Raise the Voice

One of the largest Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander delegations to Parliament House convened in mid-March 2021. The IEU’s delegates tell journalists Sue Osborne and Monica Crouch why.

Voice. Treaty. Truth. These are the three vital elements of the Uluru Statement from the Heart, which invites all Australians to walk with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people “in a movement of the Australian people for a better future”.

The delegation to Canberra, comprising union members from all over Australia, met with the Minister for Indigenous Australians, Ken Wyatt, to advance the referendum for an Indigenous Voice to Parliament.

The Voice provides a formal structure for Indigenous people to have a stronger say in their own affairs. “It is simply a representative body with democratic processes – it is the structure required to practise unity across a large number of people,” said author, activist and unionist Thomas Mayor, who convened the delegation.

“It is an enhancement of a people’s position through collectivism and structure. As unionists, we understand there is power in structure, in a strong, united voice.”

To protect this Voice, it needs to be enshrined in the Constitution via a referendum. If it is simply legislated by one government, it can be repealed by the next.

The delegation met with Labor Senator Malarndirri McCarthy from the Northern Territory and Senator Pat Dodson from Western Australia, along with Labor MPs Linda Burney, Tanya Plibersek and Bill Shorten. They met ACTU President Michele O’Neil. They heard from academic and lawyer Noel Pearson and the director of the From the Heart campaign, Dean Parkin. Importantly, they all met each other.

The IEU was proud to send three delegates and here we listen to their voices.

Kylie Booth-Martinez

“We were there to remind politicians that the Uluru Statement has not died down and that we’re looking for constitutional change,” said Wiradjuri woman Kylie Booth-Martinez, an Aboriginal Education Worker at St Stanislaus College and the Assumption Catholic Primary School, both in Bathurst. “Aboriginal people need to have more of a voice to say what works and what doesn’t – put power back in our people’s hands.”

Booth-Martinez sees unions, and particularly the IEU, as having a central role in educating and advocating for Voice Treaty Truth and constitutional change. “As teachers and educators, we have this great platform,” she said. “We have such access to educating our youth and our communities. And not just Aboriginal communities – all communities.”

Meeting peers from throughout Australia was important to Booth-Martinez. “It was a lovely time of solidarity, for being an Aboriginal person in a group of like-minded people,” she said. “It was a moment of feeling, ‘wow, I’m not the only one who feels the injustices or that this needs changing’.”

Hearing from Vicki Morta, the first female Indigenous bosun and member of the Maritime Union of Australia, was a standout for Booth-Martinez.

“Vicki works in a man’s world, and she was the first person in her family to have this sort of career,” she said.

“I met her in the day and she seemed quiet, but when she got up in front of this whole room of different powerful people, she was breathtaking. I was super proud of her for standing up there.”

Booth-Martinez also loved meeting Vincent Lingiari’s granddaughters, Lisa and Rosie Smiler, who came from the Northern Territory. “It doesn’t matter where we come from, what part of the country, it doesn’t matter, we’re the same culture and we have a goal for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.”

(Vincent Lingiari led the nine-year Wave-Hill walk-off in 1966 as the Aboriginal workers were paid in rations alone. He is famously pictured with Gough Whitlam in 1975, with Whitlam pouring a handful of red soil into his hands, symbolising the return of Wave Hill station to the Gurundji people.)

It was also an inspiring time of union solidarity. “Unions all have their place, from the wharfies through to the education unions, and I felt that,” Booth-Martinez said. “We all bring our power to this arena. And out of all the unions, our union is one of the best placed. I would love to see more Aboriginal people teaching the teachers.”

Vincent Cooper

Vincent Cooper, Ministry Coordinator at St Joseph’s High School in Aberdeen near Newcastle, said the Voice to Parliament is a practical reform that would “give Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people a say over the policies that directly impact us”.

“Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people understand the issues on the ground in our community, so we know the best ways to address them. Instead of listening to the bureaucracy, parliament and the government need to listen to us to address the problems,” Cooper said.

“The best way for MPs to understand the need for a Voice is by listening to stories. Stories create emotional connection to a policy, showing MPs why there is a real need for change in local communities. Our delegation allowed us to tell the politicians our stories.”

Cooper said the Voice would be a fair and unifying reform allowing all Australians to come together to deliver real change for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

In the 1967 referendum, Australians voted overwhelmingly for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders to be counted in the census. “Fifty years since that referendum, it’s time our voices were heard – only when our voices are heard can we start to close the gap that exists in Australia,” he said.

“Treaty is important to us, but we know that we need a strong voice enshrined in the Constitution first. We have seen what happens in negotiations when we don’t have real power at the table. We need to make sure there is focus on achieving a Voice before we turn our minds to treaty.

“A constitutionally recognised – not legislated – Voice gives Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people recognition as the first peoples of Australia and overrules the notion of Terra Nullius.”

Cooper said meeting supportive Labor MPs was encouraging. He enjoyed Bill Shorten’s address, in which he paraphrased a quote from Martin Luther King Jr. “How can Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people pull themselves up from their bootstraps when they don’t own a pair of boots?” Shorten said. “A constitutionally recognised voice would allow Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people to own those boots.”

Luke Wighton

A Wiradjuri man and Aboriginal Education Worker with the Catholic Diocese of Wagga Wagga, Luke Wighton works in several schools, sharing Aboriginal perspectives across the curriculum.

Wighton felt empowered standing with politicians and unionists in a public show of support for the Voice to Parliament.

This inspiring experience would inform his discussions with students in the future, he said.

“Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people haven’t had a Voice in this country for so long,” he said. “It’s important to have that enshrined in our Constitution so that no matter who is in government, the Voice is protected.”

Meeting Pat Dodson, Linda Burney, Thomas Mayor, Bill Shorten, the descendants of Vincent Lingiari and representatives from other unions was “absolutely inspirational”, Wighton said.

“It was a real buzz to be there, and ever since I’ve returned home, I feel empowered by the experience,” he said. “It has given me hope for the future. I feel like things are on the rise for all Australians, and definitely for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

“It was a once-in-a-lifetime experience. It was a chance to be part of history in the making. I’m proud to say unions are playing an important role in this campaign.”