A “The Voice” Why Yes forum held to discuss the referendum in the light of a Sydney Anglican Synod (church parliament) motion “to give generous consideration to the case to vote ‘Yes’ to the referendum question” heard from a lineup including indigenous leaders Ray and Sharon Minniecon, Sydney Anglican Bishop Michael Stead and constitutional law lecturer Joel Harrison. The meeting at St Peters Anglican church Watsons Bay in Eastern Sydney was convened by Anglican churches in the Wentworth Electorate and hosted by Bishop Stuart Robinson.
Pastor Minniecon introduced an acknowledgement of country as a descendant of the Kabi Kabi nation and the Gurang Gurang nation of South-East Queensland by borrowing from High Court decisions about the place of indigenous peoples of Australia. “I want to declare that all indigenous peoples are entitled, as against the whole world, to possession, occupation, use and enjoyment [of the land].
“Two: I want to declare that all indigenous peoples are not outsiders or foreigners in their own land. They’re the descendants of the first peoples of their country, the original inhabitants, and they’re to be recognised.
“Three, I want to declare that none of the events of invasion, settlement, federation or the advent of foreign citizenship laws have displaced the unique position of indigenous rights.
“I want to claim that indigenous have a unique connection to their country. It is not just ancestry. Indigenous peoples have a connection with the land, waters and skies under indigenous laws and no imposed citizenship act has removed or modified that connection. No parliament or foreign government has removed or modified that connection.”
Minniecon acknowledged the traditional owners of the land on which St Peters Church is built, the Gadical people of the Eora nation, and the sorrow of their dispossession. Sharon Minniecon opened in prayer, praying that God’s Spirit would move in our hearts and minds as we discussed the Voice.
Bishop Michael Stead: Suggested that the generous consideration of the “yes” case called for by the Sydney Synod “generous consideration means that we are flipping the burden of proof that is being inclined to be prepared to vote Yes unless there are good reasons to vote No”
To make generous consideration of the yes case our starting point, he argued, means we should put the burden on those who argue for the status quo rather than those who seek change, a reversal of the usual way of doing things.
The no case would need to establish the truth of their arguments that the Voice would be undemocratic, unworkable, deceitful or insidious (in disguising an agenda).
“Generous consideration is all about our stance, our starting [point] as we approach these very questions .. Giving something the benefit of the doubt, giving it a chance to succeed rather than assuming that it won’t or requiring proof. That generous consideration will not necessarily lead to voting. Yes. Each person should weigh argument and come to their own conclusion and vote accordingly but that decision should come as a result of thoughtful consideration.”
“Why is it recommeded we reverse the usual bias towards the status quo? Thats usually how we approach examining the case for a change. Why should we invert the bias? Well it is as the motion reminds us, the status quo is not great.”
Joel Harrison, Senior Lecturer in Constitutional Law at USyd Law School: “We are not considering the Albanese voice or the Canberra voice. Rather we are considering an invitation that Aboriginal and Torres Strait peoples developed over the years … The constitutional amendment proposal clearly rejected a mere statement of recognition. The argument should take a concrete form if it is to be meaningful.
“The Uluru statement also shifted discussion away from proposals to change the Commonwealth’s legal powers. Instead, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples invited the country to consider something quite innovative: A body for a First Nations voice. The Voice is hoped would empower first nations.”
Harrison explained that the constitution provides “Heads of Power” and the legislature provides the details. For example, our Constitution says there shall be a High Court of Australia, but Parliament determines the make-up of the court. The Constitution gives the Government the ability to raise taxes. However, the tax rate and other rules are applied in legislation.
Discussing the proposed Constitutional amendment, Harrison added, “Very clearly, the Voice is not part of the parliament. It doesn’t exercise lawmaking power. It is not part of the government. It doesn’t administer laws, and it does not administer services. And it’s not part of the judiciary; it cannot decide on cases. It is an advice-giving body. By placing it in the constitution, the voice is likely to be a permanent commonwealth institution.”
