Impact Studios

Australia’s no 1 university for research impact

Host:  Dr Tamson Pietsch

Senior Producer: Olivia Rosenman

Executive Producer: Emma Lancaster

Producer: Julia Carr-Catzel and Allison Chan

Executive Story Consultant and Script Editor: Belinda Lopez

Sound Engineer and Composition: Output Media

Collaborating UTS academic:  Dr Trish Luker (Faculty of Law, UTS)

Illustrator: Dinalie Dabarera

Digital media: Benjamin Vozzo

HLAB S03 E03 v04.mp3
[00:00:00] Please be aware, if you are Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander, you should know that this episode contains the voices and names of deceased persons.

Olivia Rosenman: [00:00:11] Hello.

Tamson Pietsch: [00:00:12] You’re listening to History Lab I’m your host, Tamson Pietsch, and in our third episode of the Law’s Way of Knowing, we’re investigating signatures.

Olivia Rosenman: [00:00:20] You want me to sign here? Just with my finger?

Tamson Pietsch: [00:00:24] And how strange squiggly marks we make have been used to control and influence.

Archival Tape: [00:00:29] Some of them are crosses, some of them are squiggles. But they also have these red thumbprints on them.The Federal Government has spent millions of dollars defending this case and tried to have it thrown out of court. We put our names and a lot of us also put our First Nation on that canvas. This was actually part of a much larger bureaucratic system, an armoury. I call it. The judge accepted his mother’s thumbprint as evidence that she had authorised his removal. One, two, three, four. I won’t count them all. There’s about 30 of them there. We have survived long before this.

Tamson Pietsch: [00:01:07] Here’s senior producer Olivia Rosenman.

Olivia Rosenman: [00:01:17] What is a signature?

Trish Luker: [00:01:18] Well, the more I researched signatures, the more difficult that question becomes.

Olivia Rosenman: [00:01:24] This is Trish Luker. She’s from the Faculty of Law at the University of Technology Sydney. And she’s been investigating signatures for a while now.

Trish Luker: [00:01:32] I think I would define it as something like a unique identifying mark that signifies a person. So generally we assume that a signature is the signed name of a person, particularly for the purposes of identification like in banking or other official transactions.

Olivia Rosenman: [00:01:50] But Trish says that the law doesn’t really pin down what exactly a signature is.

Trish Luker: [00:01:55] Even though signatures have great significance in terms of legal transactions. There’s been very, very little guidance from the courts about defining what is a signature.

Olivia Rosenman: [00:02:08] Trish has learned that courts have accepted a wide range of things as legal signatures.

Trish Luker: [00:02:13] Seal imprints, rubber stamps, initials, partial signatures, words other than a name, trade name, printed name, as well as a traditional handwritten cursive signature.

Olivia Rosenman: [00:02:26] And Trish told me about one case from the late 90s when the Australian Federal Court decided that a thumbprint was a signature that proved a mother’s consent for the removal of her child.

Trish Luker: [00:02:37] It was the landmark action in relation to the Stolen Generations.

Olivia Rosenman: [00:02:42] In December 1996, Peter Gunner and Lorna Cubillo filed a legal claim against the Australian government. They were both taken from their families and sent to residential schools where they were deprived of their culture. Forbidden to speak their own languages. Beaten, starved and sexually abused.

Trish Luker: [00:02:59] They argued that there was a vicarious liability on the part of the Commonwealth government. Their removals were performed by individuals who acted as agents under the legislation of the Commonwealth.

Olivia Rosenman: [00:03:15] Peter Gunner, he was seven years old in 1956 when he was taken from his home in Utopia and sent to St Mary’s Hostel in Alice Springs.

Trish Luker: [00:03:24] The Commonwealth government argued that the removal had been performed within the law.

Olivia Rosenman: [00:03:31] The court judgment is almost 700 pages long.

Trish Luker: [00:03:34] So this was a huge case. There were over 100 days of hearings across three different states.There were hundreds of witnesses that were called on each side.

Tamson Pietsch: [00:03:47] Such a big case must have cost a lot of money?

