A Voice to Parliament – Divider or Unifier?
Again, Australia finds itself facing a potential acrimonious political and cultural debate ahead of the Referendum on the Voice to Parliament.
As positions are fashioned across the political divide, as activists rage for their ‘Yes’ or ‘No’ stances, as media commentators and the companies that employ them use mounting hyperbole, as historians and Constitutional lawyers analyse the future implications, and as First Nations People’s pain continues, what role should our Catholic faith play as we head to ‘the ballot box’?
A past that points to the future
The Catholic Church has a chequered history with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples.
In his landmark 1986 address, Pope John Paul II spoke of the richness and pride of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander culture whilst, at the same time, highlighting the injustices and challenges that Australia’s First Peoples faced. While the richness of culture remains through adversity, many of the challenges described then sadly remain.
There have been continuing efforts within the Church to support the ongoing process of reconciliation between Australia’s First Peoples and the rest of the nation. For example, when a National Sorry Day was first introduced on 26 May 1998 in response to the 1997 Bringing Them Home Report, the Australian Catholic bishops issued a formal apology for the Church’s role in the Stolen Generations.
In 2006 Pope Benedict XVI called again for Australians to continue down the path of reconciliation:
I therefore again encourage all Australians to address with compassion and determination the deep underlying causes of the plight which still afflicts so many Aboriginal citizens. Commitment to truth opens the way to lasting reconciliation through the healing process of asking for forgiveness and granting forgiveness - two indispensable elements for peace. [Source]1
All this of course preceded the long-overdue government apology delivered by Prime Minister Kevin Rudd later in 2008.
More recently, Pope Francis’ 2015 encyclical Laudato Si’ demonstrates a deep respect for Indigenous Peoples and their culture. He highlights the need to learn and draw from their views of the world in which we all live:
…it is essential to show special care for indigenous communities and their cultural traditions. For them, land is not a commodity but a gift from God and from their ancestors who rest there, a sacred space with which they need to interact if they are to maintain their identity and values (para 146). [Source]2
Australian Archbishop Mark Coleridge, referring to the Apostolic Exhortation, Querida Amazonia which arose from the Synod on the Amazon, has noted that the issues it considers are ‘not foreign to Australia’. [Source]3
The Fifth Plenary Council strongly reaffirmed its commitment towards recognition, reconciliation, and justice. It explicitly apologised to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples in, and beyond the Church, for the part it played in the harms suffered, and fully endorsed the Uluru Statement from the Heart.
The message from nearly 40 years of recent Catholic Church history suggests that it will not be truly governed by the Holy Spirit unless the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples are ‘joyfully received’ at the centre of the Church.
Why then, should such Indigenous gifts and culture not be given ‘a voice’ to enhance and improve the lives of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities more widely?
What is being asked of Us?
In July 2022, Prime Minister Anthony Albanese announced the following draft words for placement in the Constitution:
In deliberating these words, it is important to first recognise that the Australian Constitution does not even mention Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples.
In 2017 the Uluru Statement from the Heart was issued by First Nations Australians declaring sovereignty of this continent was never extinguished nor surrendered and calling for a ‘Makarrata Commission’ to supervise agreement making between government and Australia’s First Peoples.
In recent years the Australian Church has engaged in Dadirri, that practice of deep listening, a spiritual skill, based on respect. For this it deserves commendation.
It’s now incumbent on all Catholics to listen deeply to what this Referendum is asking of us as a society seeking reconciliation and cohesion.
Some will argue that the Voice will promote division. Others will argue that constitutional recognition of Indigenous Australians is not a project of identity politics but Australia’s longest standing and unresolved project for justice, unity, and inclusion.
Catholics for Renewal welcomes recent positive responses from the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference on the plight of First Nations Peoples. In May 2021 the ACBC told the Commonwealth Government that a ‘structure that reaches as many First Peoples as possible and provides a very clear and open pathway for people to contribute their views to local, regional, and national consultation processes’ [Source] 4 is most important.
Archbishop Mark Coleridge has also stated that ‘an Indigenous Voice to Parliament is a vital next step on a national journey that’s come a long way and still has a long way to go…and my experience is that if you want all or nothing, then nothing is what you usually get.’ [Source] 5
for Renewal supports a Yes vote to change our Australian Constitution and
establish a Voice to Parliament.