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Connection Matters Radio: Joining me on Connection Matters Radio today is Torres Strait Islander man, Thomas Mayor. He’s the Branch Secretary for the Northern Territory Maritime Union, Co-Chair of the Uluru Working Group, signatory to the Uluru Statement From the Heart, and author of “Finding the Heart of the Nation”. Thomas, thanks for coming back onto the program.
Thomas Mayor: No problem, Charles. Good to be with you again.
CMR: Thomas, we’ll focus first on self-determination of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. To set the scene, in your mind, what constitutes self-determination and what does it look like?
Thomas: I think self-determination is our communities, our people’s being able to choose their own destiny, make the decisions for themselves about how funding is spent in their communities. Whether anyone is allowed in their communities, which we saw during COVID, where communities really took the lead, didn’t muck around and shut down their communities. In central Australia, [local community actually had picket lines when a plane flew into their area, when there was concern about people carrying COVID. I think self determination is where our people are supported to be able to do these things, both legally and with the resources required. I mean, you could look at other countries where it works well, where indigenous communities are able to have their own laws and their own methods of enforcing the law and looking after their peoples.
CMR: How would you say that would work within an urban environment, such as Melbourne, where it’s a great deal of integration within the general community? There’s no separate community as such.
Thomas: Well, you don’t have to have one size fits all. I think that’s common sense, that in places where it won’t work. I mean, you have the levels of self determination as in a community where it’s a traditional community on traditional lands, then obviously a higher level of control of what happens on their land. But in an urban area, then that would mean that decisions about housing and social housing, and the interaction with justice and with the justice system. Those are how people could have more self determination.
CMR: And would you agree that self determination also brings in issues such as greater employment, independent businesses that are Aboriginal run and operated and staffed, of course. And, of course, strong voices to governments at all different levels.
Thomas: Yeah, that’s right. And that’s the best…, that there’s levels of self determination. There has to be levels of structure, because to self determine you need to have representation. You can’t have 700,000 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people trying to say, “This is the direction we must take.” Actually, that’s the status quo at the moment. What’s missing, really, is the structures of representation and I think the most important thing that we can do right now to be able to achieve the type of self determination that I talked about and to negotiate the different ways that that is exercised is to establish a first nations voice and try and have a constitution.
CMR: Which is, of course, one of the key calls to action from the Uluru Statement From the Heart. So, how critical are the three calls from the Uluru Statement to achieving real self determination for the first peoples of this country?
Thomas: Well, firstly, it’s critical because it was an act of self determination, the Uluru Statement From the Heart. It was an unprecedented series of constitutional dialogues covering the entire continent and adjacent islands, culminated at Uluru, where the [local] people supported that meeting and the Uluru family gifted the name to the statements. You give it the power, to give the campaign the power. I mean, that was an act of self determination. Again understanding, you can’t have 700,000 people involved in a process. But there was a very well led, First Nations led and design process. And the calls for a voice, treaty and truth. I mean, they’re all very important tenets to us achieving change in this country, positive change, where we can close the gaps that are lamented for not having been advanced in closing those gaps every year for the last 12 years, in the Closing the Gap reports.
CMR: You were entrusted to carry the Uluru Statement From the Heart across the country, and promote it and raise general awareness, and you did that with significant success, subsequent to the actual signing. Now with the Coronavirus lockdowns, how is your work looking on that particular front?
Thomas: Well, we haven’t stopped. Myself, and a whole lot of other activists, and communities that are fighting for the Uluru Statement have found other ways to campaign. Social media has always been a strong part of our campaign because when the government dismissed it without a disrespect in October 2017, we had no resources to fight back. It’s been like guerilla warfare. It’s being grassroots activism with whatever we can scrape together.
And so Coronavirus, hasn’t been a huge dent in our progress, I think. One of the ways that I adapted, where I was traveling around and teaching people about the Uluru Statement, I’ve adapted to online advocacy courses and there’s been great positives in that. And then I don’t need to worry about people being able to come to a meeting, or a training course or traveling anywhere. I’m just smashing them out on Zoom and I’ve put more than a hundred trade unionists through an advocacy course in the last two months. And I’m booked out until the end of the year, just training trade unionists on how to advocate for the Uluru Statement.
CMR: How can ordinary people support the Uluru Statement From the Heart and the work that you and others are doing to bring about these, or the reality of these three straightforward and quite simple, calls to action?
Thomas: Well, there’s been some research done for the campaign and the research shows that when people learn about the Uluru Statement, they support it. And so there was a really strong correlation between the amount of people, the percentage of people that said they will vote yes, and the percentage of people that knew about it. So what people can do is keep sharing the Uluru Statement words, keep sharing the website, www.ulurustatement.org. And there’s another one called www.fromtheheart.com.au. So, two campaigns for the Uluru Statement, in coordination. Sign up on those and keep following the campaign and spread the word, because it’s actually a powerful thing.
We need to move the politicians. They are the gatekeepers of referendum. They’re the gatekeepers of constitutional change, because they need to pass a referendum bill to take it to the people. And we’re hoping that in the next term of government, there will be a referendum. It’s too late to have one now and not enough time to properly educate people. There’s no commitment from the government now to a referendum, to constitutionally enshrine a voice, so we need to convince them. We need to write to the politicians. We need to visit them and, and let them know what we think. Identify with these politicians that don’t support it and take up some initiative to educate people in their electorate and say, “Hey, so and so doesn’t support the statement and we want you to write to them as well.” Those are very important things people can do.
CMR: The power really is in the hands of the people, and that’s all people, not just Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people right across the country.
Thomas: If we think about it in a campaigning way, there’s two main decision makers here. Firstly, the politicians, they’re the ones that we need to move to take it to the people. But the politicians are influenced by the people. So, if the people get active, if you’re listeners, take some initiative and harass your politicians to do more to support the Uluru Statement and spread the word, then that’s a powerful thing to move them. But then secondly, if we go referendum, it’s the Australian people that are the decision makers. So, doing this has that effect as well. But the very first decision makers were Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and we made our decision in May 2017, and we’ve invited everybody to do this with us,
CMR: Thomas, thank you so much for your time and your insights into something that is important for every Australian, regardless of their heritage. We look forward to speaking to you again, in the meantime, stay safe and keep fighting that great fight, mate.
Thomas: Thanks, Charles. We’ll keep fighting mate. All the best.