Olivia Rosenman: [00:03:51] Right. Estimates vary, but Peter Gunner’s lawyer Jack Rush worked out from parliamentary questions that the case cost the government somewhere between 15 and 20 million dollars.

Trish Luker: [00:04:00] It is clear that the effort and the expense of the Commonwealth government went to to counter the claim made by Cubillo and Gunner is evidence of the fact that they had grave concerns about the possibility of further claims being made by members of the Stolen Generations.

Olivia Rosenman: [00:04:20] Trish Luker wanted to know more about the case. So in 2004, she travelled to the Northern Territory to visit Peter Gunner in Utopia, where he had returned to live as an adult.

Trish Luker: [00:04:31] So I travelled to Alice Springs. I hadn’t booked myself a vehicle to drive out to Utopia. And so there was really only one vehicle left in Alice Springs. It was a very, very large Toyota troopy that I had to drive out. Actually, it was a lot of fun.

Olivia Rosenman: [00:04:57] Utopia is on land that belongs to the Alyawarra and Anmatjirra people.

Trish Luker: [00:05:01] It’s very, very strongly coloured. It’s a beautiful, rich, red orange sand. The trees and the scrub are a really distinctive green. It’s incredibly memorable country.

Olivia Rosenman: [00:05:18] It’s around 350 kilometres north east of Alice Springs.

Trish Luker: [00:05:22] It took longer than I expected. I was late,.

Olivia Rosenman: [00:05:25] But Gunner didn’t mind.

Trish Luker: He had a really fantastic handshake. I mean, I remember his handshake was really strong.

Olivia Rosenman: [00:05:32] Trish recorded her interview on a technology that, in retrospect, was nearing the end of its shelf life.

Trish Luker: [00:05:38] I had a small micro cassette for those who might remember that particular technology. This is pre the use of digital files.

Tamson Pietsch: [00:05:48] So the ancient past then, Olivia?

Olivia Rosenman: [00:05:51] Yeah, totally. And if you haven’t seen a micro cassette, it looks like a mini version of the cassette tape that you would have put in your Walkman. And if you don’t know what a Walkman is, well, it’s a small personal tape player. Around about the same.

Tamson Pietsch: [00:06:03] Come on, back to 2020.

Olivia Rosenman: [00:06:05] Okay. You can just look up a picture online. Anyway, Trish had the tape carefully filed away and almost 15 years later she rustled it up and generously offered to let us listen.

Tamson Pietsch: [00:06:15] Historians have been doing audio long before podcasting came along!

Olivia Rosenman: [00:06:19] Yes. There was just one slight problem. Tricia kept the tape, but not the player. So we had a recording of Peter Gunner telling his story in his own words. But for a while there, I thought we weren’t going to be able to hear it.

Archival Tape: [00:06:36] What does the beeping mean? Uh oh.

Olivia Rosenman: [00:06:38] But when we finally did crack this 20 year old technology, we learned how time takes a heavy toll on magnetic tape housed in a tiny plastic case.

Trish Luker: [00:06:48] This is an interview with Gunner at his home.

Olivia Rosenman: [00:06:53] Peter Gunner passed away in 2005. Trish recorded this interview just one year before he died. It’s never been publicly heard until now. We got special permission from his daughter Rebecca to play it.

Peter Gunner: [00:07:08] The cruelest thing you can ever do in human life is take a child from my mother and never return it. You can never take a kid away, imprison the kid and pretend that you believe that kid has no relatives to go to. And it’s wrong.

Olivia Rosenman: [00:07:22] For a key component of the Crown’s response to Peter Gunner’s claim was a single page document written on a typewriter.

Trish Luker: [00:07:30] Its title is Form of Consent by a Parent. It says I, Topsy Kundrilba, and that part has been inserted,being a full blood Aboriginal in brackets, female, within the meaning of the Aboriginals ordinance 1918 to 1953 of the Northern Territory and residing at Utopia Station. I desire my son to be educated and trained in accordance with accepted European standards, to which he is entitled by reason of his caste, which my son may derive the benefit of a standard European education.

Olivia Rosenman: [00:08:05] On the page was a signature of sorts.

