Speaking the plain truth

The new book by Fr Frank Brennan SJ combines legal, moral and intellectual discussion on the issue of constitutional recognition of First Australians.


The overall context of the book: 

Lessons from Our Failure to Build a Constitutional Bridge in the 2023 Referendum is the third book by Fr Frank Brennan SJ on the subject of constitutional recognition of First Australians. His books on the theme are part of the Australian Province’s contribution to the Bookends Project, which expresses the Jesuits’ commitment to justice for Australia’s First Nations peoples and for the country’s most recent arrivals, refugees and people seeking asylum. 

The foreword to the book is written by John Lochowiak, the Chairperson of the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Catholic Council. Fr Frank, John and NATSICC worked together closely during the 2023 Australian Indigenous Voice referendum. John says, “This book provides the practical pointers for hope if we are ever to achieve constitutional recognition of my people.”  

In the words of ACU Chancellor Martin Daubney AM KC: 

Fr Frank Brennan’s book has a very long but accurate title: “Lessons from Our Failure to Build a Constitutional Bridge in the 2023 Referendum”. A shorter, but equally accurate, title would have been: “I Told You So”.  

Frank’s standing as a tireless advocate for Indigenous rights and welfare and his well-deserved reputation as an indefatigable warrior for social justice and human rights give him the licence to do what he does so well – to speak the truth plainly.  

Words are not minced in this collection of pre- and post- Referendum writings and published observations. Frank neatly identifies the realpolitik of achieving the necessary double majority required for constitutional change and repeatedly calls out the failure to ensure that there was a proper, popular process for identifying and refining the referendum question in a pragmatic context of knowing, from repeated lessons in our history, that the absence of a bipartisan position made it difficult, if not practically impossible, to achieve a positive outcome.   

As Frank said in his homily the day after the Referendum: “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”. 

Apart from assembling Frank’s various reflections published in the aftermath of the Referendum, the book contains a valuable collation of the written and oral representations Frank made to Government, the Opposition and Parliament in the year leading up to October 2023, in which with increasing stridency he sought to point out the manifest failure in process. In his joint letter to the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition some six months before the Referendum, he prophetically said: “The tragedy I am wanting to avoid is a No vote carried because of flaws in the process resulting in a lack of time for real and community engagement and for proper legal analysis.”

The book also includes Frank’s own reflections on the various forms of words which had been, or could have been, proposed for consideration in the Referendum, and a collection of reflections on the issue of justiciability which loomed as one of the divisive legal issues surrounding the proposed amendment.?In short, there’s a lot packed into a relatively short book! 

The book’s message for successive generations:  

As Sydney-based Violet Cabral writes so evocatively, “Entering the book launch as one of few people – if not the only one – under the age of 30, I sensed there was a feeling of defeat. Representing not a future generation, but the present one, I now urge my peers to continue their journey of truth-seeking and understanding, in the hope that successive generations catch up, in order for the baton of leadership to be passed on smoothly.    

“Without education, particularly in relation to truth-telling about Australia’s past, there is no room for growth in the process of reconciling the facts. These are vital blueprints into the processes or lack thereof, that initiate, build and sustain relationships, truth-telling and understanding across Australia.   

“From the perspective of future generations, Fr Frank Brennan’s book perfectly denotes the failure of settlement politics, the failure of process, the failure of bipartisanship, the failure of the 2023 Voice Referendum and ultimately, our failure as a nation to embrace Makarrata. As a result of this book launch, we have the opportunity to be better educated.”  

From left, at the Sydney book launch: Fr Ramesh Richards SJ, Fr Frank Brennan SJ and Fr Robin Koning SJ.

A review by Adam Wesselinoff in The Catholic Weekly:  

To quote a segment of this review: For months the Voice was all we talked about. And then—nothing. The “week of silence” declared by Indigenous leaders after the referendum’s defeat was only barely succeeded by serious reflection from the rest of Australia. The absence was in odd proportion to the high register of the claims from both sides prior to the vote—that it would be a way to redeem the nation’s original sin, or would plunge us into a future of endless racial division. The Voice disappeared down the memory hole. 

Two new books from Connor Court Publications are therefore very welcome: lawyer and philosopher Dr Damien Freeman’s The End of Settlement and Fr Frank Brennan SJ’s less elegantly titled Lessons from our failure to build a constitutional bridge in the 2023 Referendum. Both authors were intimately involved in the Voice process and take different approaches. Fr Brennan has topped-and-tailed his most important post-Voice reflections and contributions, while Freeman prosecutes a more sustained and original argument about the referendum’s defeat.  

