected from the Darwin Dialogue on Constitutional reform to participate in the Uluru Convention and will soon publish his first book, Finding the Heart of the Nation, The Journey of the Uluru Statement towards Voice, Treaty and Truth. Follow Thomas @tommayor11