Trish Luker: [00:08:09] And then at the bottom it says signed of my own free will this day of blank 1956 in the presence of blank. And then there is a mark, a thumbprint or fingerprint with the words her and mark on either side, and Topsy and Kundrilba bar above and below.

Tamson Pietsch: [00:08:32] So during the court case, the government’s lawyers said that this form proved that Peter Garner’s mother had consented to his removal?

Olivia Rosenman: [00:08:39] Yes. And ultimately the judge Justice O’Laughlin agreed.

Federal Court Judgement: [00:08:45] Most importantly, there was his mother’s thumbprint on a form of request that asked that Peter be taken to St. Mary’s and given a Western education. I have concluded that Peter went to St. Mary’s at his mother’s request.

Olivia Rosenman: [00:09:03] On the 11th of August 2000, both Lorna Cubillo and Peter Garner’s claims were dismissed.

Federal Court Judgement: [00:09:10] I accepted Mr. Gunner’s evidence that he had a most unhappy childhood at St. Mary’s, and I accepted his evidence that he was the victim of a sexual assault. Nevertheless, I concluded that the evidence did not justify a finding that the Director of Native Affairs removed Mr. Garner from his family against the wishes of his mother.

Tamson Pietsch: [00:09:35] Is this actually Justice O’Laughlin speaking?

Olivia Rosenman: [00:09:37] Yes, it is. It’s from a summary of the judgment that was read out live in the courtroom and broadcast on national TV. The Federal Court sent me a copy from their archives. It was on VHS tape.

Tamson Pietsch: [00:09:48] VHS tape?

Olivia Rosenman: [00:09:49] Yeah. Making this episode of History Lab has really given me some great insight into analog audio visual production.

Tamson Pietsch: [00:09:57] When someone signs with a fingerprint, there’s usually something else that signified too. Right?

Trish Luker: [00:10:02] I think a thumb print signifies so much more because what it signifies is, first of all, that the person whose mark it is is unable to sign their name. So that suggests that they are illiterate in the language that’s required.

Tamson Pietsch: [00:10:19] So from the thumbprint on the form, we can understand that Peter Gunner’s mother, Topsy, couldn’t read or write English. But do we know if she could even understand it?

Trish Luker: [00:10:29] Peter Gunner gave evidence that when he returned to Utopia as an adult and his mother was still alive, he was unable to speak to her in his language because he had lost his language by having been stolen. That was one of the basis of the claim, and he was unable to tell her what had happened to him. So we do know that Topsy Kundrilba did not speak English and we have the evidence of a witness to tell us that.

Peter Gunner: [00:11:02] I don’t think my mother would have understood what what what was the written documents that this government had to get her to put her thumbprint on. She wouldn’t have known anything about it. What was written in that. She wouldn’t have understood.

Trish Luker: [00:11:29] I think we simply do not know what she believed would happen to her son as a result of putting her mark on that form. We cannot know that. And I believe that we need to think carefully about interpreting something like a form of consent as an indication that someone provided consent to the removal of their child without a much greater consideration of the circumstances in which that occurred.

Olivia Rosenman: [00:12:09] In the courtroom, Peter Gunner recounted his memories of the day he was taken. He remembered crying and yelling. He said he didn’t know why he was put on the back of the truck or where he was being taken. But ultimately, the judge said what he described as a line of documentation showed that Peter’s mother, Topsy, had given her consent for her child to be taken away, and he preferenced those documents over Peter Gunner’s oral testimony. According to Trish, that’s not surprising.

Trish Luker: [00:12:41] Traditionally, oral testimony is the preferred form of evidence in the common law system. When it has come to claims made by Indigenous people in Australia, there has tended to be a privileging of documentary evidence. Even when there are claimants who are able to give oral testimony.

Olivia Rosenman: [00:13:11] The document with Topsy’s thumbprint is now held in the National Archives of Australia. You can find a digital copy on their website. The original paper document is held in their Darwin repository. It’s part of a series of over 17 500 documents, all relating to Aboriginal people created by the Northern Territory administration between 1915 and 1978.

Trish Luker: [00:13:37] There’s a lot of material in the archives that pertained to Indigenous people because they have been the subject of control for so long. They’re the most documented people in Australia.