Fr Brennan agrees: the failure of the Voice was fundamentally a matter of process. He approvingly cites constitutional lawyer Professor George Williams’ recommendation for a nonpartisan constitutional commission, and a regular convention each decade. “The lesson of 2023 is that good process will yield good policy, which will produce good politics, which might then result in a popular positive referendum result,” he concludes. “Next time, we could all do better by following the basic rules of constitutional change.” 

But if the prime minister is to blame for denying a process that could encourage the Coalition to settle, causing the Voice’s defeat, then Labor is also partly to blame for the ongoing “unsettlement” of right-wing populists emboldened by victory. If there is a “next time,” it may be immigration, housing, or war that cause a new settlement to be brokered. This may once again leave Indigenous Australians to remind themselves of the words from Dr Lowitja O’Donoghue that introduce Fr Brennan’s book: “We cannot lose the will to resolve these issues, because they will not go away.” 

The title and the cover: 

The cover depicts Grace Cossington Smith’s 1930 painting Bridge in Curve, which features the Sydney Harbour Bridge under construction. As Fr Frank said on 7 July, “I am delighted that Grace’s family gave permission to use the painting on the cover. The painting depicts an incomplete Sydney Harbour Bridge. I chose the painting for three reasons. The colour evinces hope. The structure highlights the enormity of the task. And all of us, not just those who live in Sydney, know that it is inconceivable to have Sydney without the Harbour Bridge. So too there is the unfinished business of the Australian Constitution. It is inconceivable that we can have a properly constituted nation until there is due acknowledgment of the First Australians with a completed constitutional bridge.  

“When I explained the choice of the cover to a group of educators, one person observed that the incomplete bridge is buttressed by a set of cables which can be safely taken away when the bridge is complete; so too when we are a reconciled nation.”  

Grace Cossington Smith and ‘The Bridge in Curve’ 

According to this article on the NGV website, “The artist began sketching the bridge from Milsons Point in 1927, braving the outdoors in her large hat and sturdy boots, and carrying a gentleman’s black umbrella. Often, she strapped her art equipment to her body to stop it blowing away in the severe waterside winds. Many of her drawings and pastels reveal her excitement at seeing the bridge’s arches coming together. Cossington Smith adopted a colourful, post-Impressionist technique using small, separate brush strokes in her paintings and was acknowledged by contemporary critics as being ‘in sympathy with what is known as the modern movement’.  

“She is today recognised as one of the greatest Australian artists of the first half of the twentieth century, yet at the time, like that of many female artists, her work was marginalised and unacknowledged. Smith’s paintings of the Sydney Harbour Bridge celebrate it as a powerful symbol of technology and modernity. By painting the emerging, rather than completed, bridge, Cossington Smith also focuses our attention on the energy and ambition required to create it.”

The continuing analogy of the bridge 

Two years ago, in his first Boyer Lecture, Noel Pearson, the Indigenous Australian lawyer, land rights activist and founder of the Cape York Institute for Policy and Leadership, also referenced in eloquent terms the analogy of a bridge. He said that at the Referendum each of us would vote on the question of whether the nation should build its greatest bridge – “a bridge to unite at long last the First Peoples of this country with our British institutional inheritance and our multicultural achievement, under the Constitution.” 

He spoke of “A bridge to join all Australians in common cause, to work together in partnership to make a new settlement that celebrates the rightful place of Indigenous heritage in Australia’s national identity. A constitutional bridge to create an ongoing dialogue between the First Peoples and Australian governments and parliaments, to close the gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians.” 

Fr Frank’s recent conversation with Eureka Street editor David Halliday:  

“In terms of closing the gap, the defeat of the Referendum set us back in two ways. One was the psychological blow to a lot of Aboriginal people. I mean, I’ve often quoted a woman in Darwin who said, at the end of the meeting we had, ‘Look, my mob, we’re not all across all this law and politics, I just know if the vote’s no on Sunday, my people will be so sad. And they’ll be so upset that we’ve been rejected once again by the people who colonised and dispossessed us.’  

“Now, there’s no getting away from that. But the second thing, and very significant, is that you can see this government trying very hard now to play catch up. I mean, they conducted themselves for 18 months pretending that there were no consultative processes in place at all. And so all of these consultative groups, many of them staffed by very competent Aboriginal people, including the Coalition of Peaks or big organisations such as the NACCHO, the National Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Organisation, they were treated as if they were non-existent or as if they were completely incompetent.” 

Buy your copy of Fr Frank Brennan’s book. 

The e-book version of Fr Frank’s book is available free for Eureka Street subscribers here.

Read the full text of Eureka Street editor David Hallliday’s interview with Fr Frank Brennan 

Banner image of Uluru by Chris Putnam, Canva.


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