Catch up on a conversation between renowned Indigenous leader Thomas Mayo and journalist Kerry O’Brien, hosted by the Readings Foundation at the Church of All Nations on 25 May 2023. Co-authors of The Voice to Parliament Handbook, Thomas and Kerry unpacked their reasons for writing the guide, and explained why this book is essential reading for all Australians as we move closer towards the 2023 referendum for constitutional recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.
This event was captured by videographers Stu Mannion and Gregory Erdstein, moderated by Mary Crooks AO (Executive Director, Victorian Women’s Trust; and Project Director of Together, Yes).
Our “Kitchen Table Conversations” Yes campaign, Together, Yes is featured in the Handbook as an action people can take in the lead up to the referendum to help grow community support for the Voice. To find out how you can get involved, visit: www.togetheryes.com.au
MARY CROOKS: Let’s start with a reflection on the process leading to the first Indigenous Constitutional Convention and ultimately, the Statement from the Heart. I’m going to ask Thomas to open by talking about the process that lead up to it, because a few people, a few voices around the nation are demeaning it and calling its integrity into question which is completely baseless.We know that’s the kind of thing that’s happening. So, Thomas, let’s start with some reflections on the process itself.
THOMAS MAYO: Yeah, thank you Mary. I acknowledge Country as well, Wurundjeri People and elders, past and present. The process behind this, I meant it, what the the No campaign are saying is that this is a Canberra Voice, that this is something that is an ALP idea and Albanese’s idea, which is completely false and that is because of the process that led to the making of the Uluru Statement from the Heart that has the key claim, the key proposal for a constitutionally enshrined voice. The process was regional dialogues that covered the entire continent and adjacent islands. They were three days each, they were well informed. There was an intense lesson on civics for the participants. There was 100 participants at each not to exclude anybody, but to ensure that there was a cross-section of views and perspectives and types of advocates in the room. So not just the loudest advocates were learned, but the quieter advocates that do the frontlines work in healing and those types of things. There was a accurate record of meeting endorsed at the end of that three days and the dialogues elected delegates to go to a culminating convention in the heart of the nation at Uluru. And that was three more days of passionate debate and discussion. And we reached a consensus on the final morning at Uluru, and that is the Uluru Statement from the Heart.
And so that process was looking back at our history to understand the struggles
and the things that had worked, the things that had failed, the promises made, the promises broken, the numerous other committees that were established that had looked into this, and understanding all of that and the politics behind it sensibly and logically proposes that the Voice is constitutionally enshrined.
And that is because every other time that we have established a voice it has been silenced by governments that come along, that are hostile and that don’t want to be held to account for the decisions in Indigenous affairs.
And as we know, in the absence of Indigenous people providing those solutions and being in the decision making about our lives, those decisions that are made without us fail. And that’s where it comes from.
KERRY O’BRIEN: Thomas and I had come to know each other somewhat because when he brought his first book out on the journey to Uluru. I interviewed him.
We ran a conversation in Byron Bay, run by the local bookshop, and we then found ourselves sharing the stage with NITV and SBS on a January 26 program, a sunrise program, a real sunrise that is, not the television one.
And then when Thomas brought out another of his many books, we talked again and then out of the blue he rang me, in early November last year and told me what he had in mind as a handbook. Told me why he thought it was important. He didn’t have to speak for too long. I needed a little bit of time to think it through because I was about to engage in another project and wasn’t sure that it was going to happen. 24 hours later, I was able to ring him back and say yes but it was at that point that we got
to the reality edge which was that even though it was only going to be around 100 pages, 20,000 words in the end, we were going to have to get through this and
Thomas had given it some thought, obviously, because it had been boiling away in the back of his mind for quite a while.
I had absolutely no idea what I was going to write or how I was going to deal with it, but, essentially, we didn’t even know at the point exactly what the deadline was.
It was going to be somewhere in March. But what the reality moment was that we had to have the first draft done, dear old Hardie Grant said at the time, we had to get the first draft done pretty much by mid-December, which didn’t happen and the experience that both of us have with books and publishers is that this kind of little shadow game goes on around deadlines.
But, you know, they are real in the end we all worked remotely through the whole thing and no point were we in the same room as we were putting this book together.
Thomas pretty much set up the outline and away we went. And we’d finished that draft pretty much by February. And then there was some tinkering and some kind of hard slog and reappraisals and we were racing the clock while at the same time watching what seemed to be a very slow process going on in Canberra because we were desperate to have the form of words settled on by cabinet before that book hit the printing presses, if that’s what you call them these days.