Tamson Pietsch: [00:13:55] So is there another way we can understand the form with Topsy’s thumbprint and all the other documents created about Aboriginal people?

Trish Luker: [00:14:03] This form of consent was actually part of a much larger bureaucratic system. An armoury, I call it, of a colonialist regime that was in force at the time and under which Aboriginal people were subjugated.

Olivia Rosenman: [00:14:26] That bureaucratic system, the armoury Trish describes, created reams and reams of paper documents that ended up being submitted as evidence in Peter Gunner’s case.

Trish Luker: [00:14:36] There were lots of government reports. There was lots of correspondence. There were certificate declarations, applications. There are surveys. There are inventories of individuals. These are all really well established methods of control of people, which you will find particularly large quantity of them in settler colonial context.

Olivia Rosenman: [00:15:07] In 1956, when Peter was taken, people were becoming more aware of the reality of the government’s policies regarding Aboriginal children.

Trish Luker: [00:15:16] Just at the point when there appeared to be some level of concern on the part of humanitarian organisations and also on the part of international humanitarian groups that what was going on in Australia with the theft of Aboriginal children, it was at that point that a greater amount of forms were produced. I think that that can be read as a kind of reaction to the need to produce justifications and records to support decisions.

Tamson Pietsch: [00:16:01] So the archives tell stories through their sheer volume as well as through what they actually say through their content.

Peter Gunner: [00:16:10] I still say the Commonwealth attacked us on the grounds of criminals and not on the evidence that was presented in that court for the wrongdoing, wrong treatment of removal of children. They treated me like a couple of criminals in that case, and that’s why that evidence doesn’t count. The evidence from the Commonwealth’s witness, this evidence counts more than me and Lorna’s.

Tamson Pietsch: [00:16:45] So let me get this straight. This court case is happening in the late 1990s. John Howard’s Prime Minister. And on the one hand, it’s just after the release of the Bringing Them Home report that uncovered the Australian government’s history of child removal. But on the other hand, the government is also spending millions of dollars defending their actions. And during the trial, it’s Peter Gunner who said he was made to feel like a criminal?

Olivia Rosenman: [00:17:12] Not only that, Gunner had to sit in court and listen to evidence given by the very man who took him away back on that day in 1956.

Harry Kitching: [00:17:19] Peter Gunner, he was about four or five when I first saw him and he’d been living on the camp and he had a mother, but he had his father, who was apparently a white person who he’d never seen… And he was just one of the kids running around the camp who was gonna go nowhere, because not having a an Aboriginal father, he couldn’t become part and parcel of the whole tribal group.

Olivia Rosenman: [00:17:59] This is Harry Kitching. In 1956, he was working as a patrol officer for what was then called the Native Affairs branch. I thought there might be a slim chance that he was still alive, so I tried to track him down. Turns out Kitching died in 2014, but what I did find is this interview with him that was recorded in 1999.

Tamson Pietsch: [00:18:20] I can’t believe you found recording both from Gunner and from the man that actually put Gunner on the back of a truck.

Olivia Rosenman: [00:18:27] I know it’s part of the National Library’s Bringing Them Home Oral History Project.

Harry Kitching: [00:18:32] He was saying that we practically dragged him kicking and screaming into the home. when all you’re trying to do is get them a decent education ’cause you know they’re going to be misfit in the tribal life where they were.

Tamson Pietsch: [00:18:53] Okay. So it seems that in Harry’s mind, it didn’t really matter whether or not Peter’s mother had consented.

Olivia Rosenman: [00:19:01] Maybe not. But the way Peter describes it, he says his mother was always waiting for him to come back.

Peter Gunner: [00:19:07] I think she would have felt strongly after a few years gone by that one day her child was going to turn up because the child they took away was going to come back. Maybe five or ten years, but it didn’t happen.

Olivia Rosenman: [00:19:25] When he gave evidence in the trial, Kitching said he didn’t remember whether the writing on the form was explained to Peter’s mother. But despite all of the questions about Topsy’s thumbprint, Justice O’Loughlin saw that piece of paper as evidence that exculpated the government.

