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A movement from the heart
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Articles
10 November 2020

A movement from the heart

Thomas Mayor is a tireless campaigner who carried the sacred canvas of the Uluru Statement from the Heart around the nation. He shared his story with Dumbo Feather in May 2019.

Written by Thomas Mayor

This story originally ran in issue #59 of Dumbo Feather

Discussed in this Story

I was born and bred on Larrakia country, which is Darwin. My father is a Torres Strait Islander. He moved from Thursday Island to the Northern Territory when he was 17 years old to work at Frances Creek Mine. Torres Strait Islanders were famous for their work ethic. They built the Pilbara railway in world record time. My dad was from that generation of Islanders, a really hard worker. He fell in love with my mother in the NT and ended up staying there. My mother’s father was a Polish refugee.

So I grew up in Darwin, and I became a wharfie when I was 17 years old. That’s where I really learnt about unity and the importance of structure behind a union. When I was 20, the ’98 Patricks dispute happened. I was driving to work one morning and heard on the radio that we’d all been sacked. It was a huge learning curve for me seeing how the government colluded with Patricks to de-unionise us, to take away our strength and then attack our pay and conditions. It was pretty shocking for a young fella that hadn’t been on the wharf for very long. But we survived, partly because of the solidarity from the community.

We had that solidarity because our union had been great supporters of many social justice struggles. We fought for more than just our own wages and conditions, we used our muscle to help others—like with the great Gurindji Walk-Off, and supporting the East Timorese when they were being invaded. During the apartheid struggle, our seafarers put a ban on ships that were carrying oil to South Africa to put pressure on them. Being a part of the union movement inspired me. I was a really shy guy, still am. But all of this was teaching me to stand up and speak out against injustice.

Later I became the president of the Trades and Labour Council, the big body in the Northern Territory that most of the unions are affiliated with. I put more energy into community work, and got closer to the roots of certain issues our people were facing, like the WA community closures. I got behind that in Darwin and organised one of the biggest rallies that we’d had in a long time. I helped organise the community response to the treatment of youth in detention at Don Dale. I organised a forum for our people and our organisations in Darwin to talk about how we could be more effective at fighting all these detrimental decisions. Those early days I was really nervous and unsure of myself. Then I found things I just couldn’t ignore. It was like I couldn’t not speak out about the injustices. In the absence of other leadership, sometimes you just have to step up and do it. It wasn’t something I planned to do.

I was then invited to be a facilitator of a regional dialogue about constitutional recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. I accepted, and I learnt of the long discussion around constitutional recognition that had been happening in this country. For about 10 years, people like Tony Abbott and John Howard had talked about recognising Indigenous people in a preamble to the constitution, but they never engaged us in a proper process to learn our collective views. I learned that because of a national push from our people, we had won a process run by Indigenous people to finally do that. The regional dialogue in Darwin was one of 13 dialogues throughout the country in that process, each were being done over three days. They were well informed. There were lessons about the history of our struggle. Rachel Perkins, a filmmaker, did a 20-minute film that took us through the history of our struggle from colonisation to the many different moments of our history where we demanded change. We also learnt about the constitution, how it works, and the political system.

I asked elders if there’d even been an opportunity like this before—for a rigorous national dialogue that would culminate at a sacred place like Uluru—and the answer was no. As a unionist I understood that these dialogues gave us the opportunity to discuss and debate our views, and maybe come up with a powerful national position on a specific reform. At the Darwin dialogue I was elected to be at the Uluru meeting in May, 2017, and when I arrived, there had been a lot of tension. Within the group there were many different perspectives, different ideas, different political ideals. Everyone was at different levels of healing from the impacts of colonisation. We’re dealing with the toughest aspects of social dysfunction because of what has been done to our people, which included purposeful division. All of that comes together when we come together. At Uluru it was further exasperated because there had been at least a decade-long discussion about constitutional recognition without having engaged us in a proper process. So there were lots of conversations, lots of emotion to move this and arrive at a place where we could proudly stand for something together.

There were around 270 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander delegates at the convention, many from different language groups. They were elected from the dialogues throughout the continent and adjacent islands. And we gathered at the foot of Uluru on the lands of the Anangu people. On the last morning, Professor Megan Davis read the “The Uluru Statement from the Heart,” which essentially called for two things: the establishment of a First Nations Voice enshrined in the Australia Constitution, and the establishment of a Makarrata Commission to supervise agreement-making, or treaty making, and truth-telling between governments and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. When she finished reading the Statement, the entire room stood as one and gave a standing ovation. Not one person remained seated. Nearly 300 of us from all around the country, from all those different perspectives and feelings, stood as one and endorsed it. The reason that was so special was because of the process that happened before it. I saw people who had been in passionate debate with polarised positions embracing each other with tears in their eyes—just so overjoyed and hopeful that we had reached a consensus after all we’d been through. It was a true national position. That has never been done before.

After the convention we all signed a canvas that was later painted by four Anangu women, and then the Uluru Statement was printed in the middle. They painted the Uluru tjukurpa (law), or Songlines, coming together where the Statement is printed in the middle. I was supported by my union to travel the country with the canvas to help get a peoples’ movement going around it—to see that it wasn’t forgotten, and, like other Indigenous statements and petitions, lost or hung up in the halls of parliament to gather dust. Not a lot of people knew about it immediately, and politicians started lying about it in the media—saying it was a third chamber of parliament, that it would seek to veto legislation and that sort of thing. But we powered on. The first place the Uluru Statement went to was the Yolngu people at the Garma festival, and then I took it to the Gurindji people, which happened to be the time of the Wave Hill Walk-Off anniversary. Then on and on, 14 months of continuous travel carrying around this artwork and speaking.

The First Nations Voice we are calling for is basically a national representative body that is protected by the constitution. Our previous national representative bodies have been destroyed by the likes of John Howard, or were just not genuinely chosen by the people. Because constitutional change must be done by a referendum, the First Nations Voice will have the authority and power of the Australian people. It’ll be more than an act of parliament. That’s the first goal. The representative body would influence decisions made about us. It is what I realised was missing from our advocacy before I got involved. It is also a vital reform because at the moment, there is very little community input in the policies made for Indigenous communities, and these policies are often damaging to us, and wasteful.

Truth telling is a huge part of the Uluru Statement. With the process of healing and of Makarrata, of agreement making, the truth is really important because it shows us where action needs to be taken. The truth of what has been suffered by a particular party is essentially leverage to achieve what needs to be done to resolve the issues in treaties or other agreements. The truth, however, is not worth a whole lot if there isn’t a voice to tell it in a coordinated way. So this constitutional enshrinement of a First Nations voice is vital to truth telling and treaty making.

The Uluru Statement finishes by inviting the Australian people to walk with us in a movement for a better future. I believe the great majority of Australian people would support this change if we have the conversation. We want everyone to take with us—we need the 97 percent of non-Indigenous people to meet us here. Just being angry about the past is not going to bring healing. Makarrata is a Yolngu word, it means “coming together after a struggle.” And it’s coming together and understanding what the truth is. And acknowledging our differences and working through that in a process. This is a time for listening and learning. For sharing stories and struggles and working towards a future that allows all of us to determine our lives.

Support by going to 1voiceuluru.org and spreading the word. Thomas’s book ‘Finding the Heart of the Nation’, covers the journey’s of nineteen Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people as they search for Voice, Treaty, and Truth.

This story originally ran in issue #59 of Dumbo Feather

This story originally ran in issue #59 of Dumbo Feather

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