And literally on I think it was March 15 or 16, and we were told that the shutters were coming down at about 2 o’clock in the afternoon and late that morning cabinet came good with the wording and there was that extraordinary.. was that the day Thomas, where you all stood around the press conference?
THOMAS MAYO: The next morning.
KERRY O’BRIEN: The next morning. Well, that was like our full stop wasn’t it.
THOMAS MAYO: Yeah.
KERRY O’BRIEN: Yeah so. And, and you know, it’s continued to ferment. You know, this is the story that keeps going. It’s still in process. We’re getting a flavour of the kind of debate, if one can call it that, that’s taking place in the parliament as they move to the final vote on what the form of words will be, turn it into legislation. And then we then we sprint to the finish line, which is probably around October.
THOMAS MAYO: The incredible injustice that our people have suffered for so long that the result of that is the the gap that we all know about.
Almost ten years difference in life expectancy for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people that proportionately with the most incarcerated people on the planet.
That you have all of these issues you know, in the Northern Territory almost all of the time, 100% of the youth in detention, youth as young as ten years old are Indigenous. And that that is not a matter of our, what is in our DNA.
It’s not a matter of our culture. It is a matter of that history of injustice and the traumas carried from colonization, the genocide, the dispossession and the failed policies and harmful laws for such a long period of time.
That is just so important to understand when we consider this proposition that we’re all going to have a have an opportunity to respond to later this year. It just makes complete sense that we should recognise over 60,000 years of continuous culture and heritage and that we should do something to fix the problem.
The Uluru Statement nails it when it says that this is a structural problem. This is a torment of our powerlessness. The problem is not who we are as Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. It is a political and structural problem that we as the people of Australia can fix, and that is what we’re going to do later this year.
KERRY O’BRIEN: Like 99.9% of white or non-Indigenous Australians of my generation, the generations before me, and at least one, if not two generations after me.
I grew up in a pall of ignorance about Indigenous history, Indigenous culture, even Indigenous presence.
And I mean this reflected what Bill Stanner, at the time probably the preeminent anthropologist in Australia, what he called in his ABC Boyer Lectures in 1968, the Great Australian Silence, where he described the view from a window looking out on the Australian landscape.
But the but the window had been placed in such a way that a very crucial and central
part of that landscape was missing. And as a young journalist in 1970 I went to Alice Springs on a story that had absolutely nothing to do with any Indigenous issue. But, but what I, what was in front of me every time I stepped onto a street or walked anywhere or went anywhere in Alice Springs, was the rawest illustrations of the most fundamental and in ways, brutal racism, which shocked me to my core. I came back there in 1975. It was the first time I had the opportunity. I was with Four Corners. I basically rang some people in Alice Springs to find out what was going on then and heard about this case, which was still in train. A young Indigenous woman whose name I won’t mention, but but she was brutally bashed and died within I think 48 hours. Six young Indigenous men – they were boys really, still were railroaded into prison awaiting trial for the murder on the basis of confessions that, as was proven ultimately in the court, that could possibly be committed because a Uniting Church minister, named Jim Downing who had come from Redfern, where he worked
with Indigenous people to Alice Springs and took the trouble to actually learn the Pitjantjatjara language and was able to see and then give compelling evidence in court that knowing in the knowledge of the language and the concepts around their language that they could not possibly have made these confessions in English.
They were released as a result of that story and the case.The Whitlam Government
announced a Royal Commission into relations between police and Aboriginals in the Northern Territory. Five weeks later, the Whitlam Government was sacked, Fraser Government came in.
The Royal Commission disappeared. It never got to first base. 12 years later I was sitting in a committee room in the old Parliament House when Bob Hawke walked in there as Prime Minister and rather reluctantly announced the Royal Commission
into Black Deaths in Custody. 12 completely wasted years around those same issues and and the Royal Commission that followed over three or four years. Whatever it was, it was very extensive. Pat Dodson was one of the commissioners. Geoff Eames, the young lawyer who had brought the case to my attention in the first place, who came from Melbourne, was counsel assisting and subsequently became a distinguished judge in this state. The thing about this and the relevance of this is that 338, I think, recommendations were made by that Royal Commission and so many of those recommendations were never enacted, they were never acted, enacted in any kind of uniform way around the country.
The Black deaths are still occurring as we speak. And the point of it is, that despite the landmark aspects of that Royal Commission, the failures are manifest and the failures are because Indigenous voices, Indigenous evidence, the Indigenous story of injustice was never taken seriously.
