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For months, Indigenous activist Thomas Mayor carried the Uluru Statement from the Heart around Australia, rolling out the canvas as he told its story. With Labor and mining companies now on board, the push continues for a First Nations voice. “We have bipartisanship on the influences of the Australian public, left, right or centre. That’s the mindset we’re transferring to – fighting for the referendum to win.” By Kate Hennessy.

Indigenous activist Thomas Mayor’s clear statement

Thomas Mayor.
Credit: Deon Mununggurr

Thomas Mayor doesn’t want his profile written. I haven’t yet suggested one, but he’s sussed it’s on the table. “I don’t want all this to be about me,” he says. A week later, though, he’s changed his mind. He’s talked with some people, including distinguished Indigenous academic Marcia Langton. “They said, ‘Thomas, you’ve got your own story. You shouldn’t be afraid to tell it.’ ”

There’s a pattern here, he says. “I don’t want to speak up, I don’t say much. I’ll be the one listening and laughing along with everybody. But when someone doesn’t say something that needs to be said, like a controversial thing, I have to do it.”

Mayor, a Torres Strait Islander man raised on Larrakia land in Darwin, is equal parts gentleness and determination, with a way of making you feel heard. He’s one of those tall, well-built men who’s carried into adulthood more than a few flickers of how he looked as a mischievous kid.

The secretary of the Northern Territory branch of the Maritime Union of Australia, his recent history is entwined in that of the Uluru Statement from the Heart. The high-profile declaration, endorsed by 250 Indigenous leaders in May 2017, rejected merely symbolic constitutional recognition in favour of substantive constitutional reform. It requested a First Nations advisory body to parliament be enshrined in the constitution, as well as a process of agreement-making and truth-telling to be supervised by a Makarrata Commission. Makarrata is a Yolngu word for peace after a dispute.

From August 2017 until the following winter, Mayor was rarely seen without a cardboard cylinder under his arm, the Uluru statement rolled inside. The MUA covered his salary, travel and accommodation as he travelled to bush meetings, cities and community halls across Australia, to help to build the people’s movement needed to prompt a fresh flow of constitutional ink.

His first stop was at Kalkarindji in Gurindji country, for the 51st anniversary of the Wave Hill Walk-off. “The MUA supported that nine-year strike way back, without hesitation, when the Gurindji walked off,” Mayor says. “We have a history of standing up for social justice issues beyond our own wages and conditions.”

From there, he spoke to Indigenous elders, students, academics, judges, barristers, community service workers, activists, union members and regular citizens. It was a relentless itinerary.

“If I had a gap in my diary, I didn’t just sit in my hotel room,” he says. “I was conscious of the importance of what I’m fighting for, and that it’s at the cost of workers’ dues. I’d go and cold call and say, ‘Hey, do you know the Uluru statement? Do you want to see it?’ Then I’d drop in and do a presentation and other invites would come from there.”

Mayor says he may have driven Labor MPs Anthony Albanese and Linda Burney “a bit mad”. “I’d rock up at events, unroll the canvas on the grass,” he says, “and wow everyone with it.”

Mayor and I first met last year at Barunga Festival, an hour’s drive from Katherine. He was advocating the Uluru statement to whoever paused to take in the work of Anangu artist Rene Kulitja and her collaborators from Maruku artists’ co-operative, radiant in the sun, which fringed the canvas statement.

“Is this the actual statement?” I asked him. “The original?” The pencil marks beneath the 250 signatures were still visible. On the main stage, Opposition Leader Bill Shorten had just made a speech saying: “Decisions made about [our First Australians] … made with them and by them ... is not a radical concept.”

Mayor’s worry, he said, was that our political leaders might legislate a voice to parliament before taking it to a referendum to enshrine it in the constitution. “That leaves it open. Maybe not in our generation, or our children’s, but eventually a John Howard will come along to destroy everything we’ve built.”

 

Mayor was raised in Darwin’s northern suburbs in a house built by his dad, then a linesman, “on one wage, low income”. His great-grandmother had been forced to move from Badu Island to Thursday Island, where his dad was born. “Full-blood islanders weren’t allowed to live there, only what they called ‘half-castes’ and whitefellas. Assimilation policy, basically.”

He got As and Bs at school but “wasn’t really into it” and any chance he got, he would go off fishing or hunting dugong and turtles. At the end of Year 12, he applied for two traineeships – one as an electrician and one with the Port Authority. “I got the maritime one,” he says. “In the interview, I talked about how much I love the sea and it obviously went down well.”

In those early days on the wharves he saw hints of the impact collective action could have. When overtime was missing from his pay packet, or something was unsafe, and the union would make it right. But his real conversion to collectivism came in 1998. “I was driving to work one morning, and the radio said we were all being sacked,” Mayor says. “They’d torn my comrades out of cranes and forklifts around the country and I thought, ‘Shit, I’ve got no job.’ I was a young bloke, 21, and I already had one kid with another on the way.”

The waterfront dispute with the Patrick Corporation dragged on for nine months – one of the biggest industrial tug of wars of its time. “Patrick was caught out training ex-SAS soldiers in Dubai, like mercenaries, to do our jobs,” says Mayor. “The Howard government was really anti-worker … they were going to de-unionise the wharves.

