How do we see ourselves as a nation?

In the lead up to Saturday’s referendum, Provincial of the Redemptorists John Hodgson CSsR has penned some respectful words about how we see ourselves as a nation and what may follow after the vote. Here are some of his thoughts.


Next weekend we will gather at Sunday Eucharist having just voted in a referendum asking if Australians wish to recognise First Nations peoples in the Constitution through a Voice to Parliament. This is no ordinary referendum, but one of great significance to us and one followed closely by the whole world. It deserves our full attention.


A referendum result next weekend or in the weeks and months following will induce a complex array of emotions that we need to appreciate and understand. Get ready for the ride. I think it is fair to say that for the majority of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples there will either be emotions of great jubilation or immense anger. It is hard to think that no Indigenous person cares about his or her future or the outcome of this referendum. Even Indigenous Australians who vote ‘no’ are deeply locked into making the dreams and hopes of ending disparity a reality. Such is the depth of their pain that very few will be neutral.


For non-indigenous Australians there might be differing emotions including jubilation, relief, anger, bitterness, calm or apathy – depending on how the world is viewed. I expect that a close referendum result will not calm the agitation for all Australians to properly address the concerns of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders in this journey of reconciliation. It is not helpful, nor is it worthy of our vocation to simply ignore the questions raised by the referendum, nor ignore the tension, emotion and conflict that has occurred around the debate on how we should vote.


One question to ask ourselves: how do I personally feel about how I voted or would have voted if given the opportunity? Another is this: how have I reacted to the outcome? An important starting point to remember is that whether the referendum passes or fails or remains inconclusive, the work of the Christian community for justice, peace, inclusion and reconciliation with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders will, and must continue.


This is a fundamental call of the gospel which cannot be by-passed or watered down. Regardless of how we personally vote, this particular topic of the referendum provides an amazing opportunity to help a society understand itself and its journey. Seventeen million people voting either yes or no to a profound question about the future of First Nations Peoples in our society becomes a barometer of our collective consciousness, indicating our feelings, priorities, attitudes and values and uncovers hidden aspects of our identity.


A referendum result is not self-explanatory and needs interpretation, because the outcome is a symbol of Australia’s journey so far with our First Nations Peoples and reflects our current values, feelings, priorities and consciousness at this particular point in time. There are layers upon layers of meaning. As well, the outcome will, over time, reflect what is unconscious in our values, priorities, hopes and dreams. We need to use all our faculties in addressing the concerns raised by the referendum.


Another important reminder is that a referendum is one step in the broader process of addressing Indigenous rights and reconciliation. And that is why it is so incredibly important that we respect the freedom and conscience of every voter to make her/his decision known. Personal decisions shaped by threats, guilt, fear, coercion or apathy cannot inform us with truth about who we are and what we are seeking. We will have a much better idea of who we are after next weekend if we vote freely and in good conscience.


One thing for sure is that there will a lot of analysis of the result, and our personal interpretation and analysis will depend on the lens or lenses we most often use in life – political, social, scientific, economic, ethical, historical, cultural, global, biblical-theological etc.


There will be an international response to the result as well. A significant ‘yes’ vote could be interpreted in several ways: that Australian society wants change in its relationship with First Nations Peoples; that constitutional recognition and inclusion is an important step forward; that self-determination through the Voice to Parliament is a positive step forward; that the hope for reconciliation and the unity needed are now being realised; that historical injustices can be acknowledged and wrongs righted; that all Australians want to walk together in a more positive way.


Interpreting a significant ‘no’ vote could be a more difficult challenge. Some interpretations might be: that there is hesitation among Australians about the path of reconciliation; that the referendum question was not a simple yes or no; that the way forward is not clear, sometimes confused; that a Voice to Parliament is not the only way and that the steps to reconciliation need more clarity, honesty, time and debate; that there is a deep reluctance to change the constitution; that legal decisions are not the only way forward and other avenues need to be imagined and talked about; that there are significant negative attitudes, as well as racism and prejudice among Australians towards Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples which prevent them saying ‘yes’.


A vote that is significantly neither one nor the other could be very polarising. So, in the midst of all this upheaval, I feel safer in offering a biblical-theological approach to addressing the referendum result and offer these thoughts in the hope our proclamation can heal wounds and not support apathy, indifference or unnecessary conflict.


Australia, as the nation we understand ourselves to be since 1901, is 123 years in the making and since 1770 when one of Captain Cook’s men fired his gun and wounded an Aboriginal man in Botany Bay, there has been 255 years of interaction with our indigenous peoples who have been on this continent for 60,000 years.


Much of that interaction has rarely been positive, and sadly for us all, mostly horrific. Reconciliation is a long but necessary journey of seeking the truth, righting wrongs, and imagining ways to build a life together. It also needs both empathy, patience and determination. It does not need apathy, ignorance, prejudice or idealisation.


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