Sometime between October and December of this year, 2023, Australian citizens will participate in a national referendum to enshrine in the constitution an Indigenous voice to parliament.
Born in Canada, but having settled in Australia in 2004 and become a citizen in 2006, I am not personally emotionally invested in the issue of reconciliation with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders. I will be voting no in this referendum because I do not believe the reconciliation being sought by the 2017 Uluru Statement from the Heart is necessary, valid, nor helpful.
I concede my rationale is not heterodox. Firstly, I concur with The Gospel Coalition editors in noting,
Christian theology and ethics do not directly lead to a particular response to this national referendum, but ought to inform our approach to it. 1
Rather than laying out my rationale point by point, with this post I will instead critique two so-called “Christian” arguments for voting yes. Doing so will likely reveal my own thinking on this matter, for the interest of readers.
Rev. Dr. Michael Jensen
The former Rector of St Mark’s Anglican Church, Darling Point, in Sydney and lecturer in theology and church history at Moore College, had his take on this referendum published on the website of The Gospel Coalition: Australian edition. He described the purpose of his article as, “to give some guidance to Christians who are not themselves Aboriginal or Torres Strat Islander people, on thinking through how they might vote in an informed and, indeed, Christian way”. At this, a red-flag should be raised in the mind of the discerning reader for there is no single “Christian way” to vote on this issue.
After helpfully providing the precise wording of the referendum, Jensen then makes the mistake of declaring,
This particular referendum concerns the serious matter of the welfare of our Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander neighbours […] The proposal for the Voice asks us to reckon with the wound that was delivered to First Nations people over the course of the colonisation of the lands they inhabited for millennia.
I disagree vehemently the welfare of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians is dependant on reconciliation over colonisation. Colonisation began when the First Fleet arrived and hoisted the flag of the United Kingdom. This is a fact of history based on the values of that socio-political realities of the time. While colonisation today would be inappropriate, it was not so at the time. It behooved the inhabitants of the lands that would become Australia to repel the colonisers, which they did not for they were unable. To apologise for this and to reconcile “the wound” is to deny the validity of this colonisation, which I do not agree is necessary nor needful.
I agree with Jensen, “Deep wrongs have been done to Indigenous peoples, from which they still suffer and from which most other Australians benefit”. However, he claims this leads to, “deep intergenerational trauma and shame”, resulting in, “record higher rates of incarceration, lower life expectancy, higher infant mortality, higher rates of alcohol and other substance abuse, higher rates of domestic violence”. I do not doubt this is the case. Losing sovereignty in the lands of Australia brought shame to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, but that is their problem to deal with and not a reason to apologise for colonising this land. We can help with their shame by lifting their status and contribution to Australian society, but incurring our own shame is not the answer.
Thus, I do not accept there is any justice in conceding colonisation was wrong at the time. We do not serve well the welfare of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders by applying 21st century values to a fact of history.
According to Jensen,
There is, in fact, already a widespread consensus that there should be constitutional recognition for First Nations people […] Recognition in the Constitution would acknowledge, rightfully, the venerable history of Indigenous peoples in Australia prior to European settlement.
I personally do not have any difficulty accepting the Australian constitution can and likely should acknowledge the venerable history of “First nations” and “Indigenous peoples in Australia prior to European settlement”. Acknowledging that history may well do much to ameliorate the shame felt by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders Australians, but that is not what the referendum proposes. The referendum proposes establishing a lobby group paid for by Australian tax payers. No other groups are provided tax payer funds to lobby the government. Any group concerned with any issue that affects them are legally within their rights to lobby the government for changes in the law. I do not agree any group is deserving of special treatment in this regard.
Equality For All
I concur when Jensen noted, “Everyone agrees that there is a long way to go in terms of equality of opportunity and outcome for Indigenous Australians.” Unlike Jensen, I believe this change must come from Indigenous Australians themselves, from the strength of their own culture and character. Social services are plentiful that address Indigenous disadvantage. Asking for special political treatment for one group is unfair to other Australians and other groups.
What I find particularly egregious with Jensen’s article is his dismissal of the concern “the Voice is merely the beginning of a process which will include a treaty and then a claim for reparations. This, critics fear, would be a negative trajectory.” The Uluru Statement does not stop at proposing a Voice. It also proposes Treaty and Truth. This referendum is merely the first step in a long and painful process for Australia which I do not support because I do not accept “there is a moral imperative for reconciliation in our country”. That Jensen treats these concerns so dismissively is disingenuous.
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians are legal citizens of this land that they lost hundreds of years ago. Yes, I agree there should be services and laws to raise their quality of life but these services and laws will be insufficient in themselves if indigenous people do not access and utilise them for their benefit. Changing the constitution will not help but will do much more harm than good.
- Michael Jensen, “The Voice: A Christian Consideration”, The Gospel Coalition: Australian edition, 16-Jun-2023, https://replug.link/4ded7960 (accessed 8-Aug-2023).