The Voice will respect the tradition prohibiting people speaking for other people’s country, according to Thomas Mayo, one of the leading figures in the Yes campaign for the referendum this year.
He and fellow campaigner Kerry O’Brien, a former prominent ABC journalist, appeared on the weekend in two well attended sessions at the NT Writers Festival in Alice Springs where they launched their Voice to Parliament Handbook.
Mr Mayo says current Indigenous Members of Parliament are not adequate as representative of First Nations interests because they represent their electorates, not only First Nations, they may not be re-elected and they are obliged to do the bidding of the political parties that nominate them.
And despite the Voice campaigners’ reservations about the Parliamentary process they agree with all key decisions about the Voice – should the referendum ratify its inclusion in the Constitution – being made by the two Federal Houses, including questions of representation and consultation with the 881,600 Aboriginal people (ABS 2021) in Australia, 3.8% of the nation’s population.
Mr Mayo spoke with editor ERWIN CHLANDA who had also interviewed him in May 2018.
NEWS: “My country” is an expression likely to crop up in most conversations with Aboriginal people. The relationship to land is fundamental to the structure of their society. In the old days talking for someone else’s country could be punished by death.
MAYO: In the old days. It is no different to other nations in Europe, for example, where a citizen of a nation shared classified information, there would have been a form of capital punishment. Indigenous culture, law and lores were no more violent for the times than European culture and law.
NEWS: How many pieces of land referred to by someone as “my country” are there – say – in a 500 kilometre radius from Alice Springs? There are three in Alice Springs alone.
MAYO: I don’t know how many there are in this area. I am not from here.
NEWS: How will the Aboriginal people making up the Voice in Canberra, 24 or 46 of them, as has been suggested, avoid talking about someone else’s country without authority?
MAYO: The Voice won’t speak for people’s country. Only those traditional owners can speak for their country. But there are issues that are across all our communities. Matters of housing, for example, how programs are funded, how efficient they are, infrastructure, the justice system as well. They Voice would take up those things that are common. Local issues and how things are done on country are still up to that community and to that nation, that traditional owner group.
NEWS: There are many examples of Indigenous people broadly ignoring the voices to Parliament they have now. For example in Gwoja, a predominantly Indigenous seat in the NT, which has an Indigenous Member, only half the people turn up to vote. Three of the four current Territory Federal members are black.
MAYO: Indigenous Members of Parliament represent their electorates and their political party, which are always mostly non-Indigenous. The Voice will be Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders chosen by their communities, who can be held to account for what they say on our behalf by our communities and will be informed by our communities. It also guarantees that there will be a voice even if no Indigenous Members of Parliament are elected.
NEWS: Past representative bodies have a poor record. That does not encourage us to have faith in the Voice.
MAYO: It’s a flawed argument to say that Indigenous people cannot have a representative body that’s going to be successful. You could point to representatives that have failed, whether they are Indigenous of non-Indigenous organisations. All organisations will have problems from time to time. We’ve never had the opportunity … to evolve and improve and to learn from mistakes and have a voice that gets stronger and more effective and gets better outcomes. Every time in the past they have been defunded, or been repealed, basically silenced.
NEWS: In the past when something didn’t work we had the opportunity of shutting it down. With the Voice in the Constitution we’d be stuck with it forever, whether it works or not.
MAYO: Why would we not make it the norm that people who have decisions made for them all the time, with the race power in the Constitution? It should be a guaranteed thing. It should be a permanent part of our democracy because Indigenous peoples are distinctive peoples. We are recognised as that more and more in our society. We are not going away, we’ve been here for 60,000 years. It’s not only about addressing problems. It’s also about Indigenous knowledge informing the decisions Parliament makes.
Mr Mayo refers to Section 51/26 in the Constitution, regulating 39 legislative powers of the Parliament, which says in part: “The Parliament shall … have power to make laws for the peace, order, and good government of the Commonwealth with respect to … the people of any race for whom it is deemed necessary to make special laws.
MAYO: The Parliament has control over how the Voice model works. There is a flexibility for it to always improve.
NEWS: How many Indigenous people were consulted in the formulation of the Voice proposal?
MAYO: If the question is about all Indigenous people, all clans, all moieties who were consulted in the development of the Voice, well that would take a massive amount of resources. We are spread across this vast continent. The normal way of doing things is to do it in a formulated way where you ensure that all the different perspectives and experiences are represented. The whole point of what we’re doing here is establishing the means for our people to be heard in the first place.
NEWS: And then you get the Parliament consisting mostly of whitefellas deciding how you should be heard.
MAYO: We’ll have a structured, informed, regulated ability to reach consent, representatives whom we choose, not a political party, and hold them to account through democratic processes.
NEWS: How many Aboriginal people are having a say directly in the formulation of the Voice?
MAYO: That’s to come. The referendum is not about the model. It is about establishing the guarantee, the principle that Aboriginal people should have a Voice on matters that relate to them.
AT TOP (from left): Moderator Josie Douglas, Mr Mayo and Mr O’Brien.
UPDATE June 8:
A meeting of the Northern and Central Land Councils has passed a resolution with overwhelming support endorsing a call to all Australians to support a Voice to Parliament, according to a media statement.
“It is expected a declaration will be signed by more than 200 representatives of the four Northern Territory Aboriginal land councils at a gathering this week on the traditional lands of the Bagala (Jawoyn) group at Barunga, south-west of Katherine,” says the statement.
“Together, the land council members speak with the authority as the elected representatives of tens of thousands of grass roots residents of remote communities, town camps and towns across the Territory.
“The text of a declaration will be released after it has been formally presented to the Minister for Indigenous Australians, the Hon Linda Burney MP, following the Minister’s address to the gathering tomorrow morning.”
UPDATE June 9:
The four Northern Territory Aboriginal land councils today signed the Barunga Voice Declaration that addresses all Australians and urges them to support a “Voice to the Parliament and executive government, never to be rendered silent with the stroke of a pen again,” according to a media release.
More than 200 representatives of the Northern, Central, Tiwi and Anindilyakwa land council are gathered on the traditional lands of the Bagala (Jawoyn) group at Barunga, south-east of Katherine.
Land council members signed the declaration and a copy was presented to the Minister for Indigenous Australians, Linda Burney.
It invites all Australians to “right the wrongs of the past and deal with the serious issues impacting First Nations peoples … and unite our country”.
The release says: “Together, the land council members speak with the authority as the elected representatives of tens of thousands of grass roots residents of remote communities, town camps and towns across the Territory.”