THOMAS MAYO: I think you could say there’s been 20 more years of wasted time more than 20 years since that Royal Commission and the Royal Commission report, what those recommendations are based on the report is full of evidenced truth telling, evidenced truth telling. But what is missing from truth telling is the political influence that we require to get those those recommendations implemented. The truth telling needs a voice, and that’s one of the reasons why the Voice is so very important.
KERRY O’BRIEN: If you haven’t seen the three part SBS series called The Australian Wars by another of the great Indigenous women leaders who was a part of the campaign, Rachel Perkins daughter of Charlie Perkins. That is a profoundly moving and shocking series that every adult Australian should see and I’m just going to dwell on one small part of it as an illustration of the deliberate way in which Indigenous people were slaughtered over a very, very long time including into the 20th century. That the means of disguising and hiding and losing the evidence of the slaughters had been refined to the extent that, and there was a case in the Kimberley where people came back and this only came to light after a great deal of forensic work.
But, but fires, bonfires were built with massive amounts of timber to burn the evidence to the point where those people who had been slaughtered were reduced to ash and tiny fragments of bones. And am I trying to shock you? Not shock you, but force – and I probably don’t have to do it to you, but I want you to carry this stuff wherever you possibly can, as we’re all trying to do, just to actually reflect on what that means about the deliberate way in which Indigenous people were being removed from the face of their country. And so to go from there to what to what we’re about through this referendum now, just very briefly, this is a very simple proposition. It is the simplest of propositions. It is about fairness, it is about justice, it is about washing away some of what was done. Not washing away what was done, but but to correct, to take the the most marginalised group of people in this country who had custodianship of it for more than 60,000 years to through this Voice to Parliament elevate with policies that are at least to some extent directed from Indigenous communities, reflecting their wisdom and their knowledge, which the largely white bureaucrats and largely white politicians have so often misdirected.
And I’m not, you know, I don’t want to wipe away the good things that have been done
and there have been good things, but they have been incremental and they have gone up in one point in history and back in another as we change governments and as bureaucrats change.
Marcia Langton, just very quickly, Marcia Langton, part of the terrific evidence that she gave on the first day of the joint parliamentary committee hearings in Canberra that Thomas and I were sitting through. Where Marcia described this uniform view that came from meeting after meeting after meeting, 110 meetings they had around the country as the second stage of this process when they were doing the co-design on what the Voice might look like. Where people in these communities would talk about the fly-in, fly-out bureaucrats who would arrive, take copious notes, make promises, climb back on their planes, either never to be heard from again, or then write policies which did not reflect the advice that they were being given and failed.
THOMAS MAYO: It’s important for you to know. And the book contains these design principles that these design principles give some shape to the voice. Simple things really, about there being governance and transparency to the Voice that the Voice
would be independent of government, the Voice would be Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people chosen from their communities, according to their communities wishes that it won’t have a right to veto, you know.
So it just outlines, I think it’s A through to H some basic principles about how the Voice will be shaped the model and with some extra dot-points to give even more detail. So this question about detail that has been used to try and confuse Australians can be combated with that. But the simplest way to respond to it is that this is simply recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people as the First Peoples in the way that Indigenous peoples themselves have proposed in that process that I spoke of earlier that led to the making of the Uluru Statement from the Heart. And that way of recognition is to simply give us a say about the decisions that are made about us. That’s it. It’s recognition. And a say about decisions that are made about us. In the book we wanted to include some practical examples of how when Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have a say about decisions, then you get the best possible results. And so Marcia and and Fiona Stanley sent us some dot-points and we turned it into a chapter because it was so it was so well done. And one of those examples was COVID you know, a rare opportunity. Our people had some control over the measures taken over COVID to, you know, to keep COVID out of our communities and to respond to that threat.
And as said, it was one of the best results in the world,
KERRY O’BRIEN: But yet they were also extraordinarily vulnerable in many ways more vulnerable than most other Australians.
THOMAS MAYO: And other examples are in there like and a lot of you would know of these, the Koori Courts, you know, and how that helps with justice.
The Birthing on Country programs that are in some places, you know, and you get much, much better results. The evidence is there. It’s a unifying proposal, not divisive. This is about including Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in Australia’s founding documents, something that should have happened in 1901 when Federation occurred. I don’t think many Australians would disagree that if we were to remake the Constitution today, have constitutional conventions, that Indigenous people should be part of those discussions, that we are a part of the fabric of this nation and we are the heart of the nation, which is why I called the first book Finding the Heart of the Nation.
