Thomas Mayo on finding Voice


31 May 2023

Kaurareg and Kalkalgal, Erubamle man Thomas Mayo is one of the people working on the frontline during the Yes campaign for a First Nations Voice to Parliament to be enshrined in the Australian Constitution. A unionist, author and cultural advisor to organisations such as the Diversity Council of Australia and the From the Heart campaign, he was a signatory for the Uluru Statement from the Heart and is the national Indigenous officer of the Maritime Union of Australia (MUA).

Mayo was born on Larrakia Country, Darwin, and learned to hunt traditional food with his father. Despite his high school English teacher’s suggestion to become a writer, he became a wharf labourer at age 17. During our yarn, Mayo reflects on his union’s solidarity in times when he needed them, and the MUA’s previous support of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in protests, as well as broader social change. He became a union official for the MUA in his early thirties.

“A lot of what this country takes for granted has come from the collective action of unions, such as universal and affordable health care, retirement, permanent jobs, sick leave, maternity leave,” he says. And it’s this collective organising and community support that he also sees as the basis for Voice, seeing a parallel between how unions work and the potential for how Voice can be politically effective. “Without a structure to work from, to get outcomes, you can’t take your people forward,” he says.

Voice, Treaty, Truth

Mayo is in a unique position; in being a signatory of the Uluru Statement from the Heart, he has seen the discussions of Voice, Treaty and Truth as it was developed as core principles of the Statement. He has gone on to write books Finding the Heart of the Nation and The Voice to Parliament Handbook to write about this journey in more depth. To share his understanding of the Voice to Parliament, alongside other speakers, Mayo has held yarning sessions across Australia to inform the wider community about what a Voice to Parliament might look like, and what it might mean for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.

“Australians want to be sure it’s something that will help our people and communities,” he says. “If people believe it’s symbolic, they’ll vote no. It’s a very practical reform, it’s a coherent Voice that our parliament must listen to.”

Mayo believes a Voice to Parliament has great potential to be a vehicle for change for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and self-determination, but like within any group of people, opinions and priorities vary among individuals. Some people want Treaty to come first, before a Voice is enshrined, for example, and others point to the broken promises of the governments that have come before. However, Mayo sees Voice as a step towards Treaty.

“It’s easy to say no to things because we’ve had promises broken before,” Mayo says. “The Voice is pathway to Treaty. Treaty (at this stage) is likely to take at least 20 years, maybe longer. Are we to wait for an uncertain outcome in a Treaty, or do we get a Voice now?”

Mayo says it’s important to know the difference between genuine concern and people trying to work the ‘no’ angle for other agendas. “The No (campaign) is asking questions without listening to the answers,” he says. “Our strategy to address this is to keep it simple and we should have a say about affairs concerning us. The greatest enemy of the referendum’s success is confusion.”

A Voice to Parliament

If a Voice were to be enshrined in the constitution, it would be a permanent fixture in parliament.

“Enshrinement is about accountability of parliamentarians, the government and how they implement the decisions of parliament, and accountability of our own leaders,” says Mayo, adding that regardless of the specific design of Voice, the goal will remain the same – to ensure Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples have representation in agendas and issues that concern them directly.

“The government makes decisions about housing, the justice system, health, employment,” Mayo says, “all of these are shaped by legislation in parliament … and having someone at the front end of those things is a very practical thing. It’s the most practical way to do this.”

In the lead up to the referendum, more details on Voice will come and Mayo believes that once Voice is enshrined, the campaign for Treaty can ramp up.

Taking the plunge

Mayo says understanding how much Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples have had to overcome and the historical and contemporary issues many First Nations peoples face, it will provide context as to why this Voice is needed. He recommends people read books and articles by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander authors and “immerse themselves in our culture, a unique culture in the world, which has continued for over 60,000 years”.

“There are still a lot of people unaware of the proposal who are still learning about it,” Mayo says. “The truth gets us across the line, and the years of struggle up until this point. When people have that very simple information … a great majority of Australians and Mob are reasonably minded and when supported with the facts, are supportive.”

Mayo reflects on the way children have responded to the Voice when he has gone into schools to read his book about the Uluru Statement, Finding Our Heart. “Children love our culture, they seem to innately understand it,” Mayo says.

As part of an exercise, the kids involved were asked to respond to his book by doing artwork and writing letters. The number of responses from these children was so significant, they were compiled into a flipbook by Reconciliation Tasmania.

Mayo also calls on teachers to consider the needs of their Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students and colleagues. “The coming months are going to be tough on Mob,” he says, acknowledging there are going to be many voices and debates around the Voice’s legitimacy and efficacy. “Trolls on social media are trying to create division and confusion. Although a small proportion of our Mob are dead against this, I encourage people to acknowledge we have diverse opinions. We all have that responsibility, if we understand [Voice], to share with others and quell that confusion.”

Voice, after all, is Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples having a say about policies and legislation that affects them and Mayo is sharing his voice on Voice proudly.


YES to Voice

The short of it

Later this year, Australia is going to the polls to vote on whether the Constitution should be amended to enshrine a national Indigenous advisory body to advise the federal parliament on laws and policies affecting Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. This will be the 45th referendum in Australia. For the 1967 landmark referendum, having consulted with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities and organisations, unions supported the Yes campaign, too.


Why Referendum?

The Australian Constitution sets out the laws of Australia. Referendums are the only way that you can change the Australian Constitution.

The question being put at the referendum is:

“A Proposed Law: to alter the Constitution to recognise the First Peoples of Australia by establishing an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice. Do you approve this proposed alteration?”

Subject to change, the proposed amendment to the Constitution is to include the following three sentences:

  • There shall be a body, to be called the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice.
  • The Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice may make representations to Parliament and the Executive Government on matters relating to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples.
  • The Parliament shall, subject to this Constitution, have power to make laws with respect to matters relating to the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice, including its composition, functions, powers and procedures.

1967 Referendum

The 1967 Referendum asked:

“Do you approve the proposed law for the alteration of the Constitution entitled ‘An Act to alter the Constitution so as to omit certain words relating to the people of the Aboriginal race in any state and so that Aboriginals are to be counted in reckoning the population’?”

… and sought to change two sections of the Constitution in relation to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples:

  • To give the Commonwealth Parliament power to make laws with respect to Aboriginal people wherever they lived in Australia; and
  • To make it possible to include Aboriginal people in national censuses.

In 1967, with almost 94% turnout, 90.77% of Australian voters voted ‘Yes’ to the changes.

Carissa Lee [Carissa Lee is a First Nations writer and commissioning editor for The Conversation.]

The article was originally published in The Australian TAFE Teacher, Autumn 2023