What the Voice means to me

Posted on 25 Jul 2023

By Thomas Mayo

Indigenous leader Thomas Mayo reveals in this clear and heartfelt book extract why he's a passionate advocate for the Voice to Parliament.

This is an edited extract from The Voice to Parliament Handbook by Thomas Mayo and Kerry O’Brien published by Hardie Grant Explore.

I will never forget when the Uluru Statement from the Heart was read for the first time on the morning of 26 May 2017. With raucous acclamation, we stood as one at the Uluru National Constitutional Convention, to endorse its words and its proposal to establish a constitutionally enshrined Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice.

The delegates came from urban centres, and rural and remote communities; we were Indigenous healers, service workers, labourers, tradespeople, cultural leaders, rangers – you name an occupation, region or First Nation and there was someone at the convention with that background.

To reach the consensus position, we suspended our disbelief that this modern nation could agree to meaningful constitutional change. After many days of discussion and debate, a great majority of the delegates chose unity and hope.

The hard work Indigenous peoples did should never be underestimated. No one should discount the emotional toil in the debates and discussions, nor how carefully we considered the lessons from the past so we might determine the path to a better future for all Australians.

To reach a collective position, we relied on our culture. We respected each other’s various perspectives and we listened to each other. We practised reciprocity. And finally, we were willing to reach a compromise among ourselves so that we could stand with the strength of unity.

The Voice proposal is a wonderful consensus position, informed by history, experience and sound, logical sense.

We have continued to work hard. The Uluru Statement – the invitation to accept our Voice – is written to the Australian people. And so, we have taken the invitation to millions of Australians to let them know why we have invited them to walk with us.

This nation-building opportunity at a referendum is not a government idea. Rather, it is a gift from Indigenous peoples.

Soon after the Uluru Constitutional Convention in 2017, I had the honour of carrying the sacred Uluru Statement canvas, signed by the 250 delegates and imbued with Anangu lore, to Australians all around the country and from all walks of life. When the Liberal government dismissed our proposal for a Voice in October that year, many Australians joined us by refusing to take ‘No’ for an answer.

The momentum we built, beginning with a uniquely national Indigenous consensus in the heart of the nation at Uluru, followed by an ongoing campaign, has convinced the current government to act. The Labor government has committed to asking the Australian people to decide. I hope the result will reflect the people’s goodwill and propensity towards fairness.

We cannot rely on goodwill alone, though. It is important for voters to understand that voting ‘Yes’ will benefit Indigenous peoples in a practical way, while also strengthening our democracy and our egalitarian society.

Finding ways to inform Australians to counter misinformation has been an important part of my work since the Uluru Statement was created six years ago. In addition to giving hundreds of speeches, I have used writing to inform people. This is my fourth book about the Uluru Statement from the Heart, though this one focuses on the Voice referendum.

Finding the Heart of the Nation was published in October 2019, a narrative series of interviews I conducted with twenty Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people about the many reasons why they support the Uluru Statement. Finding Our Heart, the children’s book I mentioned earlier, was published in June 2020. And Freedom Day, a book that shares the Gurindji People’s perspective on the importance of a Voice, co-authored with Gurindji leader Vincent Lingiari’s granddaughter, Rosie Smiler, was published in August 2021.

Kerry O’Brien and I met when I launched my first book, Finding the Heart of the Nation. As you will read in these pages, Kerry is very well informed when it comes to Indigenous affairs. His intimate knowledge, much of it sourced from his interviews with prime ministers and some of the greatest Indigenous leaders, and his ABC reports over decades, led me to him when I had the idea to write this book. Kerry and I have come together to give you the detail you need to decide how you will vote in the referendum.

The referendum is imminent. On your ballot, you may only vote ‘Yes’ or ‘No’. I believe it is a choice between Australia being a mature nation, unique in the world, with over 60 millennia of unbroken civilisation, or being a young nation at merely 122 years since Federation. It is a choice between improving the lives of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, through the simple act of asking the Parliament to listen, or choosing to accept more of the same.

As a signatory to the Uluru Statement from the Heart, I invite you to choose ‘Yes’. Together, our country has much to gain.

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