Peter Gunner: [00:19:42] I think they ignored everything. What I said. All the way to the thumbprint. They just didn’t want to know nothing.

Olivia Rosenman: [00:19:49] On the form of consent by a parent, Topsy’s thumbprint sits at the bottom right corner of the page in blue ink. It’s smudged, making the loops and whirls really hard to distinguish. A rubber stamp has marked the date of May 27, 1956, encircled by the words records branch general administration section Darwin NT. Trish remembers the first time she saw it.

Trish Luker: [00:20:18] I actually remember it coming through the fax machine. I think it’s possible to think about documents as having an animate force, that’s an idea that I developed much later in my research career. But perhaps at that early moment when that form was coming off the fax, I had a sense of that in some way it felt. Uh, personal.

Tamson Pietsch: [00:20:44] But if a thumbprint is a signature and the law understands a signature as something that authenticate a document, then isn’t it no surprise that the court concluded in the way it did?

Olivia Rosenman: [00:20:55] Well, here’s what Peter Gunner told Trish about the outcome of his case. Four years after the judgment.

Peter Gunner: [00:21:01] I knew I had to find a white man’s system here. Right. For a start of the European law system here, it’s not my system. It’s not a, you know, an Aboriginal law system. It’s a European system.

Olivia Rosenman: [00:21:16] In another government archive, the thumb and fingerprints of Aboriginal people speak back to Anglo law.

Will Stubbs: [00:21:22] 1 2 3 4 5 6. I won’t count them all but there’s about 30 there.

Olivia Rosenman: [00:21:27] This is Will Stubbs. He’s counting the fingerprints of Yolngu Elders on a document that were sent to the Australian Parliament in August 1963. It was sent as a follow up to the Yirrkala Bark Petitions. One of the many petitions Aboriginal people have made to the government for their rights and for their land. The petition is now part of the parliamentary archive.I wanted to know more about its history and this led me to Will.

Peter Gunner: [00:21:52] Well, some might call it remote, but from our perspective, we’re in the centre of the universe.

Olivia Rosenman: [00:21:58] Will, lives in Yirrkala, which is in the Northern Territory, right at the top of the land on the western side of the Gulf of Carpentaria. It’s 1000 kilometres east of Darwin and a 27 hour drive.

Will Stubbs: [00:22:10] You know, there’s so many beautiful things about it. White sand, crystal clear water, coral, rainforests.

Olivia Rosenman: [00:22:19] Will is not Aboriginal, but his wife and daughter are Yolngu younger women. And he speaks the language fluently.

Tamson Pietsch: [00:22:26] So the Yolngu people send a petition to parliament in 1963?

Olivia Rosenman: [00:22:30] They discovered that the government had leased 300 square kilometres of their land to a Swiss mining company to extract bauxite without asking them or even letting them know. So their petition laid out a couple of simple requests.

1963 Yirrkala Bark Petitions: [00:22:45] Bukudjulni gonga’yurru napurrunha Yirrkalalili malanha Balamumu, Narrkala, Gapiny, Miliwurrwurr nanapurru dhuwala mala, ga Djapu, Mangalili, Madarrpa, Magarrwanalinirri, Djambarrpuynu, Gumaitj, Marrakula, Galpu, Dhabunyu, Wangurri, Waramirri, Maymil, Riritjinu malamanapamirri djal dhunapa.

Olivia Rosenman: [00:23:11] That’s the voice of Dela Yunupingu reading the petition in Yolngu. Dela is the daughter of Mungurrawuy Yunupingu, a senior Gumatj cultural leader and one of the original signatories of the petition.

Will Stubbs: [00:23:25] If you read the text it’s the most mild, offensive set of requests. Rather than demands. It’s just saying, you know, we’ve found out that you have stolen our land. This is a precis of course, probably a rough one. We wanted to point out to you that this land is ours. It’s always been ours. It’s quite important to us. We wonder if you would mind coming and speaking with us before you progressed this any further. And perhaps when you come you could bring an interpreter so that we can be understood.

Tamson Pietsch: [00:24:01] And when you say bark petitions, what exactly do you mean?

