Unionists asked to support Indigenous recognition in the constitution
Giving Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders a legitimate voice is “how we start to close the gap in health and education” says MUA leader Thomas Mayor.
Thomas Mayor, a Torres Straits Islander man and the Northern Territory branch secretary of the Maritime Union of Australia, received a standing ovation from NSWNMA delegates when he spoke at a Committee of Delegates meeting last year about his work campaigning for constitutional recognition of Australia’s Indigenous peoples.
In 2017, Mayor was one of approximately 300 Indigenous representatives elected to go to Uluru for a three-day Referendum Convention.
“We all had different perspectives,” Mayor said. “We don’t always agree, but on the last day, when Professor Megan Davis read the Uluru Statement from the Heart for the first time, the entire room stood as one and endorsed it with acclamation.”
“In that moment I saw people who had been in passionate debate with one another, embracing each other.”
The statement proposes constitutional reform to create a First Nations representative body to advise parliament on policy affecting Indigenous peoples and commit Australia to a “Makarrata Commission”. Makarrata is the Yolgnu word for truth telling.
The then Prime Minister, Malcolm Turnbull, rejected the statement, saying it wasn’t “desirable or capable of winning acceptance at referendum”.
When Mayor heard Turnbull speak at the Indigenous Gamma festival he saw “his heart was empty; he was not going to do this. But I didn’t take no for an answer”.
Mayor has since been seconded by the MUA to travel the country building support for the statement and a referendum.
He says supporters of the statement have “a big job ahead of us. Scott Morrison is repeating the rhetoric that this is a third chamber of parliament.”
Mayor started working on the wharf when he was 17 years old. He joined the MUA, where he met Brian Manning, a long-time unionist and activist for Indigenous rights.
During the nine-year Wave Hill Station struggle led by Vincent Lingiari, Manning would drive a Bedford truck 600km south from Darwin with food supplies for the strikers.
“It was the longest strike in Australian history. They were only being paid rations, so it was about equal wages and conditions at work, and it became a very important part of the land rights struggle,” says Mayor.
“That history that we have makes me extremely proud to be a unionist.”
When Mayor became an MUA official in 2010 he continued the MUA’s tradition “to do more than just fight for our own wages and conditions, but also stand up for social justice”.
Mayor has led actions around the WA Community Closures and the “disgraceful treatment of our youth” at Don Dale detention centre.
He is now asking unionists to support a referendum that will enshrine a First Nations voice in the constitution.
“We don’t have a First Nations authorised legitimate representative structure that is accountable to their communities.”
Having a legitimate voice is “how we start to close the gap in health and education, because we will be able to reflect on decisions before they are made.”
“Referendums are difficult to achieve in this country, but if we don’t constitutionally enshrine it [our voice], it will be exposed to the whims of the political ideology of the day,” Mayor said.
“In 1967 we were counted. In 2017 we sought to be heard.”