KERRY O’BRIEN: Well, again, on that first day of the parliamentary sittings, the Joint Committee of Inquiry, that was extensively dealt with, there were two lawyers who spoke for the No case. One of whom really was, was not arguing that there was a flaw in the case of Indigenous people being able to access executive government.
He was really arguing that politically it would be wise not to not to have that as a part of it, because that way you might get more conservative voters.
So he was trying to make a political argument rather than an argument based in any threat from the proposition. But then came a former chief justice of the high court, Robert French, another highly respected former Justice of the High Court, Kenneth Hayne, two preeminent Australian constitutional law academics in George Williams and Anne Twomey, and one of the leading silks at the High Court Bar in..
THOMAS MAYO: Brett Walker.
KERRY O’BRIEN: Brett Walker, All of whom, yes at times they were talking in legal terminology. At other times they were talking in the plainest of ways. But the combination of the two all said the same thing. It’s crap. Essentially. It is a fallacious argument. It’s not going to happen. So what was being painted by No campaigners was that the Indigenous Voice might seek to make specious representations to Cabinet on issues like as Thomas has said one or two times, parking fines or where you park your submarines or you know, whatever to do with anything across the board which and then say they weren’t listened to and they’d go to the High Court and argue it and the wheels of government would come to a grinding halt and the High Court would be clogged up forever. And that was what those five eminent lawyers all had to say. It is rubbish. It will not happen, and anyway, as Kenneth Hayne said, the courts are another fundamental pillar of our democracy. Another fundamental pillar of our democracy under the rule of law. So if a case goes to the High Court and is dealt with, what is the problem? So my great disappointment was that that was not really widely or fully reported the next day. And that’s a part of the problem
with this whole referendum so far. I think that journalists have got to sharpen their pens, at the risk of sounding dated.
What you can now say, Mary, is that that attempt to discredit has failed manifestly,
and that the historians that those people tried to pillory and discredit now stand tall
because the weight of evidence just keeps growing and growing and growing.
And it is irrefutable.
THOMAS MAYO: The fear mongering is similar to what happened when Mabo happened and the Native Title negotiations and everything and the same thing.
KERRY O’BRIEN: They were going to take suburban backyards. And that came from Victoria, that one.
THOMAS MAYO: Yeah, that’s the same fear mongering we’re seeing now.
KERRY O’BRIEN: And Wik, when the Wik judgement came down, pastoralists were going to lose their farms.
THOMAS MAYO: Those [Indigenous parliamentary] representatives, though, I’ve got great respect for most of them. They have, I’m sure, you know, like they represent electorates and their electorates are mostly non-Indigenous and they also represent political parties and they are necessarily loyal to those political parties if they want to make their way up in the world, in politics. They don’t speak for Indigenous people
because they’re not being held to account by their communities. And that is a really important thing to consider here.
The Voice is something that’s completely different. The Voice is chosen by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, people that come from the communities, that live and breathe our issues every day that are held to account, held to account by our communities. And that’s a vastly different thing from politicians. And our people are not looking to be politicians. We want to have representatives without having to go to a political party and to be politicians. This is very different things.
KERRY O’BRIEN: And another part of that is that there is no sense of permanence for politicians in most seats other than those that are have high margins as a cushion.
There’s no guarantee that in the next Parliament there’ll be 11 Indigenous politicians, there could be 12 or there could be 5. So there’s no permanence about it, there’s no guarantees with that. To “re-racialise Australia” as Peter Dutton said or to divide the nation or to have two countries or two sets of people. Well, Julian Leeser, who we now know perhaps better than we did a little while ago, who was until very recently,
Peter Dutton’s spokesperson on Indigenous Affairs in his Shadow Cabinet. When Peter Dutton announced that, without much consultation within his party, it came as a surprise to many, announced that the Liberal Opposition would campaign for the No case and that all Shadow Cabinet members would essentially have to support the No case. Now, Julian Leeser, as we know, resigned on principle. He’s sitting on the backbench of the Liberal Opposition and when he spoke yesterday as the very recent Shadow Spokesman for Indigenous Affairs, he says in the plainest of language, that an Indigenous Voice enshrined in the Constitution will see the economic advancement and the social advancement will see so many of these entrenched problems dealt with and there will not be two Australias. There will not be two Australias. Now, until two blinks of an eyelid, this guy was sitting at the same table as Peter Dutton as his party’s representative on Indigenous Policy. I don’t think we need to say anymore. I’ve spent decades observing the way power functions in this country, and there are people in this room who would remember starkly the nine month period that it took for Labor, the Labor Hawke Government, to determine the media ownership policies for Australia into the future. This was Paul Keating’s
‘Prince’s of Prints and Queens of the Screens’. and John Button, the late John Button, the late great John Button commented a little while later that it was like that
behind Hawke at that Cabinet table like Banquo’s ghost, stood two men:
Kerry Packer and Rupert Murdoch and a Rupert Murdoch can lift the phone to a Prime Minister and get through and the weight of money behind any number of industries in this country and in the Western world, in the democratic world, the weight of money speaks. And if you compare that with what we’re talking about as an Indigenous Voice to Parliament it is laughable to try to even put them on an equal footing. And yet the power of what that Voice can come to mean is profound.