Olivia Rosenman: [00:24:05] They were presented on two sheets from a stringy bark tree. Each one is marked with written text and then painted with pipeclay, charcoal and ochre.

Will Stubbs: [00:24:15] It’s quite an exercise to prepare these panels of bark and to find a typewriter in 1963 and to try and put these words into English and then to translate it into Yolngu Matha and to find a way to get it to Canberra. In those days, you know, there’s no road access from here. There’s no phones. It’s just really by telegram and monthly boat that you can get any communication out of here. And the word came back that the petition was not accepted.

Olivia Rosenman: [00:24:51] The initial petition had just eleven signatures and they were mostly from the young people from the area.

Peter Gunner: [00:24:57] It’s my understanding that Paul Hasluck was the Minister for the Interior declined to table them. Or opposed their tabling on the basis that his information from the mission hierarchy is that the signatories were unrepresentative of the young people as a whole. Instead of giving up at that point, they created this amazing document.

Olivia Rosenman: [00:25:22] A document that could be easily understood by the government’s system.

Peter Gunner: [00:25:27] And so they can’t do what Anglo-Australians do and sign their name. So they’ve made a mark. Some of them crosses, some of the most squiggles, there’s a backwards c, there are a couple of circles, but they also have these red thumbprints on them. Then name is written out in beautiful cursive. And then that act of signing through a cross and a thumbprint is witnessed by either literate Yolngu or a missionary with their signature at the end of a row. These lists of names is a roll call of the leaders of every clan and the leaders of ceremony. And that’s a beautiful list of amazing people who acted in this way and rebutted the claim by the government.

Tamson Pietsch: [00:26:20] So where did the idea for the list of thumbprints come from?

Will Stubbs: [00:26:23] Perhaps it’s a reference to some kind of bookkeeping procedure, but it’s not a Yolngu to indicate identity. You know, it’s fitting the system. Trying to make the system accept this thing, which is pretty firmly founded in that system’s processes. And the thing is that these people aren’t just names. These people are heroes each and every one of them.

Olivia Rosenman: [00:26:50] And while the document with Topsy Kundrilba’s thumbprint was given the utmost attention by the Commonwealth, it seems this document has been mostly ignored.

Will Stubbs: [00:26:59] That that beautiful document, the thumbprint petition, was simply folded into the parliamentary records and didn’t see the light of day.

Olivia Rosenman: [00:27:08] But it did have an impact.

Will Stubbs: [00:27:10] There are a lot of people who regard the Bark Petition as being Australia’s Magna Carta. If you think at the time that they were created in 1963, it’s still a number of years before the referendum allows Aboriginal people to be counted as human in the census. At the point that these men came together and also women who signed the petition. They were to be regarded as fauna and non-human. This was enshrined in the constitution.

Olivia Rosenman: [00:27:44] And actually where the bark petitions are now hanging in Parliament House is in the same room as a 13th century copy of the Magna Carta and the Australian Constitution.

Will Stubbs: [00:27:54] The Yolngu have been very honorable, and you would think in a way naïve in granting the benefit of the doubt to Anglo Australians that they are lawful people, that they have processes, and that these processes are sufficient to protect against the might is right approach. They have generally been let down in that regard.

Uluru Statement : [00:28:39] We seek constitutional reforms to empower our people and take a rightful place in our own country. When we have power over our destiny, our children will flourish. They will walk in two worlds and their culture will be a gift to their country.

Olivia Rosenman: [00:29:02] Standing in red sand and surrounded by people from across Australia’s First Nations on the twenty sixth of May 2017, Professor Megan Davis, a Cobble Cobble woman from Queensland and a Professor of Law, read aloud the Uluru Statement from the Heart. The statement was the culmination of months of dialogues across the country and a four day summit at Uluru.

Uluru Statement : [00:29:28] We call for the establishment of a First Nations voice enshrined in the Constitution.

Tamson Pietsch: [00:29:40] The statement calls for voice, treaty and truth. For an Aboriginal voice to parliament and a Makarrata Commission, a process of agreement making between governments and First Nations and truth-telling about our history.

