Written by, and shared with thanks to Peter Morris, General Manager of the Reconciliation Action Plan (RAP) Program at Reconciliation Australia. This article is a shortened version of Peter’s article, 'Will the Voice Work? Lessons from Abroad and Home', first published in the Journal of Australian Indigenous Issues (Vol 26, 2023).
I sat across the table from my pastor and he asked me a question I’ve heard a lot over the past few months: “why do you care about the referendum so much?”
It started when a government report arrived in my parent’s mailbox in June 1997. My dad was a committed Christian who cared deeply about issues of justice. For whatever reason, he had ordered a copy of the Bringing Them Home report, the inquiry into the removal of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children from their families.
I can still see the words in my mind’s eye. I was drawn to the bold-faced type that indicated the story was the firsthand account of a brave First Nations survivor. The text spoke of abuse, pain, and loss, often experienced at the hands of institutions I trusted (like the government), even loved (like the church).
How could this happen? How could I not have known?
Over time, God used that experience to fill me with humility (there are many things I don’t know) and resolve (there must be a better way).
A few years later I was in the classroom studying my Masters in American Indian Policy in Arizona, USA. One white Australian among dozens of Native American fellow students. I worked with the founder of the Harvard Project on Indigenous Development, a project that started with the simple question, what works to deliver better outcomes for Indigenous peoples?
Shortly after that I was in Washington, DC working for the National Congress of American Indians, the representative body of tribes and Native peoples throughout the United States. In that role, I worked closely with tribal leaders as they engaged with President Obama and his administration. I saw firsthand the benefits of consultation with Indigenous peoples founded on constitutional recognition.
Many do not realise that Australia is the outlier on constitutional recognition. It is part of the constitutional framework of many countries and was included in the US Constitution in the 1700s. Based on that recognition, for more than 50 years the US government has consulted with tribes on issues that impact them. That consultation has delivered better outcomes. It was the answer to the question posed by the Harvard Project: ensuring Indigenous peoples have a robust voice in policies that impact their communities, that’s what works!
The need for consultation is agreed upon by both political parties. It started with Nixon and Reagan and has been embraced by diverse political leaders from Obama to Trump and Biden to Bush. This agreement has led to a reality that many Australians yearn for, especially in the midst of the referendum campaign: Indigenous issues are nonpartisan issues. I worked with tribal leaders who were Democrats and Republicans and they worked with Congressional leaders from across the political spectrum. They didn’t agree on everything but there was a lower temperature, even the hint of humility, a rarity in politics everywhere.
So as Australians consider this constitutional change, we must understand that the referendum will lead to a modest change that brings us into line with similar democracies around the world. A change that has delivered results.
So back to my conversation with my pastor, why do I care?
I care because the referendum presents an opportunity to love my neighbour.
I choose to vote Yes for three reasons. First, the status quo is not acceptable to anyone. Some “Closing the Gap” targets are even going backwards. There is no disagreement on the problem.
Second, First Nations people specifically identified the Voice as the change they want. The 2017 Uluru Statement from the Heart emerged from a process supported by both sides of politics. It identified a “First Nations Voice to Parliament, enshrined in the Constitution” as a unified priority.
Even polling during this year of fractured and politicised debate about the Voice has consistently demonstrated First Nations support for the Voice at over 80%. That level of agreement is almost unprecedented and should be listened to.
Third, and finally, I vote Yes because, based on my experience, the Voice will work. It will deliver better outcomes and may even lower the temperature of our political debate about Indigenous issues.
I also care because the referendum presents an opportunity for believers to be salt and light. I want the church to be different. From Facebook to the news, our culture is one of rage and disagreement. We are constantly being sorted, and sorting ourselves, into teams. As the politics of division has grown louder in this campaign, we are tempted to retreat to our respective “corners,” even at church. But my experience has shown that Indigenous issues can be nonpartisan. And while that’s not true in Australia today, surely it can start with the church.
Christians of all political stripes can support the Voice and provide a powerful testimony to our culture of humility and love for neighbour.
Just like when I sat down in 1997 with the Bringing them Home report, there are many things in 2023 that we as non-Indigenous believers do not know or fully understand about the experiences and aspirations of First Nations peoples. The opportunity the referendum presents to people of faith is to acknowledge what we know and what we don’t know, to listen to the voices of First Nations people and respond with generosity and compassion.
Peter Morris has served in vocational ministry in the United States, Costa Rica, and Australia. He has worked with Indigenous communities in both Australia and the United States. He currently lives on Darug Country and works for ReachGlobal (the mission agency of the Evangelical Free Church of America) and Reconciliation Australia.