By Mark Dingle, UnitingCare Australia Board Member
“Did not your father have food and drink?
He did what was right and just, so all went well with him.
He defended the cause of the poor and the needy, and so all went well.
Australia has embarked upon a journey towards a referendum to enshrine in our constitution a First Nation’s Voice to Parliament. When it comes to our relationship with the First Peoples of this land ours is a history of tears, silence and avoidance. This is a referendum that presents a powerful opportunity for us to do what is right and just.
For me, justice is about an honest and truthful reckoning – personally in our relationships and, collectively with our history and through our institutions.
The role of justice in Christian faith is clear. The Psalmist calls us to “give justice to the weak…stand up for the powerless” (82). Isaiah urges us to “… seek justice. Defend the oppressed. Take up the cause of the fatherless; plead the case of the widow.” (1:17) Micah gives us that beautiful rejoinder, “God has told you what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” (6:8). Given the injustices towards First Peoples that are patterned across our nation’s history, changing our nation’s constitution to create a more just future is an urgent task for a mature nation.
With just foundations we can truly transform our governance – the way in which we make decisions for the nation – so that we can stand as a mature society that continues to prosper for the benefit of all, and at last recognise the unique standing of the First Peoples as the original and continuing custodians.
Yet we know how difficult it is to change the constitution and, we know the history of our nation is contested – at least in where we place the focus of our storytelling: often avoiding the truth of the vicious acts directed at First Nation’s people for the greater part of our history.
And so, where to begin? Let’s begin with acknowledgement.
It has become accepted practice regardless of political ideology, for non-Indigenous people to begin gatherings with an acknowledgement of country, paying their respect to Traditional Custodians of the land.
This is good.
We know how important it is for people to be acknowledged and after centuries of ignoring Indigenous people in this country and actively excluding them, this gesture is a small step on the journey to right relationships between First Peoples and non-Indigenous Australians.
But given the respect declared in this acknowledgement it must come with good intent; with sincerity; and, most importantly, with action.
So, when we say the words, ‘we pay our respects to Elders past and present’ what does it mean to ‘pay respect’? For me, it must be a two-fold response: first it is about active engagement with the issues confronting Indigenous people and the opportunities they are pursuing. We need to get alongside Aboriginal people. Know their context, learn our shared history, do the work, and take action.
Active engagement requires committing to a deeper understanding and connection. It’s only then that we may have the ability to contribute to those issues Indigenous people seek to have addressed. Remembering that we create the best chance for success when we engage with the people affected by the decision in the making of the decision.
So, the practical, day-to-day policies and programs affecting Indigenous people – be they of governments or business or community groups – are best informed by the daily experience of Indigenous people.
And what has been the collective experience of First Peoples across more than 200 years?
This is not to say Indigenous peoples exist in a perpetual state of anxiety, but rather the consequences of our history for many First Peoples means that underlying their daily walk is the weight of history, known clearly to them but for so long actively hidden and avoided by the rest of the nation. We as non-Indigenous people need to be reminded of this history, not so that we are in a constant state of retrospective guilt, but so we might comprehend in some small way what First Peoples carry.
North American Jane Middleton-Moz, who was adopted by a Native American family, describes this connection between history and trauma when she says, “We have to face the reality of cultural trauma. We have to understand that these unresolved historical remnants break out as lateral violence – violence that goes sideways, against friends, family and the self, because it cannot resolve itself vertically. It cannot deal with the real cause of the problem – the cause that’s pressing down from on top – the burden of a tragic history set in place and often held in place by powerful interests”.
And it’s this power imbalance that the Voice proposes to challenge. It is not proposing to dismantle these powerful interests, simply to bring the voice of First Peoples to government policies and programs in a way that has never been done before.
So, our acknowledgement begins with active engagement to understand our shared history and recognise the traumatic experience of First Peoples and its continuing effects. But this is where acknowledgement can fall short. If all we do is say, ‘isn’t it terrible’, ‘we are sorry’, ‘we mustn’t let this happen again’, and then stop there, we have failed. Equally, when we only invite First Peoples to contribute to specific policies and particular programs, we are missing an opportunity to go deeper.