Thomas Mayor: [00:29:55] People were crying tears of joy and hope and and embracing each other and just really congratulating each other on on a really hard task, which was to reach a consensus – when we came from so many different places and so many different levels of healing, our own political beliefs, our own experiences.

Olivia Rosenman: [00:30:14] This is Thomas Mayor a Zenadth Kes man born and raised on Larrakia land in Darwin. He’s the National Indigenous Officer for the CFMEU. I wanted to talk to Thomas because he was one of the delegates at the summit. He’d lined up with all of the other Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander delegates to sign their names on the Uluru Statement from the Heart document.

Thomas Mayor: [00:30:35] It took the morning, really, if I remember correctly. And it was a long line. And, you know, even though I was one of the last to line up, I think, and didn’t stop smiling, the whole time was lining up. I remember my face was sore from smiling just because we were all so excited and happy and and confident that what we’d come up with was the right thing for our people.

Olivia Rosenman: [00:31:00] The statement is written in the centre of a canvas measuring 1.8 by 1.6 metres. Surrounding the text are 250 signatures.

Thomas Mayor: [00:31:09] We put our names and a lot of us also put our first nation is on their canvas.

Tamson Pietsch: [00:31:15] So to their individual legal mark, they also added their collective identity.

Thomas Mayor: [00:31:21] So it was very much a mark of identity as well. You know, to say that I’m here, I’m doing my best for my people, and I’m going to record that that this is who I’m here for.

Olivia Rosenman: [00:31:36] In the middle of the canvas is the text surrounding the text are the signatures and around the signatures is artwork.The art depicts songlines.

Thomas Mayor: [00:31:44] So coming from the north, east, south and west. These ancient stories converge at Uluru much like all of our stories converge. They’re coming from so many different places. When I saw the canvas for the first time, when I held it on the stage at Garma, when it was presented to the audience and the Prime Minister and Opposition Leader were there, I felt that it had a lot of power. I felt that this canvas was a powerful tool in trying to convince not only politicians, but also the Australian people to walk with us in this movement to try and achieve the changes that are called for.

Olivia Rosenman: [00:32:19] In 2017, when the then prime minister, Malcolm Turnbull, spoke on stage at the Garma Festival. He told the audience he was giving careful consideration to the recommendations in the statement. But then at a press conference outside the festival, he started to back away from the positivity he’d shown onstage.

Tamson Pietsch: [00:32:36] So does Thomas Mayor have a special connection to the other statement from the heart?

Olivia Rosenman: [00:32:41] Yes, he does. When Thomas saw the power of the canvas on stage at Garma, he decided to take it on a road trip.

Thomas Mayor: [00:32:49] I decided to take the Uluru statement to the people in any way that I can, to conferences, to communities from remote communities to the big cities, and then just started to try and build the people’s movement, really. And I had the support of the elders to do it. And that was my role in the first 18 months of this campaign.

Olivia Rosenman: [00:33:11] He travelled all around the country.

Thomas Mayor: [00:33:14] It was quite spontaneous. So from the different places that I would take it to, someone would contact me soon after and say, hey, this is on. There’s a big crowd there. Can you bring it here? You know? And so it was it was non-stop travel for 18 months. I hardly saw my family. And I think it was important to build the base of supporters that has ensured that we haven’t taken no for an answer and that this is still alive today. It’s a live political document.

Tamson Pietsch: [00:33:43] So what kind of response did he get?

Olivia Rosenman: [00:33:45] Well, while he met the odd skeptic, he told me people were mostly supportive. And Thomas attributes that response partly to the fact that the request in the statement are so reasonable, but also that it’s addressed not to the politicians, but to the people. That’s a lesson they learned from petitions passed like the Yirrkala Bark Petitions, the Larrakia Petition and the Barunga statement.

Thomas Mayor: [00:34:08] I think one of the most powerful lessons from those previous statements is they are gathering dust in the halls of parliament. They were addressed to the wrong people. They were addressed to Kings and Queens and Parliaments. The lesson from all of those is that they have always been ignored by them. They have always been dismissed or diminished or promised and then failed to deliver on. This time what we learned was that the Uluru statement was not about those politicians or those decision makers at that level. It’s to the Australian people.

