The call for open and respectful discussion

Fr Andrew Hamilton SJ reviews the book ‘An Indigenous Voice to Parliament: Considering a Constitutional Bridge’ by Fr Frank Brennan SJ.


Frank Brennan, An Indigenous Voice to Parliament: Considering a Constitutional Bridge, Garratt Publishing, ISBN 9781922484659

The subject of the coming Referendum, as we all know now, is the Indigenous Voice. The passion behind the Referendum comes from the Indigenous Heart, so often disregarded and broken. What needs to be persuaded if the Referendum is to be passed is the variegated Australian Mind, full of many concerns and conceptions.

Fr Frank Brennan’s timely book, An Indigenous Voice to Parliament, is a thoughtful and lucid guide to the coming Referendum. It is directed to questioning but not yet committed readers. In it he narrates the history behind the two negative references to the First Peoples in the Constitution, their removal in 1967, and the debates out of which this new Referendum has been shaped. He discusses the difficulty of having referenda passed in Australia and consequently what needs to be done to ensure that this one is passed, presents representative arguments made by proponents and opponents of the Referendum proposal and outlines what should be done after the Referendum. He calls for open and respectful discussion within the Australian community about the issues raised by the Referendum. This book is a model of such a conversation, embodied in the ten steps he proposes for Christians preparing for the Referendum.

He endorses the view of the Expert Panel in 2012 that the proposal should help unify and reconcile the nation; should benefit and embody the wishes of the Indigenous people; should win the support of the majority of Australians across political and social lines; and should be technically and legally sound. These conditions present the challenges to be met. People may in good faith come to different judgments on each of these questions. It is therefore important to have leisurely public conversation free from partisanship.

Fr Frank Brennan SJ. Photo: David McMahon.

As one might expect, the proposed formula to be debated and decided upon by parliament before the Referendum comes out of a messy process in which these criteria were not fully met. Although there was consensus about including within the Constitution a statement about the unique place of Indigenous people in Australia, representative groups of Indigenous peoples demanded that this mention should take the form of inclusion within the Constitution the establishment of a Voice. They had long experience of seeing their consultative committees disbanded and legislation passed without consultation about them which was not to their benefit. Hence they wanted the Voice not only to be established by legislation but by the Constitution, not only to be consultative but binding, and not only to be a Voice to Parliament but also to Government. It would thus speak to the administration of policy as well to deliberation about it.

This desire of Indigenous representatives which is enshrined in the Uluru Statement for a Voice written into the Constitution makes it more difficult and demanding for the Voice to be passed in a Referendum. In the Referendum process the passion of the Indigenous desire for radical change meets concerns among the wider Australian community that the proposed form of words will not provoke legislation about its implications. This implies a careful narrowing of the scope of the proposal to be voted on that will naturally stand in tension with the desire of the Indigenous Australians for a broad and all-encompassing Voice. It makes even more urgent the need for painstaking and constructive conversation about the Voice.

Those who have opposed the proposed formula for the Referendum have done so because in their view it is divisive. It gives a special status to one group in Australian society, so risking creating resentment and conflict rather than reconciliation. Others believe that the decision to press to establish the Voice in the Constitution and to extend its remit to include Government as well as Parliament will create the opportunity for endless litigation and so for power to be given to judges rather than to Parliament. Such reservations demand serious and nonpartisan conversation about how to shape the wording of the referendum proposal so that it responds to these concerns as well as to the demand of Indigenous Australians for recognition that will makes a difference to their lives.

An Indigenous Voice to Parliament is important in pointing out the difficulties facing the Referendum, the conditions to be met if it is to be passed, and in implicitly judging the current state of play. It regrets the quality of political discussion of the Referendum as confrontational and not conciliatory, controversial and not seeking common ground, declaratory and not expository. Ultimately such an approach appeals to prejudice and not to understanding. It is hard not to share the fear that the Referendum will fail.

The purpose of the book and its message, however, are not elegiac but form a call to action – to become informed, to engage in conversation, to write letters, to meet and listen to Indigenous Australians. The Referendum Campaign as well as its result will be a crucial stage in a long process in which all Australians come to acknowledge our shared and separated history and address its lasting discrimination and injustices.

Fr Andrew Hamilton SJ

Buy your copy of An Indigenous Voice to Parliament: Considering a Constitutional Bridge.

Feature photo: The Australian and Aboriginal flags on top of the Sydney Harbour bridge, by Fr Frank Brennan SJ.