WALKING WITH THE EXCLUDED
This morning, I call to mind the Aboriginal woman who spoke at the end of a forum we held in Darwin on the Voice. She told us: “A lot of my people don’t understand all the law and politics about this Voice. All I know is that when they wake up on Sunday 15 October and if the answer is NO, they will think that they have been rejected once again by the people who dispossessed and colonised them without their consent.” She wept. We all shed a tear.
May our Aboriginal brothers and sisters be consoled by the words in today’s first reading from Isaiah:
On this mountain the LORD of hosts
will provide for all peoples
a feast of rich food and choice wines,
juicy, rich food and pure, choice wines.
On this mountain he will destroy
the veil that veils all peoples,
the web that is woven over all nations;
he will destroy death forever.
The Lord GOD will wipe away
the tears from every face;
the reproach of his people he will remove
from the whole earth; for the LORD has spoken.
On that day it will be said:
‘Behold our God, to whom we looked to save us!
This is the LORD for whom we looked;
let us rejoice and be glad that he has saved us!’
For the hand of the LORD will rest on this mountain.
The people have spoken, and very clearly. The answer is a resounding NO. No matter how any of us voted, we need to respect the will of the people. We need to accept the decision. Despite our differences, we need to come together and address the unfinished business of our history and of our governance arrangements which are failing to close the gap. We need to find a new pathway for closing the gap, acknowledging the place of First Australians.
There’s no doubt that the Prime Minister gave it his all. There will be plenty of debate in the coming days about whether he and his advisers followed the best processes and settled on the best proposal. A homily is no place for allocating political blame. Suffice to say that there was not enough common ground between Messrs Albanese and Dutton to bring the country to YES in the numbers needed to amend the Australian Constitution.
The NO vote is not indicative of a racist or stupid nation. It is the sure sign that we the people were not presented with a proposal for change to the Constitution sufficiently safe and certain to win the support of the vast majority of politicians in our Parliament. And thus it was not a proposal likely to win the support of the voters. No referendum has ever succeeded without support from all major political parties. The Labor Party has always been more adventurous than the conservative parties seeking constitutional change on all manner of things. They have now made 26 attempts to amend the Constitution. This is their 25th failed attempt.
There were eloquent Aboriginal voices for YES and eloquent Aboriginal voices for NO. No wonder so many voters were left wondering if the proposed Voice would divide the nation or not; whether it would help to close the gap or not; and whether it would clog the workings of government or not.
Some who voted YES thought the proposed change was perfect, certain and workable. Others of us thought the words imperfect, but far preferred a change to the Constitution with imperfect words rather than no change to the Constitution whatever. We thought the matter had been left unresolved for too long, and could not see how it would be resolved any better in the foreseeable future. But it was not to be.
This referendum was nothing like the 1967 referendum. It was nothing like the same sex marriage plebiscite. In 1967, over 90% of voters supported a proposal put forward by all members of our Parliament urging that Aboriginal people be treated the same as the rest of us. In the same sex marriage plebiscite, over 60% of those who chose to vote supported a proposal that the civil institution of marriage be made available to all couples regardless of their sexual orientation. In both these votes, we were voting to treat everyone the same.
This referendum was nothing of the sort. In fact, it was probably the exact opposite. On one reading, the 60% NO vote was a decision once again to treat everyone the same, declining to set up a new constitutional entity available only to one group of citizens, namely the First Australians.
Without a people’s convention and without a parliamentary supervised process inviting citizens to honest, transparent dialogue about the structure and purpose of a Voice, we were setting up the referendum to fail.
Many Australians with an Aboriginal heritage still suffer the effects of past dispossession and colonisation. The statistics speak for themselves. There is more we need to do to correct their continuing poverty, disadvantage and dispossession. When it comes to the Constitution, the unresolved question is whether those Australians with an Aboriginal heritage should be specifically recognised, not because they are poor, disadvantaged or dispossessed, but because they are the First Australians. Imagine that the time was to come when most Aboriginal Australians were no longer poor, disadvantaged and dispossessed. Would there still be a need to make special provision for them in the Constitution? Many of us think that the answer to that question is YES, and we can invoke many statements by recent popes to support that position. But the majority of our fellow citizens still need to be convinced that any permanent special provision should be more than minimal, symbolic recognition.
After the Mabo decision in 1992, I was addressing a group of lawyers. At the end of my presentation, one lawyer introduced himself: “My name is Murphy. If you are going to have special rights for the Aboriginal people, why not have special rights for the Irish?” I answered, “Being a Brennan and my mother an O’Hara, I have considerable sympathy for the rights of the Irish. But I think the relevant comparison is not with the Irish in Australia, but with the Irish in Ireland. Though living on the other side of the globe, I take some delight in the thought that there is somewhere on God’s earth where the Irish can be as Irish as they like, as well or badly as they can, as selfishly or selflessly as they will. That’s just the way the Irish do it.” I continued: “There is only one place on earth where Aboriginal people can be as Aboriginal as they like, and that’s here in the Land of the Holy Spirit, Australia. They may be only 3% of the population, but surely we have to provide for them to maintain their heritage and their culture as best they can in the modern post-colonial world of modern Australia.”
It will be another generation before we revisit the recognition of the First Australians in the Constitution. Let’s hope that we have done a better job by then of convincing our fellow citizens that there will always be a need for some special laws and policies to be made for the First Australians and that it is unthinkable that such laws be made without some assurance that they will be adequately consulted. That assurance should be part of our Constitution.
Holding in our hearts the many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people who will be feeling rejected this morning, we recall those words of Pope John Paul II at Alice Springs in 1986: “If you stay closely united, you are like a tree standing in the middle of a bushfire sweeping through the timber. The leaves are scorched and the tough bark is scarred and burned; but inside the tree the sap is still flowing, and under the ground the roots are still strong. Like that tree you have endured the flames, and you still have the power to be reborn. The time for this rebirth is now!”
Fr Frank Brennan SJ is the Rector of Newman College and the Australian Province’s Bookends Project Officer for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples.
Feature photo by Bobbi Lockyer on Canva.