The writing is on the wall

The Referendum on 14 October gives each of us the chance to make our own mark on a nation not just seeking the truth but the healing of its soul as well.


By Fr Brian McCoy SJ, former Australian Provincial

A few years ago, in a remote northern Aboriginal community, a friend of mine, William Parmbuk, painted the words, “Black Lives Matter – I Can’t Breathe” on the walls of his house. They were written in black, large print on his yellow-painted brick house. They were simple and stark in their message.

I have known this friend for many years. These simple words captured something of his feeling at the time, a feeling of anger and hurt at what he saw around him, what he had experienced and witnessed in life as an Aboriginal person. It was triggered by what he saw in America, but it also expressed what had been gradually building up within him.

The phrase “Black Lives Matter” gained worldwide traction after the 2012 killing in Florida of 17-year-old African-American Trayvon Martin, who was shot by a white man, George Zimmerman. The three-word slogan became more deeply entrenched as a hashtag on social media when highlighting instances of discrimination or racism, especially in the context of killings by police officers in the United States. The words “I can’t breathe” were the last recorded, desperate utterances of George Floyd, an unarmed black man who died in May 2020 after being restrained on the ground by a police officer who knelt on his neck.

William wanted the world to hear his anger and pain but more than that too. Crucially, he wanted the world to hear his hope, and to understand that what he was doing was much more than simply a protest.

I first met William in 1973 when he came with a large group of adults, teenagers and children from the Wadeye community (the Port Keats Mission, as it was known at the time) for the Aboriginal liturgy in the Eucharistic Congress in Melbourne. He was a teenager at the time. Later, I got to know him and his family when I returned to spend a summer in their community in 1974-75. Playing football with him in one of the local teams that summer was significant!

I have been richly blessed through our long friendship. Wiliam came with three other members of his family to my ordination in 1979. They stayed at JTC (the Jesuit Theological College) in Melbourne and even enjoyed a few days at Anglesea. Over the decades we have caught up regularly. I am accepted as an adopted “brother’” not just within his family but in his community as well. I have camped with him in his “country’” and we keep in regular contact. He is now living in Darwin, caring for his wife, who is blind and on dialysis.

He is a man of faith, seeking to bridge his Christian faith and Aboriginal culture. He once travelled with a group, including our own Fr Dave Ryan SJ, to the Holy Land. In recent discussions about the use of the photograph of him standing in front of his sign, he said: “My brother, we show them we are hurt!”

But it is important to understand that his painted sign was a desire for something better for his family and for his people. It was a cry for new life.

Our country is hurting at the moment. Pain can be felt across the whole land, affecting many Australians, not just First Nations people. In cities, towns and remote communities. The referendum has caused an old and deep wound to be re-opened and pain to re-surface.

This pain cries out from the core of being Australian. It affects us all, not just First Nations people. In recent weeks we have heard many voices, especially First Nations’ voices, expressing their preference for a Yes or No vote. Some have been measured, reflecting on the implications whichever way the result finally goes. Others have been more angry, dismissive of other opinions. Sadly, some have promoted ignorance and fear.

William Parmbuk in front of his house. Photo: Eureka Street.

What is this pain? For some Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people it is the weight of history, their personal experience of discrimination, the endless funerals and litany of tragic events, violence and suicide. And much more. For other Australians it can be witnessing the brokenness of peoples’ lives, the addictions and high imprisonment rates. And then there is the pain of those of us who move between both cultures. We feel our inability to adequately support Aboriginal and Torres Strait leaders and the burdens that many carry. We feel helpless to respond to what comes across as careless and negative comments by other Australians, the point-scoring by politicians and an underlying racism that can be expressed in so many ways.

There is also a collective pain, one which reveals that we as a nation cannot yet find a common ground of truth-telling, hope and healing. We struggle to agree on the truth of our past and how it affects the present. We live unreconciled and yet there are clear and growing signs that we wish to be more united as one people: the First Australians and those of us who came later — convicts, settlers, migrants and refugees.

This is not a unique pain that applies just to Australia. It is very similar to what many Indigenous people across the world have faced over centuries and that some continue to face. To ignore or deny that pain is to avoid facing the brutal and generational effects of colonisation and how it has particularly affected the First Nations people of this land, where simply being Indigenous and people of colour were key ingredients. This is not to say the suffering has affected all First Nations people in the same way. Shared trauma will deeply wound some more than others. Some show signs of greater resilience and others have found a path they believe they can safely navigate within the dominant culture. Many are still looking for that path or, if on it, face many challenges every day to their health and wellbeing.

To some of us it is a familiar pain because, if you live long enough, it regularly returns. To my surprise, however, it now seems to catch so many Australians off guard, like the pain of a new infection. And, like some physical pains, we wonder if we just have to learn to live with it and then medicate using occasional painkillers or decide whether it is one we now wish to face together, more openly and courageously. The coming vote of the referendum gives us a choice. Both choices involve pain but only one attempts to take steps to heal that deep wound.

A few weeks ago, I visited old friends in two remote Northern Territory Aboriginal communities, friends and families I have known for decades. In one community I was asked on occasions to explain what a referendum was and the context of this one. Not an easy task moving between English and, with the help of others, the principal local language. I talked about treaties the British Government had made with other Indigenous groups such as in the US, New Zealand and Canada and the background to the making of our Australian Constitution and the origin of this current referendum. At the end of one session, I was asked: “How come there never was a treaty here?”

The answer to this question lies in our ability to honestly face the truth about the history of this country and which distinguishes it from many similarly British-colonised countries. The generational pain that accompanies this truth will continue to arise and seek healing unless we Australians face it together and do so with courage and hope. This coming referendum is no magic bullet that can simply remove this colonial legacy whether one votes Yes or No.  But what it does do is draw a line in the sand of history, offering everyone the opportunity to stop, draw breath and explore what we as Australians want for a more inclusive and reconciled nation moving forward. It is not the referendum that is causing division. We have been divided since 27 January 1788.

Shortly after my friend had painted these words, the local police came and told him to remove them. He refused. They came back again, reminding him who had built his house. And, again, he refused. He could not go back and wash away what he had written.

I later asked him why he had painted these words. He replied that he saw what was happening in America and, over decades, what was happening to his own people. He could identify with the experience of African-Americans, especially how they were still being treated. He felt good, strong and proud in what he did.

What will we each feel on Saturday 14 October when we come to vote and what word – Yes or No – will carry our own sense of feeling good, strong and proud?  We cannot rewrite Australian history, but we can name where we stand in it now. With one word, we will each make our own mark for a nation seeking the truth and healing of its soul.  On Sunday 15 October, will our First Nations people feel that their lives do matter?  I hope so.

Fr Brian McCoy SJ is a Jesuit priest who lived among Indigenous people in Australia and overseas for more than fifty years.  Apart from long contact with Australia’s Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people across much of north Australia, he has also spent time with the Maori in New Zealand, the Anishinabe people in Canada and the Lakota Sioux in America. He completed a Doctorate (University of Melbourne) on the health of Aboriginal men, later published as ‘Holding Men: Kanyirninpa and the Health of Aboriginal Men’.

View the earlier, shorter version of this article on Eureka Street