Ray Minniecon discussed that Indigenous peoples had not been included in Australian society, questioning to what extent he could begin by saying, “My fellow Australians.” He quoted the Labor politician King O’Malley as saying of Aboriginal people, “There is no scientific evidence that he is a human being at all.” and Anglican minister Samuel Marden “The Aboriginal is the most degraded of the human race. The time has not been arrived for him to receive the great lesson of civilization and the knowledge of Christianity.” But he reflected that the Voice gives us an opportunity to put those ideas in the past.
“Paul himself wrote in Romans, he said, ‘let us pursue what makes the peace.’ And this is at the heart of this incredible document. What opportunity you have have to actually change.”
Allegra Spender, member for Wentworth: Asked by Bishop Stuart Robinson to say what message her constituency wanted to hear, she said, “I think it is three things: That it will make a practical difference for the lives of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people; that it is constitutionally safe and that it is desired and has been brought upon us by Aboriginal and Torre Strait Islander people.”
She added, “I’ve learned that you make the biggest practical difference when you simply listen to the people whose lives you are trying to affect and ask them first, ‘What’s happening?’ ‘What do you think?’ For literally decades, we have tried to make policies for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples … And so I think rather than people like myself who want what could work, want to do a good job, we need to start by listening and that is the Voice. The opportunity for the voice gives us an opportunity to listen to what people think will make a difference to their lives.”
Michael Jensen: “As a Christian theologian and minister, I’ve seen my role in this debate is not just to put a particular case but to help people, particularly Christians, to think through the Voice from Christian principles as much as possible.
“Only this is particularly hard for us to do in the contemporary media environment. It’s been made much harder by the way. The issue has become politicized by both sides of politic. This is tragic.”
The task for Christians is not simple. “As Christians, we consider first what scripture says, and second what is wise. We should ask, is it biblical, and is it reasonable? Now, it’s not a straightforward equation. The voice is not a proposal you might not be surprised to learn, which is a direct command to be found in Christian teaching.
“Now there are those issues for which you can draw a pretty direct line from Christian and biblical teaching. I would say that was the case of the 1967 referendum… Perhaps a republic might be one on which the Bible allows us complete freedom to consider what wises. The voice is somewhere in between.”
“There are lines to be drawn from the Bible to the voice, but they’re not direct.
“So what can we learn from scripture? Well, firstly, we can learn how repentance, forgiveness, and reconciliation work. Reconciliation is the very heart of the Christian faith. It’s language that’s entered our political discourse that’s been borrowed from the Christian faith. The peace we’ve got, which we are given in Jesus Christ by his grace, which drives us to make peace with others.
“Christians learn that if we wrong someone, we cannot either buy them off or demand that they forgive us on our terms. True apology and repentance involve the humility of asking those we have wronged how we might restore relationships with them.
“We’ve been struggling with a nation as a nation with reconciliation for decades. The gap that exists between first nations people in the rest of the country is evidence of the shame and humiliation that many indigenous people still experience. The ugly contempt for aboriginal people that I’ve heard on the lips of my fellow citizens recently compounds this. We’ve thrown money at the problem which hasn’t worked. We’ve made apologies, but healing is far from evident. If you worry, the voice will divide the country, then consider how deeply we are already divided.”
Jensen addressed the issue of whether it is Christian to treat some people differently. “We learned from the Bible that quality of dignity and status can mean and even demand different treatment. The remarkable story of Christian missionaries in Australia, not always great but often remarkable, was founded on the firm vision that indigenous peoples are our kin, made like us in the image of God. Not all of their fellow citizens agreed. It’s not the opinion of all citizens, not by a long shot.
“The genius of Christianity is that it is a trans-ethnic community in which equality of dignity and status is found not through a monoculture, but through treating one another differently. According to need. We are actively to elevate those whose social status is lower.”
And then there is love of neighbour: “Thirdly, the Bible tells us that we are to love our neighbours as ourselves. And that this involves cost. Love of neighbour as ourselves is the primary principle of Christianity. The model is of course, the good Samaritan. He did not simply love the other Samaritans in his local golf club but went out of his way to help a stricken Jewish man, supposedly his ethnic enemy. Jesus told that story and said the end, you remember, go and do likewise.
“The Voice proposal is an opportunity for us to go and do likewise. It’s not simply words. It risks something. It puts something on the table. It costs us something more than just the money. It is asking for our embrace of our fellow citizens.”