Olivia Rosenman: [00:34:43] And in that way, the signatures on the statement could also be seen as the sign off of a letter.

Thomas Mayor: [00:34:49] This is a letter that says this is our consensus. It’s to the Australian people. And it is signed by 250 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander representing all of the regions of the continent and its adjacent islands and saying, you know, this is what we collectively want.

Archival Tape: [00:35:19] Our Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander tribes are the first sovereign nations of the Australian continent and its adjacent islands. And possessed under our own laws and customs. This, our ancestors did. According to the recording of our culture from the creation, according to the common law from time immemorial and according to science more than 60000 years ago.

Tamson Pietsch: [00:35:59] You’ve been listening to History Lab. A podcast made on the lands of the Gadigal people of the Eora nation whose land was never ceded. This episode is part of our series, ‘The Law’s Way of Knowing’ where we look at the intersection of history and the law. Thanks to our collaborating historian Trish Luker. This episode was made by Senior Producer Olivia Rosenman, with research and production assistance from Julia Carr-Catzel and Allison Chan. The Supervising producer was Sarah Mashman. The Executive Producer was Emma Lancaster. Sound Engineer and Mixing by Output Media. Our Story Consultant and editor was Belinda Lopez. And there’s a whole raft of people that need to be thanked.

Olivia Rosenman: [00:36:54] To Will Stubbs and Thomas Mayor for being so generous with your time.

Tamson Pietsch: [00:36:54] And to the brilliant archivists, Glen Worthington from Australian Parliament House. Peter Hobbins from the National Archives Australia. And Bruce Phillips from the Federal Court.

Olivia Rosenman: [00:36:54] I also want to thank Rebecca Gunner, Peter Gunner’s daughter, and Michael from the Urupuntja Corporation, Ann McGrath and Dela Yunupingu, who read out the Yirrkala bark petitions in Yolngu. And then there were our tech wizards. Darren Scarce, who managed to find us a micro cassette player and another good friend who helped us out when the Federal Court sent us VHS tapes.

Tamson Pietsch: [00:37:31] History Lab is made by the Australian Centre for Public History and Impact Studios at UTS in collaboration with our media partner 2SER 107.3FM. You can find out more on the History Lab website,

Podcast playlist


A close match

March 11 · 34 MIN


Three days before Spain’s general elections in 2004 a series of bombs exploded on crowded Madrid commuter trains, killing almost 200 people.


The Spanish authorities found a plastic bag a few blocks away from one of the bomb sites with a single, incomplete fingerprint.


This was the trace linked to a man living 9000 kms away, a US Attorney in Oregon by the name of Brandon Mayfield.


We’ve been told that every fingerprint is unique to every finger, but what if this is the wrong question to ask?


Forensic Science was founded on the principle that ‘every contact leaves a trace’ but history shows we can’t always rely on one trace alone.




Making a fortune

February 03 · 34 MIN

‘Making a Fortune’ looks at the popularity and persecution of two of the most formidable fortune tellers of Federation Australia.


In the first decade of the 20th century, Australians were focused on the future. It was the dawn of a new century, and a newly-formed nation. But during this time, police were cracking down on a booming industry dominated by women—it was a service that society deemed superstitious, archaic and fraudulent and one that is unlawful to this day in some parts of Australia. This is a story of entrepreneurship, independence and the force of the law.


Why were these female fortune tellers so aggressively pursued by the police and how did they use the law to fight back?


Bonus Cast – The Law’s Way of Knowing?

December 18 · 31 MIN

History Lab host Dr Tamson Pietsch hands over the mic to Dr Alecia Simmonds, an interdisciplinary scholar of law and history at the University of Technology Sydney. In this bonus episode they dissect how it is the law ‘knows’ and discuss how both history and the law rely on traces from the past to draw conclusions in the present. If truth is uncertain in historical archives – is it even harder to find in the courtroom?


Season 3 of History Lab will be taking a short break returning February 4 2020.

Episode two ‘Making a fortune’ is dropping in the new year with Dr Alana Piper from the Australian Centre for Public History.