By Robyn Douglass
Australians will vote October 14 on whether to establish an Indigenous Voice in Parliament. Voting is compulsory, so it’s something all Anglican Australians have a stake in.
The plan is to set up a body of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander representatives to provide advice to the government on any matters that concern Australia’s First Nations people. The Voice is not a third house of parliament, but it will be enshrined in the Constitution if it wins a majority of affirmative votes and prevails in a majority of states (four of six).
The Voice was proposed by a convention of Aboriginal people in central Australia in 2017, which produced the Uluru Statement from the Heart. It’s a single page that sets out three goals for the nation: to fix Aboriginal people’s place in the Constitution, a Makaratta Commission (understood as truth-telling about the past), and a treaty.
When Australia was settled by the English in 1788, it was described as terra nullius — empty land. That fiction was overturned by the High Court in 1992, but there has never been a treaty with any of the (roughly) 250 Indigenous nations, which make up about 3 percent of Australia’s 25.7 million people.
Australian Indigenous people are disadvantaged in many ways, despite years of often well-intentioned support. All governments have pledged to support closing the gap between Indigenous people’s lives and the rest of the population.
But changing the Constitution is a tall order, and seldom successful. The discussion has become increasingly bitter. The Anglican Church of Australia’s General Synod supported the Voice proposal as far back as 2017, and affirmed it again by its standing committee in April. Australian bishops reiterated their support for the Statement from the Heart when they met in March, and are urging people to think, talk, and pray about it.
The Diocese of Sydney, known for its conservatism, stopped short of telling people how to vote, but at its September 2022 meeting passed a motion encouraging discussions in churches and urging people to “give generous consideration to the case to vote Yes.”
The Voice would comment on practical matters, as the Rev. Canon Glenn Loughrey, a Wiradjuri man in the comfortable Melbourne suburb of Glen Iris, told TLC.
“Remembering First Peoples think communally, this gives us a seat at the table on matters that concern us — education, incarceration, stolen children, education, housing, living conditions, health, and more. It is not a quick fix but will, over time, begin to address these issues as we see the results of dialogue and listening on both sides,” he said. Elders use the metaphor of seven generations, Canon Loughrey added.
A Voice would begin to right the wrongs of two centuries, said the Ven. Peter Sandeman, archdeacon for social justice in South Australia. He told TLC that the church, more than many institutions, has reflected on its part in the colonial enterprise.
“The role the church played in the dispossession of Aboriginal people of their traditional lands is clear. It’s not all bad — there are some bright spots, but overall, the church, particularly the Church of England as the established church of the colonial power, went along with it,” he said.
“When the dominant thesis was that the Aboriginal people were a lesser race, the churches stood up against that on the basis that all are made in the image of God, but unfortunately the church then resorted to running the missions and, as such, became complicit in the colonial project.
“The Aboriginal community is asking for justice and seeking peace and reconciliation with the wider community,” he said. “Our role as the church is to apply the deep wisdom and the teachings that we are called to be reconciled with our brothers and sisters.”
Australia’s Aboriginal bishop, Chris McLeod, who also serves as dean of St. Peter’s Cathedral in Adelaide, says the church is at its best while listening to the voiceless.
“That’s one of our central callings, to be followers of Jesus and to live in the way that Jesus lived alongside those who are oppressed, poor, and outcast,” the soft-spoken Gurindji man said.
“Makaratta means coming together after a time of struggle,” he told TLC. “That’s a positive thing; it’s about reconciliation, really, and I think people get very fearful of the idea of treaty. The treaty really means coming to an agreement of how we are going to live together, dealing with the issues of the past in what would be a fair and just way to live together now.”
He believes churches have much to offer in their consultative decision-making, because they are used to coming together to discuss contentious issues.
Canon Loughrey said that as the Voice has support from 80 percent of Indigenous people, a yes vote would say that “the rest of Australia wishes to include and respect us; we are both seen and heard and therefore exist as real people, not as persona nullius [empty bodies].”
“If the answer is yes, I believe each of us will walk just a little straighter and speak more confident that others will listen,” he said.
If the vote fails, Bishop McLeod fears a more divided, more polarized community. And while Australians mostly ignore God, there must be space for us to “be still and pray and listen — not for the obvious,” he said.
It’s a point Sandeman endorsed: “Although Australia is one of the more secular Western societies — compared with the United States and England, for example — we still have a capacity, like the prophets calling the nation to a better way of being.”