You’re the voice

Picture of Bruce Duncan CSsR

Bruce Duncan CSsR

Bruce is a Redemptorist priest who specialises in areas of social justice and ecology

Recent opinion polls indicate that support for the Indigenous Voice to parliament has fallen, raising concern that the referendum this year might fail. This would set back the reconciliation process with our First Peoples who for decades have tried to have a voice to governments on issues directly affecting them.

Most Australians would recognise that the referendum raises critical moral and political issues that now demand our full attention. As a nation are we ready to hear our First Nations peoples and their need for a Voice to parliament secured in the Constitution? 


The current contested political context could hardly be more different to that around the 1967 Constitution Alteration (Aborigines) Bill. That referendum allowed ‘full-blood’ Aborigines to be counted in the population, and for the federal government to make special laws for Aboriginal people living in a state, meaning that the Commonwealth had power to override state laws.


The referendum was carried by almost 91% of the vote.

There was firm support from church and community groups as well as the media, and crucially both the Liberal and Labor parties supported the Bill.


The issues are not so clear cut today. The Albanese government has not won bi-partisan support from the Coalition parties. The Liberal Party wants to recognise Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in the Constitution, but not with a Voice to parliament, though it approves of local or regional voices that are not enshrined in the Constitution.


The government insists that the Voice must be put in the Constitution so that it cannot be shut down by a later government, as has been the case with earlier national Indigenous consultative bodies.


Despite the Liberal and National parties opposing the referendum, some prominent Coalition members have stated they will support a Yes vote. The former Indigenous Australians spokesperson and shadow attorney-general, Julian Leeser, resigned from the shadow cabinet in early April so he could campaign for a Yes vote. He believed that a ‘Voice can help move the dial on Indigenous education, health, housing, safety and economic development.’


Former Indigenous Australians minister Ken Wyatt resigned from the Liberal Party, while Tasmanian MP Bridget Archer declared she would support a Yes vote.


The Coalition’s main grievance is around the wording that the Voice can ‘make representations to Parliament and the Executive Government of the Commonwealth’.


Fr Frank Brennan SJ, who for many years has played a prominent role in support of Indigenous rights, proposed that inserting the phrase ‘executive government’ may open up legal and constitutional issues which could be avoided if the wording were changed to a Voice ‘to parliament and ministers of state’.


He argued before the Joint Select Committee on the Voice on April 13 for a variation to this wording to try to secure support of the Opposition parties. He feared that if the referendum failed, it could set back the reconciliation process. He detailed his views in his book, Indigenous Voice to Parliament, outlining the Yes and No cases. He recommended that the referendum be deferred rather than risk defeat. But whatever the final wording, he intended to vote Yes for the Voice.


However, various experts disagreed with Fr Brennan that the words need to be changed. The former high court judge and one of the constitutional experts advising the government about the Voice, Kenneth Hayne, wrote on March 23 that there was nothing to be afraid of with this Indigenous Voice.


He wrote it was up to parliament to determine how the Voice will operate. Hayne insisted that the Voice ‘is not a “third chamber” of parliament. It has no veto.’ Other constitutional experts, Professors George Williams and Anne Twomey, also defended retaining the term ‘executive government’.


With a contrary view, another member of the Constitutional Expert Group, Professor Megan Davis, argued the Voice would be able to speak to all facets of government.


However, Australia’s solicitor-general, Dr Stephen Donahue, in his formal advice to the government, released on April 21, said such a Voice ‘to parliament or executive government’ would not impede existing powers of government. He said the Voice had no veto power, and the parliament or executive was not obliged to follow its advice.


The solicitor-general is Australia’s second highest legal official, after the attorney-general, who is a member of parliament, whereas the solicitor-general is not and offers independent advice to the Commonwealth on legal matters. 


The Joint Select Committee on the Voice Referendum, recommended on May 15 that the original wording be retained, as most expert opinion considered it legally and technically sound. It is now up to the Federal Government to present the bill to parliament.


Australia’s Catholic bishops see the referendum as a defining moment in our history and a decisive step in the reconciliation process with our First Nations peoples, opening the way for Treaty and Truth-telling. The bishops did not tell people how to vote, but urged all Australians to become informed and consider the moral issues seriously.


They urged that schools, parishes and agencies help people discuss the Uluru Statement, which the bishops and the Plenary Council had endorsed. They were guided by the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Catholic Council (NATSICC).


The Uluru Statement from the Heart was the result of regional consultations that culminated in more than 250 First Nations’ delegates meeting at Uluru in Central Australia in May 2017. Their Statement invited Australians ‘to walk together to build a better Australia’ by establishing a ‘Voice to Parliament enshrined in the Constitution’ to advise governments about concerns of Indigenous people, and to form a ‘Makarrata Commission for the purpose of treaty-making and truth telling’. Makarrata is an Aboriginal word meaning ‘coming together after a struggle’.


Key Catholic and other church organisations and agencies are strongly supporting the Voice as well, including Catholic Social Services Australia, Social Services Victoria and Catholic Religious Australia, representing religious orders of men and women.


Bruce Duncan is a Redemptorist priest and is chaplain to the Aboriginal Catholic Ministry in Melbourne.


Image: Feature Image: Courtesy ABC and Don Arnold/Getty Images.

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