“I learnt a lot about unity during that time. It confirmed for me that it didn’t matter how good a worker you were, ultimately these employers have a drive not in the interests of the worker. Since 1998, especially, we see this drive for more and more profit.”

By age 27, Mayor was caring for his three children as a single dad. They were four, six and seven. “I had help from my mum and sisters, but I never took advantage of that. It’s something I’m pretty proud of. I looked after them proper to the point where I’d iron and starch their clothes every morning for school. I was brought up with discipline, so I consciously shifted to give my kids more cuddles. Not to be harsh to my old man, he was loving, and all that.”

At 33, Mayor was elected president of the Northern Territory Trades and Labour Council. His social justice work ramped up, spurred by the Indigenous community closures in Western Australia in 2015 – labelled “lifestyle choices” by then prime minister Tony Abbott – and the abuse at Don Dale Youth Detention Centre the following year. “The numbers on the street at the Darwin rallies were low,” says Mayor of protests then. “I felt I had a responsibility to do more with what I’d learnt about organising through the union movement.”

His work was noticed by Indigenous activists and elders and Mayor was selected to facilitate one of the grassroots dialogues that happened in the six months leading up to the Uluru National Constitutional Convention. He explains the formula to me in his calm yet meticulous way. Of the 100 spots at each dialogue, 60 per cent were reserved for First Nations participants and traditional owners, 20 per cent for Indigenous workers in their organisations and 20 per cent for key Indigenous individuals and activists. Experts were on hand to answer knotty constitutional questions; international examples were considered and lessons from the past weighed up.

Mayor was impressed. “I asked the room, mainly people who’d been in the struggle a long time, ‘Has there been an opportunity like this before?’ The answer was, ‘No.’ ”

 

On May 25, 2017, a pack of media waited outside the Uluru meeting place. Inside, about 270 Indigenous delegates, invited onto Anangu land for the convention, were assembled for a second day of talks. The deadline for consensus was day three. When seven delegates and their supporters walked out in protest, saying their concerns were not being heard, Mayor knew how the story would unfold in the headlines.

“They walked into a media scrum and it got national attention,” he says. “Critics who thought we could never reach consensus would have felt vindicated, like they were right. But they were wrong.” The next day the Uluru statement was read aloud for the first time by Professor Megan Davis and everyone in the room stood as one to endorse it.

Mayor stayed seated, taking it in. “It had been such a high-tension meeting. We are a purposely divided people … mining companies, corporations – whoever would set us up to fight each other. All these things come together when we do – the impacts of colonisation, of growing up in families with abuse …

“I saw people who’d been passionately debating each other, embracing, crying with hope. That emotional investment should not be forgotten. And reaching a consensus of 250 of around 270, that’s a very significant majority. It was a solution that went to the root cause of the issue, to structural powerlessness.”

Later, at Melbourne University’s law faculty, experts told Mayor that moments such as the Uluru consensus are called “constitutional moments”. “I have not forgotten that,” he says. “It’s a significant moment in a nation’s history that can lead to constitutional reform. Who wants to wait another generation or two before we have another meeting like that?”

Yet we’d both been at Barunga for the 30th anniversary of Bob Hawke’s treaty promise. Early in the festival, the NT government made headlines by promising to negotiate a treaty with the territory’s four land councils. But when the politicians left, and with them almost all the media, it was just Yothu Yindi’s 1991 song “Treaty” on repeat all weekend. “But promises can disappear/ just like writing in the sand.”

Mayor had nearly met Hawke at Woodford Folk Festival – another stop on his travels with the canvas. “I just got the microphone when they finished up the session,” he says. “I was going to ask, ‘You were clearly upset that you didn’t deliver on a treaty as prime minister. Clearly the political expediency of the day led you to break your promise, but if there were a stronger people’s movement behind treaty at the time, would the pressure have been enough to deliver it?’ ” You get the sense Mayor would be ready, if Hawke did happen to amble around the corner, to put the question to him, not least because he recalls it verbatim.

Mayor’s final presentation with the Uluru statement came at the Australian Labor Party national conference in Adelaide in December 2018. “It was beginning to fray a bit,” he says. He’d organised a rally outside the venue, and inside standing orders were suspended for him to speak. The ALP’s platform now reflects the Uluru statement’s proposals, with the party committed to holding a referendum on a First Nations voice in its first term, if elected.

In January, BHP and Rio Tinto threw their weight behind the statement, too, following more than 10,000 other signatories. “I woke up in the middle of the night, after Bill [Shorten] reconfirmed [the ALP’s platform], thinking that we have the ingredients to win,” says Mayor. “We have bipartisanship on the influences of the Australian public, left, right or centre. That’s the mindset we’re transferring to – fighting for the referendum to win.”

Mayor’s advocacy of the Uluru statement will continue in his newly created role as national indigenous officer for the Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union (CFMMEU). His book, meanwhile, called Finding the Heart of the Nation, is due out in October. In researching it, he retraced places he visited with the canvas, including Uluru – his first time back since the convention in 2017.

“When I flew there from Darwin in 2017, I read the Australian constitution on the flight,” he says. “This time, I looked at the landscape out the window and it struck me that I was reading the original constitution of this country, written in the land.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Mar 23, 2019 as "Making peace". Subscribe here.

Kate Hennessy
is a Walkley Award-winning journalist specialising in arts and travel.