And so, the second response to acknowledgement must be structural reform. Changing how we make decisions so that the shameful chapters in our history are not repeated. Updating how we inform the decisions of our elected leaders with the experience and insight of First Peoples so that not only they benefit, but we all gain from targeted and informed policy design.
The multiplicity of jurisdictions, entities, laws and regulations means the system of governance for our nation is complex. When you consider this complexity, it becomes more apparent how single, well-intentioned initiatives and policies – even those designed by or with First Peoples – are limited in their ability to affect systemic change.
We have a structural problem. Our federal government has powers to enact laws for Aboriginal people as overwhelmingly endorsed in the 1967 referendum; it has the most far-reaching policy impact and funding to effect change and so it is at the national level that a First Nations Voice is critical.
So, let’s understand what is being proposed. The referendum will ask Australians if they support a change to the Constitution “In recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples as the First Peoples of Australia:
- There shall be a body, to be called the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice.
- The Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice may make representations to Parliament and the Executive Government on matters relating to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples.
- The Parliament shall, subject to this Constitution, have power to make laws with respect to the composition, functions, powers and procedures of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice.”
It’s important to note that the proposed changes reaffirm the role of Parliament in making laws and that the Voice is only proposed to “make representations”.
To be clear, we the people must first agree to support an alteration to the Constitution that establishes a Voice. That’s our job. We then expect our government to prepare legislation, refined and debated by all members of Parliament, which creates the structures that give the Voice a presence in our nation’s governance. That’s the responsibility of our government.
Ultimately, the Voice has no power to make decisions for government; it has no veto right over government decisions; it will not deliver programs or have funding powers; and, it will have local, regional and national representation to ensure it truly reflects the people for whom it is a voice.
Given the measured and moderate proposition that the Voice represents it is disappointing to hear critics suggest the Voice is a distraction and not relevant to the lives of First Peoples, or that the Voice isn’t the priority when there are other pressing concerns for First Peoples. The language of those who have already decided to oppose the Voice can suggest a cautionary approach cloaked as care and concern which in effect limits genuine empowerment of First Nation’s people that puts them in a position to advise on matters that affect them.
Others suggest the Voice is symbolic rather than substantive. Apart from the obvious impact of national policy making on the daily lives of Australians (consider how John Howard’s bold policy on gun reform led to the amnesty on firearms and the destruction of thousands of deadly weapons), the symbolism of recognising First Peoples in our constitution is important and it has an effect.
About a decade ago I sat in a board room with a panel of coalition MPs including Senator Nigel Scullion, soon to become the Minister for Indigenous Affairs. He was asked what he thought of the apology to the Stolen Generation. In summary he acknowledged that the act of saying sorry – sincerely and honestly – had a huge, positive effect on Aboriginal people, including many in his own electorate. For those that say the referendum is symbolism writ large, clearly that is misleading. But equally the symbolism of acknowledging First Peoples in our constitution alongside structural reform brings moral and systemic change that together create potential for genuine change.
To the critics and their varied arguments and protestations, I say we are a far more creative and optimistic nation which sees the opportunity of this referendum to bring a just, stronger and more prosperous nation.
When the people of the oldest continuing culture on earth who have survived the brutal colonisation of their land propose a shared future through proper acknowledgement and structural reform to achieve a “fuller expression of our nationhood” it would seem short sighted in the extreme to not grasp this opportunity.
When the First Peoples of this nation are enduring the ongoing effects of disadvantage that is a consequence of dispossession, but still find it within themselves to invite us to walk together in a movement of the Australian people for a better future, how can we consider anything but accepting this chance to do what is right and just, so that future generations might say, “all went well with them”.
Mark Dingle is a member at Fairfield Uniting Church on Wurundjeri Country and a Board Member of UnitingCare Australia. He has worked over the past decade with First Peoples across the country, including as a past Board Member with The Torch and, between 2016-2017, through support for the Victorian Aboriginal Treaty Working Group as they worked to put in place the structures and a voice for a Pathway to Treaty.
This blog is a shorter version of the original, a full copy of which is available below.