The push for Constitutional reform to give Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people a voice to Federal Parliament has been given the support of the Maritime Union of Australia.
MUA Northern Territory secretary and Torres Strait Islander Thomas Mayor is on secondment from the union to chair an Indigenous working group whose job will be to make sure Australia stays on track for a referendum on the issue.
“The union is not seeking to own any of this,” Mr Mayor said. “It’s not a matter of beating our chest. It’s a matter that this is something we should do like anyone else who provides in-kind support for anything they believe in that matters to the community.”
The working group is made up of 28 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander representatives who were elected to take up the baton for Constitutional reform once the Referendum Council finishes its work on June 30.
It will be the working group’s job to make sure the Referendum Council’s report to Federal Parliament is not shelved and forgotten about.
If accepted, Australia could go to a referendum within a year.
Mr Mayor, the interim chairman of the group, said the support of the Australian public, governments, big business and the unions would be critical to getting a better deal for Indigenous people.
“I think all organisations can have a role to play supporting the campaign going forward,” he said.
“It is absolutely critical to get as many organisations on board, community groups, state and territory governments, businesses and business councils.”
At Uluru last week, Aboriginal leaders from around Australia met for three days of talks that culminated in the ‘Uluru Statement’, which calls for the establishment of a First Nations Voice enshrined in the Constitution.
A Makarrata Commission (Makarrata is the Yolgnu word for ‘treaty’) would umpire agreement-making between governments and Indigenous people.
Mr Mayor said it was important the process did not stall once the Referendum Council report went to parliament.
He said reports, statements and petitions in the past had been shelved too often.
“We’re not going to allow that to happen this time,” he said.
“We believe we have a fair and reasonable call that can unite Australia and there will be hard work to see that the politicians listen to this and that Australians understand they should support us.”
Mr Mayor said a big part of the working group’s job would be to make sure all Australians understand what it is Aboriginal people are asking for.
“There are mixed messages now and we need to make sure people understand clearly what is being called for,” he said.
“Unlike what Barnaby Joyce has said, we’re not calling for a third parliament.
“We’re simply saying we want a Constitutional voice that cannot be struck out at the whim of a politician.”
Mr Mayor said the working group would run a “grassroots campaign” to ensure politicians took the Uluru Statement seriously.
“There was bipartisan support and the question was asked ‘What do you want?’” he said.
“There has been a decision on that and that decision has been fair and reasonable, especially when you consider other countries have a voice for their Indigenous people that is far more structured and certain than we have.
“So there is that side and there is also the community campaign that must be done. A referendum requires a majority of voters in a majority of states to agree, so not only do we need our supporters we need people to understand what we are asking for.
“With the right attention paid to this and the right regard to seeing Australia catch up with other countries and giving a voice to what you could call a forgotten people, I think it’s possible, but the commitment needs to be there.
“It’s concerning some politicians have commented in a way that has inflamed things as far as what we want, seemingly without having read the report, but the feeling is still positive.
“We want to sit down with those politicians who have some misinformation and we want to work through it.”
Mr Mayor said Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people could help by lending their voice to the campaign and be ready to vote “yes” in a referendum.
Mr Mayor started working on the wharves at 17 as a maritime trainee and went on to become a wharfie and then a union representative. He set up and now heads the MUA in Darwin.
He said the union had endorsed his role with the working group.
“You just have to have a go,” he said. “I know it is something that is important. I know it can change so many lives.”
Meanwhile Referendum Council members Noel Pearson, Pat Anderson and Megan Davis were members of an ABC panel on Q&A on Monday night.
Mr Pearson said he envisaged the voice to parliament would be elected by Indigenous people.
“In many ways it will be the tent embassy in stone,” Mr Pearson said.
“It wouldn’t have a role in the legislative parliament, but it would be a political organisation.”
By Wendy Caccetta