THOMAS MAYO: You just can’t take it for granted that people understand how to advocate for something, and especially when it comes to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander matters, because people feel uncomfortable talking about these things for a lot of non-Indigenous people. People need to understand how much hard work we did to create this opportunity in the first place. Right? All of the struggle from our elders and our ancestors, the hard work that we did to to reach a consensus
with the Uluru Statement from the Heart, not taking no for an answer from Turnbull
and then Morrison and continuing to campaign over the last six years and to bring this opportunity here. And what we need people to do is do the same hard work that we did as Indigenous people to create this opportunity. We have brought us to this point and you need to pick up the baton and take it and hand it on to other Australians now and help them understand how to vote Yes. And so that’s the purpose of that chapter in the book. It’s quite brief. It just gives some guidance on conversations. There’s also QR codes in that chapter to go to Together Yes to register to join that part of our campaign and to go to the Yes 23 website and volunteer.
KERRY O’BRIEN: Part of what I think the book will deliver is that it is terribly important when people are going to actually front up, yes, of course, sometimes to people they know very well, but often, hopefully they’ll be talking to people that they don’t necessarily know terribly well and to feel the confidence to be able to to lay it all out there is incredibly important. And they will get this from the book. And the what I learned going around in that last election campaign of the way the Teals functioned based basically on the Indi model with the kitchen table conversations, do not underestimate the scope and the power and the possibilities with those kitchen table conversations. And Cathy McGowan was challenging people to to contact 50 other people to explain to them why their vote was going to be important in that election.
Now I think 50’s a bit daunting. 10’s not too bad. And if you just think about, you know, somewhere between 250 and 300 people here tonight, we’ve been doing audiences like this in the last few days, if each of you got to ten people and of those ten people, six were not outright Yeses, and at least half of those six changed from being either of those two middle groups that you describe to a Yes. And then hopefully some of them go on to address others. I mean, the cascading effect of this potentially is fantastic and it’s really an opportunity. You know, I mean, the the referendum to me is the most powerful expression of democracy we can have.
It’s a straight Yes or No. You know, it’s a really straightforward, simple, it’s an issue.
And we get to say Yes or No on it.
THOMAS MAYO: We gathered at the 2017 National Constitutional Convention. Coming from all points of the southern sky, make this statement from the heart:
Our Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander tribes were the first sovereign nations
of the Australian continent and its adjacent islands, and possessed it under our own laws and customs.
This our ancestors did, according to the reckoning of our culture, from the Creation, according to the common law from ‘time immemorial’ and according to science more than 60,000 years ago. This sovereignty is a spiritual notion: 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. It has never been ceded or extinguished, and it co-exists with the sovereignty of the Crown. How could it be otherwise? That a peoples possessed a land for sixty millennia and this sacred link should disappear from world history in merely the last 200 years?
With substantive constitutional change and structural reform, we believe this ancient sovereignty can shine through as a fuller expression of Australia’s nationhood.
Proportionally, we are the most incarcerated people on the planet. We are not an innately criminal people. Our children are alien from their families at unprecedented rates. This cannot be because we have no love for them. And our youth languish in detention in obscene numbers. They should be our hope for the future. These dimensions of our crisis tell plainly the structural nature of our problem. This is the torment of our powerlessness. We seek constitutional reforms to empower our people and take a rightful place in our own country. When we have power over our destiny, our children will flourish.
They will walk in two worlds and their culture will be a gift to their country.
We call for the establishment of a First Nation Voice enshrined in the Constitution.
Makarrata is the culmination of our agenda: the coming together after a struggle. It captures our aspirations for a fair and truthful relationship with the people of Australia and a better future for our children based on justice and self-determination.
We seek a Makarrata Commission to supervise a process of agreement-making between governments and First Nations and truth-telling about our history. 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.
Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.