Finding our Voice

Fr Frank Brennan SJ firmly believes that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples must be given a place in the Australian Constitution.


An Indigenous Voice to Parliament: Considering a Constitutional Bridge
By Fr Frank Brennan SJ
Garratt Publishing, $24.95

Several Sydney drivers would have noticed the man as he crossed and re-crossed streets in his quest to shoot the perfect image of the Harbour Bridge some weeks ago. Was he a tourist? No, because his purposeful stride suggested that he knew his turf. Was he someone who had worked on the bridge at some stage? No. Was he an architecture buff? No. Was he just another Instagrammer? Er, no.

It was Fr Frank Brennan SJ, determined to find the perfect angle for the cover of his latest book. It’s typical of his forensic attention to detail that he wanted to get it right, no matter how long it took him.

“How many drivers swore at you, Fr Frank?” I asked him.

He chuckles. “Not one, actually! There I was with my phone, taking multiple shots until I had captured the angle I knew I wanted all along.”

So yes, if you were wondering – the photograph on the cover of his latest book was indeed shot by none other than the author himself!

An Indigenous Voice to Parliament, by Fr Frank Brennan SJ

In our nation’s first referendum of the 21st century, Australians will vote later this year on whether to recognise Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in the Constitution through an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice.

Former Prime Minister Tony Abbott wrote this review of the book in The Spectator, calling the book a “noble undertaking” for the reason that “almost every Australian thinks that indigenous people should be recognised in the Constitution.” He wrote: “It would be a serious national embarrassment for a proposition to be put to the Australian people and fail. That’s why Frank Brennan, the distinguished Jesuit lawyer, has produced this short book. He wants to rescue the Voice referendum from the defeat to which he thinks it’s currently doomed.”

As the former PM points out, the book is a “clear, comprehensive and scrupulously fair account of all the various endeavours, so far, to retrofit our otherwise serviceable constitution with a formal acknowledgement of the indigenous peoples of Australia, a nettle that was beyond our 19th-century constitutional founders to grasp.”

In this podcast with Michelle Grattan she pointed out: “Frank Brennan has been involved over decades in the big debates in Indigenous affairs. A Jesuit priest and an academic expert on the Constitution, he has advocated for recognising First Nations peoples in that document. But he has concerns about the breadth of Anthony Albanese’s proposed referendum question, arguing in his new book that its reference to the Voice making representations to executive government raises the prospect of many legal challenges. This issue of the potential for legal challenges is one that divides legal experts, with a number of authorities maintaining there is no problem.”

As Grattan says, the wording proposed by Prime Minister Anthony Albanese is different from that suggested by Brennan. The latter’s preference is: “There shall be an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice with such structure and functions as the Parliament deems necessary to facilitate consultation prior to the making of special laws with respect to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, and with such other functions as the Parliament determines.”

Frank Brennan himself wrote How to vote on the Voice in The Catholic Weekly on 17 March, two days after the book was released at The Cathedral Room in the Cardinal Knox Centre in Melbourne. “I suggest ten steps for Catholics inspired by our Catholic social teaching when approaching the forthcoming referendum. I couch these suggestions in terms appropriate for those of us who are not Indigenous. We are all invited into constructive dialogue. We must strive to listen to community leaders who know what is good for their communities just as those of us who are not Indigenous know what is good for ourselves and our loved ones.”

Fr Frank Brennan SJ. Photo by David McMahon.

He enumerates the ten steps succinctly:

  1. Be attentive to the voices of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. Stop telling them what is good for them. Start listening to them. Accept that they know what is good for them, just as we know what is good for us and our loved ones.
  2. Don’t expect all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people to agree about legal, political and constitutional questions. It’s called living in a democracy.
  3. Form respectful relationships with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and engage in respectful conversations with those who are your friends.
  4. Having heard a range of Indigenous voices, make your own decisions about what Aboriginal aspirations are morally justified. What would be right and proper for Australia in the 21st century? For example, the Commonwealth Parliament has power to make special laws about First Nations people. Many Aboriginal people now say, “No special laws without us!”
  5. Know your history; know the Aboriginal history. The Australian Constitution does not even mention Aborigines or Torres Strait Islanders. They belong in the Constitution. Their belonging should be explicit and particular.
  6. The Constitution belongs to all the people. It cannot be amended except with an overwhelming majority of the people. Educate yourselves about the Aboriginal aspirations at Uluru and be ready to discuss those aspirations at the family meal, the workplace BBQ or the local club.
  7. Do something to get this issue of constitutional recognition on the right track. Speak to your local member. Ask that the parliament set up a process so everyone can have their say and so that the major political parties can own whatever is proposed. This is not just a matter for Indigenous leaders. It is not just a matter for the government. It involves all of us.
  8. Having decided which Aboriginal aspirations are justified, you then need to make a wise decision about which of those aspirations are politically achievable. Don’t be afraid to talk to people with varying views when making that decision.
  9. Having decided which Aboriginal aspirations are not only justified but achievable, you then need to decide to act. You need to put some skin in the game. You need to decide what concrete and just actions you will take. It’s not enough just to vote when the referendum comes around. You need to get on board urging the parliament to put the right proposition to the vote, and helping your fellow citizens make an informed choice.
  10. Be respectful and attentive to those who disagree with you, but don’t be afraid to demand that they be respectful and attentive to you. Any national Voice worth its salt will have an elaborate system of local and regional ears to hear the local and regional voices which are needed to give credibility to any national Voice. That will be complex. There will be plenty of room for disagreement.”

While the date of the referendum has not been finalised, it is worth considering Brennan’s concluding paragraph in his “ten steps” article. “Whatever the politics of this referendum,” he writes, “we all need to take to heart Noel Pearson’s chilling observation about his people: ‘We are a much unloved people. We are perhaps the ethnic group Australians feel least connected to. We are not popular and we are not personally known to many Australians. Few have met us and a small minority count us as friends’.”

It is a powerful summary, inviting careful and deep discernment in the months leading up to the vote.

By David McMahon, Communications Manager, Society of Jesus in Australia

Buy your copy of the book on the Garratt Publishing site.

Read the book review from Fr Andrew Hamilton SJ.